David Conway: Nationalism and Liberalism: Friends or Foes?

Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America. This new world has been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe. . . . We claim brotherhood with every European Christian, and triumph in the generosity of the sentiment.19

Today, we might be less than fully impressed by the liberality of sentiment here expressed, but its general liberal tenor remains clear. As Greenfeld put it, the American Revolution brought into the world the idea that “self-government is mankind’s birthright, not an English liberty.”20

NATIONALISM is STILL A SINE QUA NON OF LIBERALISM

Thesis 2: The same varieties of nationalism that were historically instrumental in bringing about the birth and partial realisation of classical-liberal ideals and values remain a sine qua non of their continued and future espousal and realisation.

 

Despite spreading both eastward and westward from England, classical-liberal ideals and values never managed to take root in political thought and practice anywhere as firmly as in England and the United States. As that great student of nationalism, Hans Kohn, once observed,

Modern nationalism first took hold in England in the seventeenth century and in Anglo-America in the eighteenth century…. [It] respected, and was based upon, the individual liberties and self-government characteristic of these nations. The rise of nationalism in the French Revolution was different. The absolutist and centralised French monarchy had set the example for continental Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; the nationalism of the French people continued this form and set the model for the centralised European nation-state of the nineteenth century. The Napoleonic wars carried the aggressiveness of the new nationalism to the four corners of Europe.21

It remains true that England and America, more so than other nations, have more closely approached the realisation of classical liberal ideals and values. This is so despite the severe erosion of the liberal credential in both countries during the twentieth century. This erosion was, of course, the result of their respective flirtations with collectivist ideologies and policies, especially those connected with social democracy and the welfare state. However, given the historic embeddedness of liberal ideals in the political constitutions and national imaginations of these two nations, the best historical prospects for liberty still remain with them, and still depend on their continued survival in at least as liberal a form as they are in.

Classical liberals, therefore, should not write nationalism off as an attitude that, in all its forms, is always and everywhere uncongenial to their own values and ideals. After all, and notwithstanding the collapse of communism, the two great nation-states of Britain and the U.S.—states in which classical-liberal values have thus far been most fully, if only incompletely and imperfectly, realised—are but islands of relative liberty in a vast ocean of far greater illiberalism. No less a classical-liberal thinker than Ludwig von Mises claims that the best historical prospects for the eventual realisation of liberal ideals and values lie in the continued survival of these two states in a form that depends on each retaining its historic national identity. During the closing stages of the Second World War, after allied victory had become assured, Mises issued this stark warning:

It would be a fateful mistake to assume that a return to the policies of liberalism abandoned by the civilised nations some decades ago could cure the [present] evils and open the way towards peaceful co-operation of nations and toward

prosperity. . . . [T]he years of antagonism and conflict have left a deep impression on human mentality, which cannot be easily eradicated. They have marked the souls of men, they have disintegrated the spirit of human cooperation,

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