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 Pros and Cons of Nationalism  (1956)*

By Bertrand Russell

NATIONALISM has various aspects, some good and some bad. The first broad cleavage is between cultural aspects and those which have to do with economics and politics. From a cultural point of view there are very strong arguments in favour of nationalism, but from a political or economic point of view nationalism is usually harmful.

Nationalism is regarded in our age as a part of human nature and a perennial fact which it would be folly to overlook. This, however, is not historically true. Nationalism began with the decline of the medieval system and hardly existed at any earlier time. Its origin, everywhere, has been resistance to alien domination or the threat of it. It began, in France, with Joan of Arc’s resistance to the English. It began in England with resistance to the Spanish Armada and found its first literary expression in Shakespeare. It began in Germany with resistance to Napoleon, and in Italy with resistance to Austria. In the early nineteenth century, it was acclaimed by liberals and decried by reactionaries. Metternich, who governed a polyglot empire containing a great mixture of races, was the most vehement and powerful opponent of nationalism, while the movements for German and Italian unity and for the liberation of Greece from the rule of Turkey commanded the enthusiastic support of all whose politics were progressive.

But a new era was inaugurated by Bismarck. Bismarck unified Germany by three successful wars of aggression and made nationalism militaristic rather than democratic. It is this new form of nationalism that has dominated Western Europe ever since.

The development of nationalism outside Western Europe has been interesting and unfortunate. Socialism, as Marx conceived it, was to be international and it retained this internationalism in the minds of Lenin and Trotsky, both of whom had lived in the Western world and, on the whole, thought better of it than of their own country. But Stalin, in a new way, did for Russia what Bismarck had done for Germany. He made Communism nationalistic. Russians who supported him felt that they were supporting Russia for which many of them had a greater enthusiasm than for Communism. It is this change that enabled Russian Communism to acquire a degree of strength which Lenin could never have given it.

Nationalism triumphant becomes imperialism. This transformation occurred in England, in France, and in Germany. After the Second World War, it occurred also in Russia. Eastern Europe outside Russia contained a large number of small countries lately emancipated from foreign rule. Most of these countries hated most of their neighbours and were stultified by their rivalry. Stalin subdued them all except Turkey and Greece and, after a certain interval, Yugoslavia.

With remarkable propagandist skill, Russian Communism, while enslaving most of Eastern Europe, still posed successfully as the liberator of Asia and Africa. Nationalism in Asia and Africa has still the liberal flavour that it had in Western Europe in the early nineteenth century. It is inspired by resistance to Western imperialism and tends to be friendly to Russia because Russia supports this resistance. To an impartial observer it seems highly probable that any independence acquired by Asia and Africa with the help of Russia will be as temporary as the vanished independence of Poland and Czechoslovakia and Hungary. There is every reason to think that Russian imperialism will swallow up the dainty morsels that Western imperialism has been compelled to drop. But it is unlikely that Asia and Africa will realize this danger until it is too late.

What gains and losses are to be expected from the spread of nationalism to these new regions? The question has two aspects, one political and one economic. I do not think anybody can deny that the aspiration for freedom from alien domination is a sentiment deserving of respect and that those who have to bow down before a foreign master suffer a damage which is very great and very undesirable. It is not a good thing that one nation should dominate another and, in so far as nationalism opposes such domination, it must be reckoned to be doing a good work. But as the world develops technically there is a continually increasing need of agreement and cooperation between different nations. The claim to national independence is just where only internal affairs are concerned, but becomes disastrous when it is supposed to involve the right to inflict damage on other nations. The world cannot be saved from its present troubles by unlimited nationalism, but only by the development of internationalism. It is a great misfortune that in Asia and Africa cooperation between different regions occurred mainly as the result of foreign imperialism. The consequence has been that newly emancipated States have rejected forms of cooperation even when the common benefit was entirely obvious. One very clear example of this was the fate of the scheme drawn up by the British for the irrigation of the Punjab. When India and Pakistan became separate States, neither could agree to let the other have any share of its waters and therefore both had to adopt very inferior schemes.

But it is not only in Asia and Africa that nationalism inflicts economic damage. All the countries of the world would be much richer than they are if all of them abolished tariffs. A hundred years ago, it seemed as if this might happen, but national passions proved too strong.

Political theory at the present time has no clear principles by which to decide the delimitation between the sphere of nationalism and the sphere of internationalism. The need of hitherto unrecognized principles has been made particularly evident by the dispute about the Suez Canal. Taking the matter first in the abstract and without regard to current disputes, it is evident that mankind as a whole have an interest in keeping open the routes of commerce and that, where a general interest is involved, it is not right or just that any one nation, or even any two or three, should have exclusive control. But this is never evident to those who, at any moment, have such control. The British had control of Suez and in some degree of Gibraltar; the Americans have control of Panama. It did not occur to us that there was anything unjust in this. On the contrary, we felt ourselves so wise and good that everybody ought to rejoice in having anything so important in our hands. The view which Colonel Nasser has proclaimed is, from the standpoint of principle, the same as that which Britain formerly proclaimed: namely, that there is no injustice in having the Canal managed by one power. It should be generally admitted that anything so internationally important as the Suez Canal or the Panama Canal should be under an international authority. The claim that those who happen to live on its bank should have the right to inflict enormous damage upon those who live elsewhere, is one in which there is no justice. One might as well claim that two people who live opposite each other on Fifth Avenue should have a right to put a wall across the street. But there is another overriding principle more important than the rights and wrongs of any particular dispute. It is that in a world of nuclear weapons no dispute must be settled by war except when a decision has been reached by an international authority and resistance to its decision is easily quelled. These conditions do not exist in the Suez dispute and therefore whoever threatens war as a means of deciding it is an enemy of mankind.

But while there ought to be some body with international authority in such matters, there is at present no such body. In saying this I do not forget the United Nations but, so long as the veto exists in the Security Council, the United Nations does not constitute a Government except when all the members of the Security Council are agreed, which does not happen often. It is entirely right that the question of the Suez Canal should be submitted to the Security Council, but it is extremely unlikely that that body will reach a solution, since either Russia or the Western Powers may be expected to veto any suggestion. It will be useful to submit the dispute to the Security Council for two reasons: the first, that the period of deliberation will give time for heated feelings to cool; and the second, that the deadlock which is to be expected will show the necessity for some more effective method of reaching international decisions. I should like to see the Security Council decide in advance to agree to any solution of a dispute commended, after impartial inquiry, by a Committee appointed ad hoc containing equal numbers of the two sides of the dispute with a balance made up of representatives of disinterested nations. This would offer a real alternative to war. At present all sane men know that war must be avoided at all costs. In the absence of some peaceful method of reaching decisions, this puts a premium on insanity, since sane men realize, but insane men do not, that war is always the very worst possible outcome of a dispute.

The limitations of nationalism ought to be much the same as the limitations on the liberty of individuals. Individual liberty is immensely important and its preservation is vital to a good community, but we all recognize that it has its limits. We do not think that murder and theft should be tolerated, and we employ the forces of the State to prevent them. Murder and theft by a nation is more harmful than murder and theft by an individual because it is on a larger scale. Its prevention is therefore more important. The principle of nationalism is equally wicked in an unlimited form. It can oppose nothing to murder and theft by a nation, except warlike resistance on the part of the victim. It is obvious that if war is to be renounced it will be necessary to establish a reign of law between nations as firmly as it has been established between individuals. The complete realization of this ideal is as yet distant, since it will involve the dissolution of national armed forces except to the degree required for suppressing civil disorder. A World Government will have to be Federal and will have to have a constitution embodying the principle which should control all federations, namely, that the Federal Government concerns itself only with the external acts of constituent States or, at any rate, only with such acts as very directly affect interests of other States. In regard to the internal affairs of each State, the principle of nationalism should prevail. Each State should have the right to establish any religion that it might prefer or to remain theologically neutral. Each State should have the right to establish tariffs. Each State should have the right to whatever form of government it preferred: monarchical, democratic, totalitarian, or what not. Each State should have the right to establish whatever kind of education it preferred, or even to dispense with education altogether. I think, however, that in regard to education the Federal Government should have certain supervisory rights. Nelson gave his midshipmen three precepts: to shoot straight, to speak the truth, and to hate a Frenchman as you would the devil. An international Government should have the right to object to this third precept if embodied in the system of national education.

From the cultural point of view, as I said above, nationalism has great merits. The large uniformities which grow up in a cosmopolitan world are inimical to art and literature and tend to be oppressive of young talent. In the great days of Greece and of Renaissance Italy a man could rise to eminence in his own city and be honoured by it as an asset in cultural rivalry with other cities. Ancient Greece and Renaissance Italy, alike, after astounding contributions to culture, collapsed for lack of political unity. If culture is not to suffer, some way must be found of combining cultural independence with political union. I do not know whether the cultural variety which I should like to see preserved will prove possible in a world where industrialism and State education and easy transport have become universal. There have been hitherto distinctive characteristics of Englishmen, of Frenchmen, of Germans, of Italians, and these distinctive characteristics have contributed to the merits of their most eminent men. Leonardo could not have been anything but an Italian; Voltaire could not have been anything but a Frenchman; Goethe could not have been anything but a German; and Shakespeare could not have been anything but an Englishman. If these great men had been ground down by circumstances and early education to a dead level of uniformity, they would not have been as great as in fact they were.

But it is not only in regard to a few eminent individuals that national culture is important. Almost any kind of aesthetic excellence depends upon a long tradition which has produced sensitiveness to nuances of little utilitarian importance. A man who suffers too strong an impact from an alien tradition is apt to lose the merit of his own tradition without acquiring the merits of the other. When I lived in China I was immensely impressed by the beauty of traditional Chinese paintings, but my Europeanized Chinese friends despised these paintings since their painters were ignorant of perspective. Such attempts as I saw by modern Chinese painters to paint in the Western manner appeared to me to have lost the merits of the East without acquiring those of the West. I found the same kind of deterioration in more everyday matters. Traditional Chinese furniture was beautiful, but Westernized Chinese furniture was hideous. Perhaps the spread of industrialism is making this sort of cultural decline inevitable. Perhaps the political and economic unification, which has become necessary if the human race is to survive, is making an age of universal ugliness inescapable. If this is indeed the case, it is immensely to be deplored. But perhaps, if secure peace were established, the world might revert to less utilitarian standards of what is to be admired, and in the course of time diversities of tradition would again be tolerated and again become beneficent. Meanwhile, the immediate perils are so great that such considerations must remain in the background.

The conclusion to which we are forced is that in the modern world nationalism is a grave evil and a source of appalling danger and that if we are to escape disaster we must develop internationalism in the sphere to which it belongs: namely, that of economics, politics and war. All the nations of the world, both great and small, have sinned in placing their own interest above that of the world at large. It is to be expected that they will continue to do so until such time as there are international institutions strong enough to insist upon the decision of vexed questions in accordance with the general human welfare and not with the insolence of this or that particular region. Some may think this a distant hope, but it is the only one that offers a future to our distracted species.

*  Bertrand Russell, “Pros and Cons of Nationalism,” written in 1956, published in Fact and Fiction, 1961