David Conway: Nationalism and Liberalism: Friends or Foes?

affiliation. These sentiments might manifest themselves only as some inarticulate love for the country and traditions of their birth and residence, combined with some weak and generalised affection for those they regard as their compatriots, but they are, nonetheless, both apparent and real.


We hardly need remind ourselves of an attachment to the ideals and values constitutive of the classical-liberal outlook. They include, most importantly, private property rights and minimal government, and, hence, the utmost equal freedom of thought, expression, activity, and association, together with constitutional representative government, division of powers, and the rule of law.

It is not much more difficult to form a relatively clear and distinct idea of what “nationalism” is. For this term, the Oxford English Dictionary lists two distinct but related meanings. The first is devotion to one’s nation; the second is a policy of national independence. Combining these two meanings, we arrive at the following definition of the term: “Nationalism” denotes the devotion members of a nation feel toward their own nation, as well as the striving by members of a nation on behalf of its political independence, enjoyed, ideally, in that territory considered its traditional homeland.


However, we shall not be able to decide on the compatibility of, on the one hand, this species of sentiment and aspiration, with, on the other, liberal ideals and values, without first obtaining a clear understanding of what a “nation” is. What, then, is a nation? This question is by no means as straightforward as it first seems. To see wherein the complexity lies, consider Ayn Rand’s definition of the term: “A ‘nation’ is not a mystic or supernatural entity; it is a large number of individuals who live in the same geographical locality under the same political system.”3 The first part seems undoubtedly true; the second, though, is questionable.

Is it really true that all people residing in the same geographical locality under the same political system are members of the same nation?

Try telling that to Serbs and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, or to Palestinian Arabs and Jewish settlers on the West Bank of the Jordan River. Again, do members of a nation always reside in the same geographical locality under the same political system? Try telling that to Irish Republican Catholics in West Belfast, or to former residents of East and West Berlin before the Wall came tumbling down, or to former citizens of the Soviet Union.

Rand’s definition of a nation clashes with two more nuanced accounts offered by earlier eminent classical liberals. John Stuart Mill once declared,

A portion of mankind may be said to constitute a Nationality, if they are united among themselves by common sympathies,

which do not exist between them and any others— which makes them co-operate with each other more willingly than with other people, desire to be under the same government, and desire that it should be government by themselves or a portion of themselves exclusively.4

Likewise, Henry Sidgwick once observed,

[W]hat is really essential… to a Nation is … that the persons composing it should have a consciousness of belonging to one another, of being members of one body, over and above what they derive from the mere fact of being under one government; so that, if their government were destroyed by war or revolution, they would still hold firmly together.5

Mill and Sidgwick clarify a vital fact that is obscured by Rand’s account: the forming of a nation is, above all, a function of a people’s consciousness and will. In forming a nation, it is not sufficient that a people reside together under the same government in the same territory. In addition, they have to want to live together in such fashion. Further, this desire alone might not be sufficient to form a nation from a group of people residing together in a territory under no governance but their own or their representative’s. Beyond having the desire and opportunity to live as one, a people must, to be a nation, also share sufficient mutual affinity in order to succeed in this endeavour, should they seek to do so.

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