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Journal of Political Ideologies

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Nationality without nationalism

Erica Benner
St Antony's College , Oxford University , Oxford, OX2 6JF, UK
Published online: 19 Nov 2007.

To cite this article: Erica Benner (1997) Nationality without nationalism, Journal of Political
Ideologies, 2:2, 189-206, DOI: 10.1080/13569319708420758

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Journal of Political Ideologies (1997), 2(2), 189-206


Nationality without nationalism

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St Antony's College, Oxford University, Oxford OX2 6JF, UK

Maurizio Viroli
For Love of Country: an Essay on Patriotism and Nationalism
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 206 pp.

David Miller
On Nationality
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 210 pp.

ABSTRACT Europeans have usually regarded nationalism as an illiberal and

exclusive ideology. Although many liberals, socialists, and conservatives have
shared nationalist concerns about social solidarity or cultural distinctiveness,
the label 'nationalist' has usually been reserved for those who allow such
particularist values to override universal principles of liberty and justice. After
the Second World War, moreover, the terms 'patriotism' and 'nation' were
tainted by their rhetorical association with havoc-wreaking 'nationalism'. But
faced with new threats of fragmentation and social change, many Europeans
have now started to question old objections to national particularism. This
article reviews two recent books by political theorists who distinguish worthy
forms of 'patriotism' or 'nationality' from unacceptable 'nationalism'. It locates
their arguments for limited national partiality in historical and cultural context,
and asks whether they give a convincing account of how we might revitalize the
particularist values of 'nationality' without reviving 'nationalist' demons.

The relationship between nationalism and other political doctrines has always
been contested. Many of the concepts that have come to be identified as 'core'
elements of nationalist ideology1nation, national identity or 'consciousness',
and national self-governmentbegan to acquire an important place in liberal and
democratic thinking during the 19th century. Conservatives in all the major

1356-9317/97/020189-18 1997 Journals Oxford Ltd


European states were still wary of using the language of nationality too loosely,
given its empire-shattering potential and historic links with the concept of
popular sovereignty. Even Giuseppe Mazzini, John Stuart Mill, and other
champions of what was then known as the 'principle of nationality' evaluated
demands for national self-government by applying both strategic criteria of
'viability' and political criteria based on republican and liberal principles.2 In
short, before the 1860s few people foresaw that national claims might become
detached from the more comprehensive political doctrines that spawned them,
and take on a life of their own. Appeals to the 'principle of nationality' were
generally made from within and on the basis of prior republican or liberal
commitments. These were then upheld as a bottom line to which national claims
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had to conform.
That line was eroded with the emergence of 'nationalism' as a distinct
ideology. It was built around the central values of national self-preservation and
self-development, and often defied efforts to strike a compromise between those
values and other political or ethical considerations. The term nationalism itself
did not gain wide currency until the late 19th century, when it was used in
France, Germany, and other parts of the continent to refer to an inflated and
degenerate form of amour de soi. Thus the 1866 edition of Larousse gives
nationalism as a neologism meaning a 'blind and exclusive' preference for one's
nation, a vice of immoderation afflicting the sound republican virtue of patriot-
isme. In the English-speaking world, by contrast, the survival of older ties
between nationality and progressive liberal doctrines is reflected in turn-of-the-
century uses of the word 'nationalism'. In Britain and North America until the
First World War, 'nationalist' generally meant a person who advocated self-
government for Ireland and other subject nations.3 While stalwart friends of
empire still reproached 'those nationalists who regarded as righteous any act of
antagonism to England',4 the more progressively-minded inclined toward L. T.
Hobhouse's view that the 'unsatisfied national sentiment' expressed in Irish
'nationalism' was a standing affront to liberal principles.5 This positive usage,
which identifies nationalism with movements for national 'self-determination',
has continued to influence Anglo-American characterizations of anti-imperial
movements outside Europe. But Anglo-Saxons increasingly followed their
continental cousins in applying a pejorative sense of 'nationalism' to European
settings. By the early 1930s, anti-democratic movements had acquired a near
monopoly on the 'nationalist' label throughout most of Europe.6 In the commu-
nist half of the continent after the war, nationalism was redefined in German
as a reaktiondre biirgerliche ldeologie und Politik and in Slovak as reakcnd
burzodzna ideologia, with the Germans repentantly adding that lDer deutsche
Nationalismus ist unbeliebt [unpopular] in der ganzen Welt'.1 The view that
nationalism is 'the starkest political shame of the 20th century9 remains
widespread in Europe's western parts, where only the members of sub-state
national partiesScottish, Welsh, Catalan, Basque, or Corsicanopenly call
themselves nationalist.9 There have, of course, always been moderate Europeans
who upheld 'healthy national' values against abstract Europeanism, socialist


internationalism, and other such viruses; but until a few years ago their voices
sounded stuffy and Tory in Britain, reactionary in France, and vaguely menacing
in Germany. Liberal and left-wing sympathy with national 'liberation' move-
ments in other parts of the world tended to go hand in hand with self-flagellating
anti-nationalism in Europe.
Since the end of the Cold War, it has become apparent that the attitudes of
many Europeans to nationalism are far more ambivalent than either official or
academic versions of the major ideologies used to suggest. On the one hand, the
break-up of multinational communist states at our doorstep reminds us how easy
it is to cross the line between everyday, solidary national feeling and its
overheated forms. On the other hand, the fall of the Wall has cast doubt on the
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value of a unified, post-national 'West', an image that many on both sides of the
old divide now reject as too abstract to inspire popular enthusiasm or assuage
insecurities about the future. Whereas the first set of concerns might seem to
strengthen the case against mixing nationalism with liberal and democratic
projects, the second points in the opposite direction. In times of bewildering
change, the appeal to older national traditions suggests a reassuring continuity
with the past. It also invokes a unit of political obligation which is small enough
to engage hearts as well as minds, yet also big enoughat least in principleto
overcome localism and the narrow politics of ethnic, religious or racial identity.
The local urgency of these concerns helps to explain the recent outpouring of
work on nationalism and political theory in English-speaking countries. Until
recently, most British and North American political theorists wrote as if basic
questions about the boundaries and membership of their own polities had been
settled long ago. A secure sense of nationality, based on both habits of
association over time and a reflective commitment to specific institutions, was
simply taken for granted as the background for arguments about distributive
justice, toleration or civil disobedience. This benign national consensus was
usually thought to be unrelated to aggressive, authoritarian 'nationalism'.
Nationalism was always someone else's problem, while the quotidian obvious-
ness of our own nationality rendered it invisibleor at least too unproblematic
to warrant academic attention.10 These comfortable assumptions have been
breaking down under local and national pressures. In Canada, Britain and the
United States, minorities and historically disadvantaged groups have argued that
the dominant national ethos ignores or even suppresses their particular experi-
ences. Shared national allegiances, they claim, were taken as given in the past
only because those who might have reason to withhold it were rarely consulted.
Now that the background premiss of nationhood has been called into question at
home, it has suddently become visible, and perhaps even worth defending.
Political theorists have recently advanced two quite different types of argu-
ment on behalf of national values. The first is mainly prudential, and directed
against those who value nationhood too much. While the impulse to prioritize
one's own country and countrymen is not seen as inherently good, it is
encouraged as a means of warding off the real danger, virulent 'nationalism'.
This quarantine strategy was recommended to Britons half a century ago by


George Orwell, who argued that salutary 'patriotic' sentiments were the best
means of inoculating people against the obsessive drive for power he associated
with nationalism.11 A second argument, by contrast, claims that national attach-
ments have a positive value, and seeks to give those attachments a central and
constructive role in political life. It is directed not against nationalists, but at
'universalist' doctrines that routinely downgrade national culture and specificity.
Without strong national moorings, the argument goes, modern societies tend to
fall prey to a whole swarm of ailments now found on both sides of the Atlantic.
Citizens who lack a sense of shared identity and purpose are prone to political
apathy, social atomization, and mutual irresponsibility. Efforts to strengthen the
values of national belonging can help to counteract these ills, which are thought
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to feed on the 'impersonal' institutions and rampant individualism that underpin

liberal democracy.
Neither of these arguments is new. In the past, however, the prudential,
anti-nationalist arguments for nationhood were wielded mainly by the left, while
arguments that moved from anti-universalist premisses toward positive national
values usually came from the right. What is striking about recent debates is that
left-wing liberals and social democrats now deploy the second, nation-affirming,
anti-universalist set of arguments as often as conservatives. This shift reflects a
growing, cross-party disenchantment with the liberal democratic institutions that
have helped 'Westerners' to live in post-nationalist peace for the last half
decade. At a time when democrats are starting to worry about the spread of
nationalism in other parts of Europe, many are also prescribing a heightened
sense of national consciousness as a cure for democracy's deficits at home.
While nationalism plays out its old divisive role in the east, the integrating
properties of nationhood are being rediscovered in the west.
But should both these faces of nationalism, the divisive and the integrating, be
called 'nationalism'? This question involves a problem of moral and political
judgement rather than simply one of analysis. Most social scientists use the word
'nationalism' to describe any doctrine that gives pre-eminent value to national
interests, or any movement/that seeks to make the boundaries of states coincide
with those of self-proclaimed 'nations'.12 Such uses generally aspire to value-
neutrality; neither the political result of 'nationalist' movements nor the ob-
server's feelings about them are supposed to affect the analytic usefulness of the
vocabulary. When the same vocabulary is used to evaluate national politics,
however, it becomes harder to disentangle a term like 'nationalism' from the
history of its uses and abuses. And in Europe, if not in the post-colonial world,
the normative meanings of the term have been overwhelmingly pejorative. While
social scientists tend to gloss over these morally charged connotations, political
theorists can scarcely avoid confronting them. Where the aim is to guide and
evaluate political action, no theory that hopes to be persuasive can start with a
carte blanche: it must either build on existing common-sense evaluations of
nationalism, or explain why such evaluations need revising. Contemporary
authors are understandably reluctant to invoke a tainted term in their efforts to
defend democracy-friendly conceptions of national belonging and obligation. If


the word 'nationalism' distresses people, they reason, why not find another name
for whatever seems worth rescuing among its wide range of referents? This
tactic may look like an attempt to cut a clean swathe through moral and
historical thickets; yet it has some basis in popular usage, since the phrases
'good' or 'healthy' nationalism simply don't ring true in most European
languages.13 In suggesting different, better names for the better face of what is
sometimes called 'nationalism', two new books by political theorists address a
real need for more nuanced distinctions between those forms of particularism
that support democratic purposes and those that do not.
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The distinction between nationalism and patriotism reflects a deeply felt need to
draw clear, well-policed lines around what is seen as a dangerous doctrine.
Whereas nationalism has been associated with an irrational 'power hunger',
which brooks no compromise with other political claims, patriotism is usually
seen as a natural, defensive reaction to internal and external threats. Although
conservatives came close to monopolizing patriotic language during the Cold
War era, its more recent uses cut across old left-right divides. German politi-
cians have used it to address concerns about their country's internal cohesion
and international role after reunification,14 while social democrats from London
to Warsaw now strenuously insist that 'patriotic values are not the property of
the right'.15
In this climate, the argument of Maurizio Viroli's For Love of Country should
attract a great deal of sympathy. Viroli starts by making the left's traditional,
anti-nationalist case for shoring up patriotic values. Today's democratic left, he
claims, needs to cultivate patriotic virtues as a barrier against xenophobic and
chauvinistic nationalism.16 The 'language of republican patriotism' is seen as a
more effective antidote to nationalism than liberal or democratic principles
because it 'competes with nationalism on the same terrain of passions and
particularity and uses rhetorical rather than purely rational arguments'. The
central role he accords to 'passions and particularly' distinguishes Viroli's
patriotic ideal from more rationalist and universalist conceptions of 'civic'
patriotism that are favoured by many liberals, democrats, and socialists.17 Such
conceptions are grounded in political principles that are supposed to apply
universally. By contrast, republican thinking from Cicero to Machiavelli and de
Gaulle has always attached great importance to the specific virtues of each
distinct Viroli takes pains to differentiate his patriotic ideal from mere
'attachment to an impersonal republic based on universal values of liberty and
justice' ,19 urging democrats to acknowledge and build on the particularistic bases
of political identity and social responsibility. In his search for philosophical
foundations, Viroli harks back to the pre-Enlightenment sources of republican
patriotism in order to 'avoid useless forays into rationality' while working
instead to 'transform sordid and ignoble passions . . . into higher and more
generous ones' that can be harnessed to democratic projects.20 Individuals are


thought to be bound by both natural sentiment and grateful, reflective commit-

ment to the country where they were born and raised. This mixture of natural
and rational motives generates a basic patriotic duty to defend one's country
from disintegration, corruption, despotism, or foreign attack.
Here, then, are the main elements needed to meet nationalism 'on its own
ground': loyalty to a specific, familiar place rather than to a 'bloodless'
humanity, an appeal to natural feelings rather than to 'cold' reason, and the idea
that individuals flourish only when they are able to recognize and perform a set
of duties that are not instrumentally grounded. But Viroli goes well beyond a
purely prudential case for patriotism as the better face of nationalism, offering
a more positive defence of patriotic virtues. He defends benign particularity not
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only as a means of taming virulent particularism, but also as a key to resolving

the crises of identity and security that now plague 'faceless' liberal democracies:
the 'projects of social and political reform' needed today, he insists, are more
likely to succeed if they are grounded in the particular commitments expressed
through patriotism. This stronger argument poses special normative and practical
difficulties. Once particularity is identified as a fundamental political value, and
treated as the necessary basis for liberal-democratic principles, it becomes
easy to slide to the conclusion that particularity might sometimes have to be
defended even if this means violating those principles. In other words, unless
the strong anti-universalist (rather than anti-nationalist) argument for patriotism
is grounded in a clear set of limiting conditions, it can all too readily be
used to support the exclusive and repressive policies usually associated with
Although Viroli never addresses this problem in a systematic way, he does
offer a familiar package of distinctions which are supposed to keep patriots
safely on this side of nationalism. Love of country must not turn into blind
devotion; the legitimate defence of historical particularity should not slide
toward ethnic or racial exclusiveness; and sympathy with one's compatriots
should not be interpreted as a need for freedom-stifling 'unity'. Above all, Viroli
insists on upholding liberty as the sine qua non of a loveable patria. Republican
patriots have a duty to make their country free when it is not, and they have no
duty of obedience to either foreign or home-grown oppressors.
All these arguments serve as a reminder that there are many ways to love
one's country, and that some ways are perfectly compatible with social generos-
ity, political liberty, and a peaceful disposition towards one's neighbours.
Viroli's theme chimes well with contemporary debates about how to find the
right balance between wider and narrower loyalties in a fast-changing political
landscape. The book's own contribution to those debates is undermined, how-
ever, by lapses in historical analysis and normative argument. Both sets of
problems reflect a widespread tendency among contemporary scholars to over-
simplify the complex relationship between patriotic and nationalist doctrines.
Viroli's main historical thesis is uncontroversial: there is indeed a rich
tradition of republican patriotic thought that long pre-dated nationalism, and
some forms of the latter have been hostile to republican patriotism. But Viroli


exaggerates the clarity and intensity of the conflict between the two 'languages',
both in rhetoric and in practice. At the rhetorical level, it is misleading to speak
as Viroli does of a 'shift' from republican patriotic to anti-democratic 'national-
ist' language in the 18th century, as though the differences between these idioms
were already clear to those who used them. In fact, the terms 'nation' and
'patrie1 were equally important in the rhetoric of republican revolution, where
the 'nation' was conceived by the 'Declaration of the Rights of Man and of
Citizens' as 'the source of all sovereignty' within the polity. This political
meaning of the word 'nation' remained dominant in France, Britain and the
US until the late 19th century.21 Far from appearing as a source of cultural or
ethnic determinism as against freely-formed 'patriotic' commitments, 'national'
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loyalties based on popular sovereignty were often regarded by radical republi-

cans as the rational, politically conscious expression of the patriot's inborn love
of liberty.22 In the 1820s and 30s, the word 'national' continued to play a key
role in the language of republican and left-wing protest against the restored
monarchy in France; radical groups gave the name lLe National' to one of their
main organs of opposition, and called for another 'Revolution nationaW P Only
German radicals pointedly avoided approving references to the 'Vaterland',
since that term had been harnessed to conservative national programmes since
the wars against Napoleon. But even in Germany up to the 1850s, and for
much longer elsewhere, the words 'nation' and 'nationality' were not generally
connected with ethnicity or exclusiveness and contrasted with non-ethnic,
freedom-loving patriotism. Nineteenth and early 20th-century writers and
speakers used them interchangeably, adding qualifiers where they wanted to
pass negative judgement on 'narrow' or 'reactionary' nationality or on insincere
'Hurmpatriotismus' .24
It therefore sounds anachronistic to speak of a 'language of nationalism'
appearing in the 18th and early 19th centuries, at a time when the term itself was
scarcely in use. Viroli conveniently ignores the republican and liberal concep-
tions of nationality which struggled for ascendancyin vain, as it turned out,
although this was hardly a foregone conclusion at the timeagainst right-wing,
integral conceptions in the course of the 19th century. He writes as though
classical republican authors (French, Italian and British) used only the 'language
wof patriotism', then goes on to produce the usual list of German writers who
allegedly instigated the 'shift' toward an exclusivist 'language of nationalism'.
Viroli is not alone in attributing one of the earliest known uses of the word
'nationalism' to Herder and other German authors of the late 18th century.25 But
they invoked it as a term of abuse, whereas Viroli wants to claim that they used
it to endorse the chauvinistic attitudes he associates with 'nationalism'. He
makes much of a well-known passage where Herder rails against 'prejudice, mob
judgement and narrow nationalism'. To this reviewer's knowledge, this was the
only time that Herderor indeed almost anyone in that periodused the word
Nationalismus, which is clearly inseparable here from the adjective 'narrow'
(eingeschrankten). Herder goes on to suggest that 'prejudice', unlike 'narrow
nationalism', can be a source of 'spiritual rootedness'. Surely this is not very


different from what Viroli and his model patriots like Rousseau say: namely, that
republican patriotism is more satisfying than an abstract, 'civic' universalism
because it builds on the natural sentiments people have for a particular familiar
place and people. But starting from a perfectly well-intentioned outburst against
'narrow' Nationalisms, Viroli strains to recast Herder's argument for limited
partiality as a rudimentary defence of exclusive, xenophobic 'nationalism'. This
move is supposed to show that a clear difference was already emerging between
patriotic and nationalist languages; in fact, it merely underlines the weak
historical foundations of Viroli's dichotomy.
If Viroli's historical analysis is too schematic to capture the complex relations
between patriotic and nationalist rhetoric, his view of the relationship between
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rhetoric and political practice is simply obscure. His book gives almost no sense
of how patriotic or nationalist idioms have operated in various political settings:
it is astonishing to find a book on patriotism and nationalism that scarcely
mentions the French Revolution or the Napoleonic Wars, even in a 10-page
discussion of Fichte's 1809 'Address to the German Nation', which was written
specifically to rally resistance to French occupation!26 The most cursory ap-
praisal of their uses and abuses would indicate that patriotic arguments have
rarely retained their pure, idealized form on the political battlefield. They have
always had to compete with other doctrines, goals, and ideals, and to make
compromises with them. As early as 1798, an author of the soon-to-be-eclipsed
German Enlightenment, Adam Weishaupt, observed that policies pursued in the
name of patriotic ideals may quickly become Indistinguishable from nationalism.
Nationalismus\ he wrote regretfully,
has taken the place of love of humanity. With the division of the globe and its countries,
goodwill was also divided and confined within frontiers which it was supposed never to
transcend. Then it became a virtue to enlarge ourselves at the expense of those who were
not united within our borders. And then it was permitted, in order to achieve that aim, to
despise foreigners, to deceive or indeed to insult them. This virtue was called patriotism
Already at the end of the 18th century, then, the nobler ideals of patriotism had
proved susceptible to degeneration. Yet as Weishaupt intimated, the ideas and
policies that came to be identified with 'nationalism' were still couched in the
language of freedom-loving 'patriotism'. It would be facile to retort that when
doctrines like republican patriotism get corrupted, this is mainly because their
core ideals are betrayed or misunderstood. There is plenty of historical evidence
that patriotism has a built-in tendency to turn angry, exclusive and belligerent
under pressure. Even Orwell acknowledged this, without realizing that it under-
cut his own distinction. While insisting that patriotism is essentially defensive,
he also issued the warning:
Let a certain note be struck, let this or that corn be trodden onand it may be corn whose
very existence has been unsuspected hithertoand the most fair-minded and sweet-
tempered person may suddenly be transformed into a vicious partisan. . . . One prod to the
nerve of nationalism, and the intellectual decencies can vanish, the past can be altered, and
the plainest facts can be denied.28


Anyone who has friends from the former Yugoslavia will recognize the truth of
this description. For the sake of moral tidiness, Orwell wanted to separate
nationalism from patriotism by claiming that only the former involved a 'desire
for power'. In conditions of conflict, however, even patriots need power in order
to win or defend what they value. Power is not necessarily a bad thing,
especially if one is currently overpowered by others; and republican patriots in
the 18th century usually fought on the side of the underdogs against great
empires, kings, and noblemen. They rarely won unless they were willing to seek
'power', or indeed to use force. Where patriots claimed to represent subject
'nations' demanding independence, or divided nations seeking unity, or trunc-
ated nations seeking revenge, they tended to become indistinguishable from what
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Orwell and Viroli call 'nationalists'. Wholly benign patriotism is almost always
a luxury of strong countries, governments and parties, since the weak often
cannot survive without the sharper teeth of nationalism. In any case, most
nationalists describe themselveshowever disingenuouslyas patriots whose
aims are essentially defensive. So the cross-breeding of idioms goes on.
These flaws in Viroli's historical perspective also undermine his normative
case for republican patriotism. Having sketched that case in his introduction,
Viroli comes out with the surprising admission that 'Though theoretically
defensible, I believe that political patriotism lacks a language of its own; it does
not look capable of making its own voice sound different from . . . nationalistic
exhortations to love of country'.29 This sounds like a Rousseauesque admission
that the author's patriotic ideals have no serious hope of achieving uncorrupted,
real-life expression. Following Rousseau's example, Viroli might have tried to
bridge this gap between the 'is' and the 'ought' by outlining a more substantial
theory of republican patriotism. Instead, he simply (and repeatedly) asserts that
the latter should differ in this respect or that from 'nationalism', although the
dividing line he draws often looks so thin that it almost disappears: what exactly
is the difference between 'common culture', which Viroli deems unnecessary for
patriotism, and 'particular bonds or ways of life', which he sees as its basis?
Why does Viroli say in one breath that patriotism 'works on . . . already existing
ethnic and cultural bonds,30 as though this were a good thing, but then turns
around to argue that 'We need . . . patriotism and we must at the same time help
to reduce, rather than invoke, identification with ethnocultural values'?31
The discussion of patriotic liberty is equally vaguea more serious normative
shortcoming, since liberty constitutes the most important element distinguishing
patriotism from 'nationalism' in Viroli's account. What trade-offs between
domestic and external liberty should patriots be prepared to make? Might a
degree of internal repression be justified if it helps patriots to fight unwanted
foreign rule? Should 'liberty' be interpreted negatively to mean the condition
of non-slavery, or does it prescribe a more precise, substantial set of laws and
institutions designed to increase personal autonomy? How much individual
freedom does republican liberty permit, as against that of the patria as a whole?
Since these questions are not even broached, one can't help wondering whether
Viroli has really thought much about the hard work needed to keep patriotism


on this side of nationalism. He does make the particularist point that republican
liberty should not be interpreted in universalist terms, as though it required the
creation of identical institutions everywhere. But this only begs the key question:
if we lack even a minimal, generally recognized understanding of liberty, what
is there to stop any tyrant from claiming that his or her version of patriotism
protects (his or her version of) liberty best?
Ultimately, the attempt to separate a purified patriotism from rank nationalism
is a primitive, inadequate response to contemporary crises of security and
identity. By putting nationalism in intellectual quarantine, it avoids grappling
with very real political and moral ambiguities: it may hide the sins of patriots
who go too far, or the legitimate claims of movements that look 'nationalist'
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from some angles. We might do better to express this ambivalence through

different conceptions of 'nationalism', recognizingas our forebears did before
it acquired a thoroughly bad namethat nationalism is almost always too
indeterminate and promiscuous a doctrine to stand on its own. It links up here
with liberal programmes, there with policies of ethnic purification; now with
peaceful intentions, later with violence. In practice, as Adam Weishaupt and
others saw already in the 1790s, it is much the same with patriotism. If we want
to argue that some forms of patriotism or nationalism should be preferred to
others, we will first have to lay down a moral and political bottom line derived
from other principles such as liberty, political and legal equality, or non-
aggression. These principles will then need to be defended more vigorously than
patriotism or nationalism per se, since they are our best protection against rotten

David Miller's On Nationality wisely avoids relying on the quarantine strategy
for dealing with nationalism. Miller explains that he chose to defend 'nationality'
not because he sees 'nationalism' as inherently bad, but because so many 'people
of a liberal and pacific disposition' regard it as 'an illiberal and a belligerent
doctrine' and that some other term is needed to express the value they may still
attach to national allegiances.32 Because Miller is sensitive to these popular
understandings, he offers a subtle yet admirably clear account of the tensions
between national values and 'liberal and pacific' ones. Having identified those
tensions, he then goes on to grapple with them in earnest.
There have been very few book-length attempts by political philosophers,
dead or living, to do this. Miller's book is more successful than other comparable
works in relating principles to policies, and in avoiding the idealist's tendency
to imagine that if you put your principles in order, reality will soon follow suit.33
Like Viroli, Miller starts by arguing that people today cannot afford to ignore the
strength of national feelings. But while he tries to show how those feelings might
be channelled in a 'liberal and pacific' direction, Miller's main argument in
favour of nationality is positive rather than anti-nationalist. He is especially
interested in the questions of 'what holds a society together, and what is the


source of the obligations that we owe to one another' through social security
schemes, welfare provisions, and the like.34 Miller believes that some good
answers to these questions are found in the values of national identity and
belonging. Taking issue with what he calls the 'ethical universalist' view that
there can be no rational justification for giving one's own compatriots priority
in questions of defence or distribution, Miller argues that an appropriately
qualified 'principle of nationality' can underwrite such priorities without collaps-
ing into an unreasoning exclusivism. He criticizes the view that political
associations can acquire legitimacy only through individual consent, and makes
a strong case for recognizing the positive role that inherited historical bonds
can play in encouraging people to meet their distributive and defensive obliga-
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The word 'historical' here is important, since Miller takes great care to
distinguish his understanding of 'nationality' from other familiar conceptions.
He firmly repudiates ethnic Blut und Boden doctrines, but shares communitarian
and republican doubts about the integrating capacities of 'civic' nationality based
on a voluntary commitment to universal principles. At the same time, he
cautiously refrains from defending narrowly defined 'cultural' forms of national-
ity. While these may not exclude people according to morally arbitrary genetic
criteria, they might nonetheless demand an unacceptable degree of conformity to
an artificially static model of national culture. Miller's preferred model of
national identity is based on a 'shared public culture' that leaves room for
non-conformity in private life. But how does this differ from merely 'civic'
nationality, and why should we expect it to do a better job of arresting social
decay? Miller's answer echoes that of Edmund Burke, for whom historically-
evolved memories and institutions were the primary source of political al-
legiance. When a 'shared public culture' is understood as the product of loving
historical labours, rather than a set of constitutional precepts imposed carte
blanche, it can be expected to have a deeper hold on both hearts and minds than
nationality without history. While history shapes and nourishes national al-
legiance, Miller, however, rejects conservative nationalist efforts to make the
past dictate the present. National identities should, he insists, constantly be made
and remade through on-going 'conversations' among their members.
This is, of course, a very British way of thinking about nationality. How many
other countries in Europe, not to mention elsewhere, have enjoyed more than a
few decades of the kind of peaceful evolution and political tolerance that Miller
wants to defend? Some continental readers may be perplexed by Miller's easy
assumption that ethnicity and 'culture' can be neatly disentangled from the
'historical' sources of national identity, which will in turn cease to evoke
bitterness and anxiety when they are filtered through discussions relating past to
present and future. The national histories of Poles, Bosnians and Germans do not
have the warm-and-cosy texture of Burke's odes to old England. People from
countries where democratic practices are new or fragile may also wonder how
conversations about nationality can ever get going without a prior, institutional-
ized agreement on certain non-negotiable laws and norms that all citizens are


bound to respect. For such people the ideal of 'constitutional patriotism' or

Verfassungspatriotismus is not a cold, ineffectual abstraction. It is the necessary
starting-point for developing the minimal sense of trust between government
and the governed, and among different sections of society. Miller's argument
takes this trust for granted.
But if Miller's conception of nationality is unlikely to travel well, it still
yields some powerful arguments against conventional right- and left-wing views
about how to address problems of national identity close to home. His critique
of 'radical multiculturalist' solutions to the disintegration of 'shared public
cultures' in western Europe and North America is especially provocative.
Radical multiculturalists want many individual and group identities to flourish
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within each national society, and demand that 'the state should not merely
tolerate but give equal recognition to each of these identities.35 Miller's dissent
from this view is framed in terms of his historical-particularist defence of
nationality. The problem with multiculturalism is not that it violates individual
rights or the principles of state neutrality vis-a-vis different identities, but rather
that it threatens to destroy the advantages of national community. It is self-
defeating because it denies the value of common national bonds in the name of
more 'authentic' identities such as gender, ethnicity or religion, and then
demands mutual respect from groups who are told they have little in common
to begin with. By undervaluing what brings diverse groups together in the
nation-state, radical multiculturalists encourage mutual irresponsibility, so that
weaker groups cannot rely on others to support their cause. Multiculturalists
then turn out to be 'faux amis to the groups whose interests they seek to
Some readers will dislike Miller's argument that states should take positive
steps to ensure that immigrants 'are properly incorporated' into the common
'public culture', and the tough line he takes on dissenting minority groups.
These, he declares, 'cannot have it both ways. They may choose to withdraw
from citizenship and live . . . as internal exiles within the state', or 'assert their
rights of citizenship along with their cultural identity, and make demands on the
state on behalf of their group' while also meeting the general obligations of
membership.37 This somewhat etatist position has much in common with recent
French republican arguments, which draw a much sharper line between public
'shared culture' and private cultural choices; than is customary in the English-
speaking world.38 One may doubt whether the more pluralistic, porous fabric of
shared public culture in Britainusually held up here and abroad as one of its
unique strengthscould support the kind of centralized state management of
cultural life that Miller seems to think 'nationality' requires. Too much state
management would almost certainly fray that fabric. But whether or not one
agrees with his answers, Miller must be credited for raising the right questions.
He gives an unusually clear and nuanced account of the trade-offs that have to
be made by both majority and minority, settled and immigrant groups if they
wish to avoid the twin dangers of social dissolution and a state-sponsored
tyranny of the majority.


Miller's book has already provoked lively discussions among political theo-
rists and other students of nationalism.39 Much of this debate has focused on the
policy prescriptions offered in Chs 4-6, which deal with national self-
determination, cultural pluralism, and the likely future of national allegiances
and the nation-state. The rest of the present essay will deal with the earlier
chapters where Miller sets out the broad ethical foundations of his defence of
nationality. There is a disturbing tension between the two parts of the bookbe-
tween the ethical theory Miller proposes and the specific forms of national
identity and national policies he defends, ostensibly with the help of that
background theory. The policies and forms of identity are on the whole quite
compatible with mainstream liberal and democratic principles, and indeed with
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universalist doctrines of individual and human rights. The background ethical

theory, however, is avowedly particularistic, or at least anti-universalist. This
tension makes it unclear where Miller's 'principle of nationality' might fit
among the major political ideologies. Many liberals or social democrats could
comfortably accept the policies but not the foundations. Conservative traditional-
ists, or indeed the kinds of nationalist who seek to make national values
paramount and sacrosanct, might embrace the particularist foundations but see
the policies as too democracy-friendly. I suggest below that this ambiguity
weakens both parts of Miller's argument. On the one hand, his endorsement of
a particularist ethics makes his preference for free discussion, basic human
rights, and non-ethnic forms of identity appear arbitrary and subjective. On the
other hand, given the value he consistently sets on democratic practices and the
avoidance of violent confrontation, his attack on the 'universalist' ethics that
usually underlie such values seems oddly misplaced.
Although one of Miller's central contentions is that nationality has 'ethical
significance', it is not entirely clear what this claim involves. Most people agree
that nation-states and particularistic national sentiments constitute important
facts about the world today. In a world where nationality looms so large,
moreover, it often plays a key role in organizing social life to serve a variety of
purposes that might be construed as 'ethical': by encouraging the better-off to
share their advantages with others, for example, or promoting a sense of
solidarity among diverse ethnic groups. In such cases nationality may be valued
instrumentally, i.e. because and in so far as it contributes to other goals and
values. Or it may be valued conditionally, i.e. so long as it does not seriously
undermine other fundamental goals and values. In other words, we may recog-
nize the current force of nationality, and try to harness it to valued purposes,
without claiming that nationality has an intrinsic ethical value above and beyond
such purposes. This claim would imply that there are very strong reasons to
defend nationality regardless of whether, in specific times or places, it supports
or frustrates other deeply-held values. The claim introduces a presumption that
unless there are powerful, principled reasons against our doing so, we should
work to uphold the primacy of national allegiances against competing loyalties,
institutions and values.
Miller would reject these conservative implications, but his arguments push


him inexorably toward them. Thus he criticizes ethical universalists for naively
failing to attach 'intrinsic significance to national boundaries', citing the utili-
tarian Henry Sidgwick as one of many cosmopolitans who have bowed reluc-
tantly 'to the force of national sentiments'.40 Surely Sidgwick was bowing,
however, to what he hoped were a set of transient practical limits on wider
trans-national sympathies, not to a higher ethical imperative. The same holds for
J. S. Mill's well-known remark, quoted approvingly by Miller, that 'free
institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationali-
ties'. This is a pragmatic recognition of cunrently salient facts, not a statement
of nationalist principle. For Mill, Hobhouse and Sidgwick, the 'principle of
nationality' is derived from brute historical facts, not from any intrinsic connec-
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tion to generous fraternal impulses. Its strategic relationship to other social facts
in the modern world gave it an important role in promoting human well-being,
but this was a contingent role which other agencies might play in changed
While Miller probably would not disagree with this view as it stands, he is so
eager to shoot down instrumentalist objections to nationality thatperhaps
without meaning tohe turns an essentially pragmatic and conditional set of
policy arguments into a defence of 'intrinsic', non-negotiable national values.
The danger is that this confusion of facts with values may discourage efforts to
change unsavoury facts. In Miller's argument, it also threatens to undercut the
delicate compromise between national particularity and democratic values. For
while many of those values may be easier to sustain where there is a common
sense of nationality, not just any kind of nationality will do for Miller, who
clearly prefers forms that presuppose a fairly robust liberal democratic (or what
he sometimes calls 'liberal communitarian') public culture. His whole argument
against radical multiculturalism, for example, assumes that the shared 'national'
public culture embodies basic 'liberal freedoms' and democratic attitudes.
Without these conditions, immigrants and minorities could scarcely be guaran-
teed a fair hearing in on-going 'conversations' about national identity.41 In such
passages, Miller implicitly recognizes that having the right kind of nationality
depends on having the right kind of politics and society. Understood in
pragmatic or conditional terms, the 'principle' of nationality has no natural ties
to democracy, liberty, or social justice; it must always be applied in the light of
other goals and values that constrain it. But Miller's misguided concern to give
nationality an independent ethical basis makes him write as though liberal
principles come built into it, as when he asserts that 'the principle of nationality
points us towards a republican conception of citizenship and towards deliberative
democracy as the best means of making political decisions'.42 This may be true
of the carefully qualified principle Miller has laid out, but it certainly does not
hold for nationality simpliciter.43
By itself, then, the 'principle' of nationality lacks the ethical substance needed
to ward off 'nationalist' demons. It has constantly to lean on other principles
liberty, equality, toleration, justicethat are only contingently related to
nationality. Yet Miller's ethical case for nationality depends heavily on a


negative argument against the very ethical universalism that underpins demo-
cratic freedoms. The target of this attack is a rather straw-mannish universalism
which, Miller suggests, entails support for 'benevolent imperialism'.44 This
caricature seems disingenuous. Most Kantian and utilitarian forms of ethical
universalism, and contemporary doctrines of human rights, place limits on the
means that can be used to promote desired ends. 'Imperialism' may of course
be prohibited on consequentialist grounds (the use of coercive methods would
elicit opposition, and thereby set one's cause back), or on principled ones (it is
almost always wrong to coerce people, since this degrades them or violates
their autonomy). Miller's assault on universalist ethics weakens his own case
for a gentler nationality since, as Jiirgen Habermas has recently pointed out, the
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rights of national citizenship only 'guarantee liberty because they contain a core
composed of universal human rights'.45 Whenever it has been detached from
that core, nationality has tended to become illiberal and intemperate.

Recent political theories of nationalism have a more anxious tone than their
19th century precursors. The early democratic nationalists set a youthful,
confident, crusading image of nationality based on popular self-government
against ageing absolutist empires. Contemporary authors, by contrast, are drawn
toward nationality by a loss of confidence in the same progressive ideals. John
Stuart Mill, Mazzini, Hobhouse and Woodrow Wilson upheld the 'principle of
nationality' because and in so far as it supported freedom and political equality.
Their intellectual descendants want to use it to relieve anxieties caused, or so
they imply, by a surfeit of individual freedom and pressures for cultural
uniformity. They care most of all about fraternity, belonging, warmth, 'authen-
ticity', and security, and want to rescue these goods from the 'cold' language of
rights and liberties, the 'shallow' or 'faceless' universalism of certain liberal
doctrines, and the 'bloodless' cosmopolitanism of Eurocrats.
Efforts to combat nationalism on its own particularistic ground look attract-
ive in an era when people worry more, or at least more conspicuously, about
their identities than about freedom or justice. But do current cross-party
concerns about recognition, belonging, and social fragmentation mean that
nationalism has a good chance to establish a kind of ideological hegemony, so
that all other political doctines must incorporate some of its basic postulates in
order to gain support? Certainly the impact of national boundaries, identities,
and conflicts in the contemporary world are very real, and cannot be wished
away. Liberals, socialists, and conservatives have always had to confront these
facts from the standpoint of their particular principles and assumptions. But
they have described the facts of nationality in widely different ways, ascribed
different values to different subsets of those facts, and subordinated national
goals to other basic principles. Thus constrained, nationality or 'patriotism' can
indeed serve conditionally valuable purposes. Unconstrained, they are bound to


encourage the kinds of inflated, assertive 'nationalism' that authors like Miller
and Viroli want to combat.
It therefore seems puzzling that these authors want to give the contingent,
disputed facts of nationality an independent ethical basis, or indeed to construct
an ethical theory around them. If there is such a basis, I suspect that it is
remarkably thin. We may choose to treat nationality as an intrinsic, uncon-
ditional value which can then be invoked to justify intolerance, repression and
conflict. Or we can treat it as an undeniable social fact that sometimes supports
'ethical' life and sometimes undermines it, depending on the way it ties in with
other facts and values. Then we can try to limit the harm it can do while building
on its strengths; but we will need a robust set of background constraints to guide
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the building. Both Miller and Viroli remind us that the sentiments of national
belonging and patriotic partiality need not take irrational, undemocratic forms.
We may now have to remind ourselves that national values still need anchoring
in more fundamental principles of freedom and political reason.

I am grateful to Johannes Bohnen, Rosemary Foot, Michael Freeden, Andrew
Hurrell, Jan Miiller, and Mark Philp for their comments on an earlier draft of this

Notes and references

1. For a valuable critical discussion of the idea that ideologies are built around 'core' concepts, see M.
Freeden, Ideologies and Political Theory: a Conceptual Approach (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), pp.
83-91. As the argument below suggests, I agree with Freeden that the notion of an ideological 'core'
should 'be employed only as a flexible . . . collection of ideas, fashioned by social conventions', and not
as a device that artificially constructs 'absolute boundaries' between ideologies. Nevertheless, attempts to
identify a 'core doctrine' behind all the diverse varieties of nationalism have had an important, if not
entirely helpful, influence on studies of the subject. See, for example, A. D. Smith, National Identity
(London: Penguin, 1991), pp. 72-79.
2. See G. Mazzini, The Duties of Man and Other Essays (London: J. M. Dent, 1907); J. S. Mill,
'Considerations on representative government', in J. Gray (Ed.), On Liberty and Other Essays (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 427-446.
3. Nationalism: a Report by a Study Group of Members of the Royal Institute of International Affairs
(London: Oxford University Press, 1939), p. xviii.
4. Oxford English Dictionary, quoting an early use of the term in J. F. Blight's History of England, 1877.
5. L. T. Hobhouse, 'Irish nationalism and the liberal principle' (1912) in J. Meadowcroft (Ed.), Liberalism
and Other Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 167.
6. A typical usage appears in the 1934 edition of Enciclopedia Italiana, which refers to the antithesis between
national and democratic principles and to the 'fraternal accord' between nationalism and fascism,
Enciclopedia Italiana (Institute Delia E.I., Rome, 1934), pp. 464-466.
7. Wrterbuch der Deutschen Gegenswartssprache (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1974), Vol. IV, p. 2618;
Slovnik Slovenskho Jazyka (Bratislava: Slovensk Akadmia Vied, 1960), Vol. II, p. 218.
8. J. Dunn, Western Political Theory in the Face of the Future (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1983), p. 55.
9. J. M. Le Pen's Front National pointedly avoids espousing 'nationalism'; so, at least in its nomenclature,
does Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party in Russia.
10. M. Billig discusses some political implications of this invisible-yet-ubiquitous nationality in Banal
Nationalism (London: Sage, 1995).


11. Orwell's definition of nationalism, however, could hardly have inspired faith in his strategy's problem-
solving potential. Nationalism was said to include 'Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, Anti-
semitism, Trotskyism and Pacifism'; among the British intelligentsia 'the dominant form of nationalism is
Communism' which, in turn, included 'russophiles generally'. See 'Notes on nationalism' in B. Crick
(Ed.), The Penguin Essays of George Orwell (Penguin: London, 1994), p. 301-303.
12. See, for example, E. Gellner's oft-quoted definition in his Nations and Nationalism (Oxford: Blackwell,
1983), p. 1.
13. The title of Y. Tamir's recent book Liberal Nationalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993)
poses problems for many continental Europeans, who read it as an oxymoron. One Polish translation
solved the problem of comprehension, but killed the paradox, by turning liberal nationalism into 'national
liberalism' (liberalizm narodowy); Nowa Res Publica, 5 (1995), pp. 26-32. An editorial in the same
journal inadvertently points to the urgent need for a 'better name' in Polish when it asserts that
'nationalists are often not nationalists' (nacjonalici czesto nie sa nacjonalistami)a Polish paradox if
ever there was one.
14. For example, the CDU leader W. Schuble declared in 1993 that Germans 'must become more
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secure . . . again in a feeling of national belonging . . . Patriotism is not old-fashioned. Our fatherland could
do with far more patriotism', Guardian, 15 September 1993.
15. J. Oleksy, leader of the main post-communist party in Poland, quoted in Gazeta Wyborcza, 1 April 1996.
16. M. Viroli, For Love of Country: an Essay on Patriotism and Nationalism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).
17. J. Habermas has recently defended such a conception in 'Citizenship and national identity: some reflections
on the future of Europe', Praxis International, 12 (1992-93), pp. 1-19. Viroli discusses Habermas'
arguments in his final chapter.
18. The republican patriotic tradition has never been so neglected in the Latin countries where it grew up as
it has elsewhere in Europe; rather, it was generally associated with the right in the politically polarized
contexts of Cold War France, Italy, and Spain. Ex-communists and disillusioned socialists in these
countries were well ahead of their northern counterparts in reviving a left-leaning patriotism from the late
1970s onward. For recent examples of both leftist and centre-right arguments for republican patriotism,
see M. Gauchet, P. Manent and P. Rosanrallon (Eds), La pensee politique: La Nation (Paris, Seuil-
Gallimard, 1995), pp. 9-178.
19. Viroli, op. cit., Ref. 16, p. 13.
20. Viroli, ibid, p. 17.
21. Two collections containing early and recent examples of the use of the 'language of nationality' in various
European countries and elsewhere are P. Alter (Ed.), Nationalismus: Dokumente zur Geschichte und
Gegenwart eines Phnomens (Munich: Piper, 1994); and H. Vogt, Nationalismus Gestem und Heute
(Opladen: Leske Verlag, 1967). The best collection of this kind in English is Omar Dahbour and M. R.
Ishay (Eds), The Nationalism Reader (New Jersey. Humanities Press, 1995).
22. For a concise analysis of the evolving relationship between the terms 'nation' and 'patrie' and their
cognates in the French republican tradition, see M. Delon, 'Nation', in Pascal Ory (Ed.), Nouvelle Histoire
des Ides Politiques (Paris: Hachette, 1987), pp. 127-135. Early Anglo-American uses of the word 'nation'
in its positive, republican sense are perhaps best exemplified by T. Paine, 'The rights of man' in B.
Kublick (Ed.), Political Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), esp. pp. 137-143.
23. See R. Girardet (Ed.), Le Nationalisme Franais 1871-1914 (Paris: Armand Colin, 1966), pp. 11-14.
24. An analysis of German uses of these terms appears in R. Koselleck, F. Gschnitzer, K.-F. Werner and B.
Schnemann, 'Volk, nation, nationalismus, masse', in O. Brunner, W. Conze and R. Koselleck (Eds),
Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1992), VII, pp. 141-431. For a useful short account
in English of the shift from progressive liberal toward ethnic and racialist uses of 'national' language in
Germany, see H. A. Winkler, 'Nationalism and nation-state in Germany', in M. Teich and R. Porter (Eds),
The National Question in Europe in Historical Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993),
pp. 181-195.
25. See, for example, P. Alter, Nationalism (London: Edward Arnold, 1989), p. 7; A. D. Smith, Theories of
Nationalism (London: Duckworth, 1983), p. 167.
26. Virtually the only reference to the French Revolution appears at the beginning of Ch. 4, where Viroli
writes merely that 'after the French Revolution, the language of republican patriotism had established itself
as a language of liberty and as a major intellectual tradition'. This sentence is bafflingly followed by a
republican-patriotic statement made by an Englishman in 1782-7 years before the French Revolution
began! Viroli, op. cit., Ref. 16, p. 95.
27. My translation. The original German text appears in J. Rachold (Ed.), Die Illumination und Texte zur
Aufklrungsideologie des Illuminatenordens, 1776-1785 (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1984), quoted in G.
Franzinetti, 'Nationalismus, nationalism: a footnote' in Storia della Storiografia, 29 (1996), pp. 127-131.
I am grateful to G. Franzinetti for giving me this valuable short piece.


28. Orwell, op. cit., Ref. 11, p. 315.

29. Viroli, op. cit., Ref. 16, p. 17.
30. Viroli, ibid., p. 14.
31. Viroli, ibid., p. 174.
32. D. Miller, On Nationality (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).
33. Tamir, op. cit., Ref. 13, a pioneer in the genre of political theory books on nationalism, was sometimes
guilty of such idealism.
34. Miller, op. cit., Ref. 32, p. 178.
35. Miller, ibid., p. 120.
36. Miller, ibid., p. 140.
37. Miller, ibid., p. 145.
38. Gauchet, op. cit., Ref. 18 esp. pp. 9-26, 71-81 and 124-39.
39. For example, see 'Symposium on David Miller's On Nationality', in B. O'Leary (Ed.), Nations and
Nationalism, 2 (1996), pp. 407-452; C. Jones, 'Revenge of the philosophic mole: another response to
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David Miller On Nationality' and D. Weinstock, 'Is there a moral case for nationalism?' both in Journal
of Applied Philosophy, 13 (1996),'pp. 73-86 and pp. 87-98.
40. Miller, op. cit., Ref. 32, pp. 64-65.
41. Miller, op. cit., Ref. 32, p. 127.
42. Miller, op. cit., Ref. 32, p. 150.
43. In one puzzling passage, Miller rejects two pragmatic reasons for giving distributive priority to
compatriots'physical proximity and administrative ease'because 'neither of these has any intrinsic
connection with nationality'; Miller, op. cit., Ref. 32, p. 63. There is, of course, no reason why arguments
for special national obligations should be derived from 'ethical' nationality (which would be circular)
rather than from pragmatic or, indeed, other (non-national) ethical considerations. Miller's wording here
shows how easy it is to slide from claims about the current practical advantages of nationality to the
assumption that it should operate as a master principle guiding all other policies.
44. Miller, op. cit., Ref. 32, pp. 77-79.
45. Habermas, op. cit., Ref. 17, p. 13.