We Are All Isaiah Berliners Now

Nationalism is back, but nobody seems to know what it means. A forgotten essay marking its 40th anniversary can help.

The political theorist and historian Isaiah Berlin on Oct. 23, 1992. (Sophie Bassouls/Sygma via Getty Images)
The political theorist and historian Isaiah Berlin on Oct. 23, 1992. (Sophie Bassouls/Sygma via Getty Images)

At his Houston rally on Oct. 22, U.S. President Donald Trump got one of his loudest cheers when he used the “n-word.” No, not that “n-word,” but another one that respectable public figures are not supposed to use. Teasing his full-throated audience, Trump clucked his tongue: “Really? We’re not supposed to use that word?” After a brief pause, he brayed: “You know what I am? I’m a nationalist. OK? I’m a nationalist.”

The crowd, of course, roared while commentators pored over the word’s significance. What, precisely, does it mean to be a nationalist? Does it carry the same meaning for those who bawled their approval at Trump or, for that matter, those who bewailed its ascendancy in Western politics? The answer, pretty clearly, is no—but much less clear is whether either side has a clear grasp of what a nation even is.

The best guide to our current encounter with nationalism happens to be celebrating its 40th birthday. In 1978, the renowned political theorist and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin published “Nationalism: Past Neglect and Present Power,” his final and fullest account of nationalism. Berlin attempted to capture what he called, rightly, “the most powerful, single movement at work in the world today.” It is, Berlin warned in words all too relevant today, a movement that for those who failed to predict its growth “paid for it with their liberty, indeed, with their lives.”

The funny thing about nationalism, for Berlin, was that he should be discussing it at all in the mid-20th century. When it first appeared on the European stage—and this regional stage, truth be told, was the only one that truly interested Berlin—neither the actors nor audience anticipated a long run. Liberal observers, in particular, dismissed nationalism as a passing phase—a reaction to the despotic reign of thrones and altars across the continent. Once these reactionary vestiges of the dim past were relegated to the wardrobe, nationalism’s role would be made redundant.

Yet, among the many isms formed in the crucible of the French Revolution, nationalism proved to have greatest lasting power. From communism to totalitarianism, socialism to liberalism, it is the last great ism standing. For Berlin, the sources of this durability reside in our very nature. “The desire to belong to a community or to some kind of unit, which … has been national in the last 400 years,” Berlin once said, “is a basic human need or desire.” This, for Berlin, was less an argument than an acknowledgment—it is, quite simply, how we are built. The need for community is the common grain running through the crooked timber that constitutes humankind.

As for his definition of nationalism, Berlin could prove as hard to pin down as the concept he was hunting. Even sympathetic critics observed that he could contradict himself not just from one article to the next but at times within the same article. Moreover, Berlin did not offer taxonomies as much as he offered tales. His writings on nationalism, with their usual cascades of clauses and subclauses, are discursive and often digressive. (No doubt, Berlin would have agreed with Herodotus’s claim that his own many digressions are his history.) Finally, as a student of nationalism, he was more comfortable in the company of those who thought and wrote about it instead of those who channeled and acted upon it.

Nevertheless, Berlin presents a largely coherent account of nationalism, one that he builds out from four fundamental claims. First, nationalism claims that all human beings belong to particular groups whose way of life—language, customs, and culture—differ from one another. The critical corollary is that members of this group simply cannot be understood outside the group that has formed and informed them. Second, it portrays the group as a kind of biological organism, one whose development and ends are primordial. Should the group encounter certain values that are not its own, its own must prevail.

Consequently—and this is the third claim—nationalism declares that the beliefs and principles of this group are to be privileged precisely because they are the group’s. There is no higher or greater standard. Finally and fatefully, it holds that a group has the right to force other groups to yield should they come into conflict with it. “Nothing that obstructs that which I recognize as my—that is, my nation’s—supreme goal, can be allowed to have equal value with it,” Berlin wrote.

From the first to the fourth trait, Berlin more or less travels the distance between what we might call benign and malign nationalisms. The first, and perhaps only, true philosopher of nationalism Johann Gottfried Herder, for whom Berlin had a soft spot, gave voice to the kinder and gentler form of nationalism. Friend of romantics and enemy of rationalists, and the man who coined the term “nationalism”—Nationalismus—Herder portrayed humanity as a dazzling mosaic of peoples, each infused with its own particular values and views but each enthused by the prospect of peaceful coexistence. For him, the group was defined not by blood or race but instead by a shared language and history.

But caught in the ideological sheers of 1848, Herder’s nationalism had the durability of a fruit fly. In fairly quick order, its malign cousin came to dominate European affairs, ravaged the continent during the first half the 20th century, and, after a 50-year respite, now threatens to undo the European Union and, for good measure, the United States. What happened? For Berlin, the answer is found in the metaphor of the bent twig. By this image, he made the case for what we might now call “cultural backlash”—a particular group’s slow accumulation of real or imagined injuries and insults that, when economic, political, and cultural factors converge, snaps back with sudden and sharp violence.

Admittedly, Berlin was not always consistent in his attitude toward nationalism. At times, he seemed to accept it, not embrace it, while at other times he compared it unfavorably to what he called “national consciousness.” Whereas the latter is, he believed, a fact of human existence, the former is a “pathological condition.” Reaching for yet another vivid metaphor, he described it as a “state of wounded consciousness,” one that lashes out at either its real or imagined enemies. At other times, though, he seemed to believe that nationalism, at least in the tolerant variation he associated with Herder, was not only inevitable but also valuable.

No less importantly, Berlin argued that while demagogues can and will exploit this wounded consciousness, they do not invent it. These wounds instead result from the savage pace of financial, technological, and social changes in liberal democracies. Ambitious politicians who pose as nationalists or populists do not inflict such wounds but instead inflame them for their own ends. What Berlin called “faux populists” seek to create an “elitist or socially or racially unequal regime, which is totally incompatible with the fundamental, if not fraternity then, at any rate, the passionate egalitarianism, of the real populist movement.”

Along with Richard Hofstadter, Berlin grasped earlier than many observers the growing resentment of citizens toward the cosmopolitan elites. In a 1967 conference devoted to populism, Berlin noted the hostility of what was only recently christened the “silent majority” toward “the excessive civilization of the East Coast, its centralized capitalism, Wall Street, the cross of gold, frivolous, polite, smooth forms of insincere behavior on the part of Harvard or Yale university professors, or smooth members of the State Department.”

At first glance, Berlin’s position smacks of irony. After all, his own life, personal as well as professional, was conspicuously cosmopolitan. Yet he spurned cosmopolitanism as an “empty” claim. People, Berlin insisted, “can’t develop unless they belong to a culture.” In this sense, Berlin might have concluded that the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence are the tribute that U.S. particularism pays to philosophical universalism.

But this stance did not make Berlin a conservative—or, rather, it made him as odd a conservative as he was a liberal. While deeply skeptical of multiculturalism, he embraced value pluralism, which claims that human values do not all issue from a single source. Instead, values are nearly as multiple as are peoples and are consequently often “incommensurable”—one of Berlin’s pet words—with one another. Nationalism, he believed, need not be malignant. By the same token, liberalism need not be blind to the human need to be recognized as members of something greater than the individual and the resentment that festers when this recognition is denied.

Ultimately, Berlin believed the cure to nationalism was more nationalism. Not, though, the closed and aggressive forms of political nationalism now simmering in the West but instead the open and defensive nationalism embodied by Herder. This form of liberal or civic or constitutional nationalism, since taken up by thinkers such as Jürgen Habermas, insists on the existential importance of an individual identifying with a group defined by a common language and values. But it also insists on the existential danger of transforming this sense of belonging into the reflex of abominating other groups.

It is an open question whether a bridge to this benign and beneficent form of nationalism, drafted by Herder and developed by Berlin, can be built in an age convulsed by the sharp edge of illiberalism and nationalism now wracking America and Europe. What isn’t in question, though, is the prescience of Berlin’s parting warning: “Few things have done more harm than the belief on the part of individuals or groups (or tribes or states or nations or churches) that he or she or they are in sole possession of the truth.” The trick, of course, is not just to convince other groups of this claim but one’s own group as well.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of a forthcoming book on Simone Weil.


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