Journalists throw around the term “nationalism” like a thorny epithet meant to bloody people who are dangerously narrow-minded. And it works. Since the devastation of World War II, modern humane society has used the evils of Hitler as the pole of a very simple continuum. On the one side of this continuum is the holocaust and all the mechanisms that made it possible: propaganda, hateful language, public humiliation, moralizing, glorifying traditions, and, above all, references to the nation state. This deadliest side of the continuum is a self-referential conglomeration of national pride and a respect for historical traditions all nestled together under a stiff-armed salute. On the other side of the continuum is a Shangri la of globalism which is defined by tolerance, love, and understanding. This cosmopolitanism represents everything that is opposite of evil nationalism because it tells the truth by combating the lies of history with the truths of science. In between these two poles lie every other religious and political system known to man. It is a schematic simple enough to explain even the most complicated philosophies by cutting through insincerely manufactured things like political and ethical theories, for example. Simplicity may be a good thing when making sense of simple things, but it can be down-right ignorance when it is the primary method for analyzing things that are far more complicated. I would argue, that simplicity is most often the engine of human evil.
The idea of positioning all political ideas on the continuum between nationalism and globalism, as we now call it, resulted from the catastrophe of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Two factions tore Spain to pieces in a war that became a cause celeb for Western intellectuals across the world. Western intellectuals came to believe that World War I killed classical liberalism in the trenches and no-mans-lands of France. The future of humanity lay with a new breed of thinkers and activists who had no faith in the agency of the individual. The future of humanity lay in the power of nations or in the historic necessity of communism. Across the battered ruins of Spanish cities, communists and nationalists fought to keep the country on the “right side” of history at all costs. The war, as most wars do, flattened the complicated geography of political theory into a two-dimensional plane.
The ugly antagonism of this civil war and the World War that followed, flattened political thought for the rest of the century and beyond. The mass murders of the Einsatzgruppen in Poland, the gas chambers of Auschwitz, and the Russian pillaging of eastern Poland helped to reduce all political disagreement to a right and a left. On the right were the nationalists who rallied tradition and industrial markets to prop up military regimes. History, they believed, would confirm the glories of their nation’s proud heritage. On the left were the globalists fighting for the dignity of economic equality against the entrenched inequities of the elites and their traditions. History for the communists would move humanity to a new utopia under a regime dedicated to fairness.
The animosity between these two sides in the twentieth century was both tragic and polar, but the evils of those wars has given us the false impression that nationalists and communists are on opposite ends of a political continuum when they are actually both on the same side. Sadly at the beginning of the 21st century we are now trapped with a rather skewed political chart that does not explain the variety of political thought. We feel this the most acutely when every discussion from Covid masks to foreign policy almost always ends when one side invokes fascism or Stalinism. In history and in actuality, these two are socialist systems that occupy the same end of the continuum. The nationalist regimes of Franco, Hitler, and Mussolini were on the right side of the left, while Lenin’s Russia (not necessarily Stalin’s) was on the left edge of the left side.
In Modern times, political theories (not Early Modern which still had to contend with monarchism on the right) live on a longer line that runs through classical liberalism (rule of law) on the one end out to libertarianism (on the right) and through socialism (nationalism) to communism on the left. If we could return to a more historical and, I would argue, more accurate political chart, we might avoid the same disaster that befell the Spanish and helped to poison our present discourse. The one thing I have learned from being an intellectual historian is that the pressure to reduce the complexity of human thought and experience to simple explanations has caused humanity’s greatest atrocities – I am not sure why we seem bent on repeating this error.