In contrast to fascism, nationalism is not best conceived of as a type of regime, political system, or state (on the same order as fascism, democracy, authoritarianism, dictatorship, oligarchy, totalitarianism, and the like) for two very simple conceptual reasons. First, a nationalist regime, political system, or state would have to be a set of political institutions that are fundamentally different from those that characterize fascism, democracy, authoritarianism, dictatorship, oligarchy, or totalitarianism. But there is no such distinctly different nationalist regime, political system, or state with its own distinct political institutions. Instead, every supposedly nationalist regime, political system, or state is always just a variant of fascism, democracy, authoritarianism, dictatorship, oligarchy, or totalitarianism.
Second and unsurprisingly, it is in fact the case that every type of regime, political system, or state contains some national characteristic—be it the claim that “the nation” is a monolith or the claim that “the nation” is the basis of popular sovereignty or the claim that “the nation” must be embedded in proletarian internationalism. One should resist the temptation to conclude that every type of national regime, political system, or state is therefore “nationalist,” inasmuch as to argue in this manner is to confuse “nationalist” with “national” and thereby to reduce “nationalism” to everything and everybody that somehow entails “the national,” thus producing a semantically bleached and utterly meaningless concept.
Now that we know what nationalism is not, what is it?
Nationalism, I suggest, is best conceived of as an ideology or as a movement, group, or organization with a nationalist ideology. Nationalism as an ideology is a set of core beliefs that sometimes justify and promote national liberation and the creation of nation-states in general and always justify and promote national liberation and the creation of a nation-state for some particular nation. Nationalism, in this sense, is always particularistic and only sometimes universal. Nationalism as a movement, group, or organization is a human collective that shares a nationalist ideology. A nationalist individual would obviously be someone who believes in such an ideology. Nationalism is thus “about” the creation of states, and not about how the political institutions of regimes, systems, and states should be structured.
Seen in this light, the popular term “hyper-nationalism” is meaningless. If nationalism is an ideology, then hyper-nationalism would have to be a hyper-ideology. If nationalism is a movement, group, or organization, then hyper-nationalism would have to be a hyper-movement, hyper-group, or hyper-organization. Needless to say, such conceptual obfuscation is not useful. What scholars really mean by hyper-nationalism is, quite simply, chauvinism. Appending the modifier “hyper” to the term “nationalism,” however, is a convenient sleight of hand that creates a putative connection between nationalism and chauvinism when none such connection need exist, whether conceptually or empirically. After all, the ideological or organizational promotion of national liberation and nation-states is fundamentally different from the hatred of or superciliousness toward other nations—which is what we presumably mean by chauvinism. To define fascism as hyper-nationalism only compounds the problem, reducing fascism either to some sort of incomprehensible hyper-ideology or hyper-collective or, worse, to nothing but chauvinism.
In contrast to fascism as an ideology or as a movement, group, or organization, nationalism as an ideology or nationalism as a movement, group, or organization with a nationalist ideology does not presuppose an existing state that should be transformed into one corresponding to nationalist ideals. As a result, nationalism cannot and does not presuppose an existing type of regime, political, system, or state. Quite the contrary, nationalism presupposes the non-existence of an independent state and therefore concludes that the existence, or creation, of such a state is imperative. Like fascism and fascists or communism and communists or democracy and democrats, nationalism and nationalists may aspire to create such a state legally, democratically, and constitutionally or they may aspire to do so illegally, undemocratically, and unconstitutionally.
The type of state that nationalism and nationalists aspire to create can be authoritarian, democratic, liberal, totalitarian, and so on. Unlike fascist states, which are invariably anti-democratic, the states to which nationalists aspire are not invariably anti-democratic. Unsurprisingly, nationalisms and nationalists have ranged across all political ideologies, including fascism, and individual nationalists and nationalist movements, groups, or organizations have always displayed a remarkable political flexibility, being able to change their political ideology whenever and wherever the circumstances so demand. This is not, as is mistakenly assumed, opportunism. Nationalisms and nationalists can be so chameleonic precisely because their ideology is fundamentally indifferent to the type of regime, political system, or state that emerges within the newly created state.
The key distinction among nationalisms and nationalists concerns not the goal (they all agree that national liberation and a nation-state is their goal), but the means. Whereas legally, democratically, and constitutionally inclined nationalists will employ legal, democratic, and constitutional means, illegally, undemocratically, and unconstitutionally inclined nationalists will employ illegal, undemocratic, and unconstitutional means. That is to say, they will break laws, be conspiratorial, disciplined, and hierarchical, and use violence. This is why sloppy scholars believe that nationalists “look like” fascists. But if the willingness to break laws, be conspiratorial, disciplined, and hierarchical, and use violence makes one a fascist, then every revolutionary movement (from that of the Americans in 1776 to that of the Israelis in 1947), every criminal organization (from the mafia to Mexican drug traffickers), every secret police (from the KGB to the CIA), and every assassin (from Brutus to Lee Harvey Oswald) is fascist—a claim that is almost as useless, and absurd, as the reduction of nationalism to “the national.” Clearly, “looking like” somebody or something is no basis for claiming that things “are like” somebody or something.
To summarize: Nationalism’s only precondition, both conceptually and empirically, is the non-existence of a state. Unlike fascists, nationalists build states de novo. Unsurprisingly, it is empirically the case that nationalism and nationalists are always found in stateless territories.
This post is the second in a series of three. The final part will appear next week.