HUMANISM and NATIONALISM
By Lyndon Storey (Originally published in Australian Humanist no. 131)
Humanism encompasses respect for the inherent dignity of all human beings. The Amsterdam Declaration “affirms the worth, dignity and autonomy of the individual and the right of every human being to the greatest possible freedom compatible with the rights of others. Humanists have a duty of care to all of humanity including future generations….Humanism aims at the fullest possible development of every human being” 1.
As an approach to life focused on equal respect and dignity for all, humanism is a natural opponent of not just religion, but of any ideology which divides human beings into groups with unequal rights and status.
One such divisive ideology is political nationalism. Nationalism is a difficult ideology to challenge, because many see it as a natural part of an unchangeable ‘reality’. But, in fact, political nationalism is historically contingent.
It took centuries to move from a situation where it was unthinkable to question religion, but now we also need to urgently question nationalism. Today’s humanists need to be bold in challenging the assumption that the world must be divided into competing nation states.
Nationalism divides rather than unites human beings. The national identity created becomes too easily regarded as more important than our common human identity. Every war is in fact a civil war, a civil war of humanity.
Humanists can take the lead in bringing an end to the civil war of humanity. We should be not simply deploring nationalist excesses, but proposing alternatives to the system of competing national states and identities.
Until we build a political system based on respecting the dignity of all human beings above the ‘national interest’, we will continue to see smaller and larger civil wars break out. Likewise attempts at international co-operation to address poverty, human rights denial, climate change, and other global issues will continue to founder on the rock of alleged national self-interest.
One of the great political reform movements of this century will be the attempt to build a human political system to replace our current national political system. Humanism, as a cosmopolitan forward looking movement should be in the forefront of this battle.
How important is nationalism as an ideology?
One way to test the existential significance of an idea is to consider whether it can motivate people to kill others, and to sacrifice their own lives. 400 years ago, during Europe’s ferocious Thirty Years War from 1618 to 1648, religion was the main ideology used to motivate believers to kill others, and to sacrifice their own lives.
By the 20th century religion’s capacity to inspire killing and self-sacrifice had subsided, only to be replaced by a new idol - the nation. The two world wars of the 20th century saw far more people killing, and dying, for their nation than were killed for religion in any war in Europe.
The nation or fatherland became the highest existential ideal in Europe. Defending it became something nearly everyone agreed justified violence and bloodshed on a massive scale. Killing, and sacrificing one’s own, in the name of their nation, became as much a part of what people saw as the natural and inescapable order, as killing in the name of their religion had once been.
Political nationalism was Incubated in Europe and then spread around the world by European colonialism. The basic facts are not controversial and can be found in many standard works on European history.
It flowered in 19th century Europe with ideologues such as Mazzini in Italy, or Fichte in Germany, creating a sense of national identity which contributed to the unification of both Italy and Germany. Nationalism was in some ways a ‘romantic’ reaction against enlightenment universalism.
There was opposition to the rise of nationalism. The revolutionary socialist movement was founded in part on the idea that the common interests of workers transcended national boundaries. In the 19th and early 20th centuries it focused on developing international forms of organisation. Yet the Second international collapsed during World War I. The various national social democratic parties were expected to act in solidarity against war. But they supported their own nation’s war efforts, and international solidarity collapsed. Patriotism trumped class loyalty.
Meanwhile European imperialism spread the idea of the nation to Europe’s colonies. The ‘natural’ form of rebellion seemed to be not to restore what existed before colonialism, but for the colonised people to develop their own ‘nation state’ and seek its freedom.
The world that existed 500 years ago has been replaced by a collection of nation states, most of them newly created. Each claims an inherent dignity and sovereignty which justifies putting the interests of its citizens and elites ahead of other human beings.
Books like Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson, and Nationalism A Religion by Carlton Hayes, demonstrate the historical process by which the idea of the nation was first imagined, and then spread around the world, to become the bedrock of contemporary global political organisation2.
Of course imperialism did need to be challenged, and defeated, and democracy did need to replace force of arms when legitimizing political systems. But a world of states with armies focused on national defence, and with economic policies focused on increasing national wealth, isn’t conducive to progress on global issues.
We face many issues today which require global cooperation. International co-operation to address global human issues continues to founder, as national leaders prefer the so-called national interest to the common good. Civil wars of humanity continue to occur around the planet. Better ways to manage world affairs can be thought of, and be put into practice.
The first step is to recognise that political nationalism is just a contingent historical development. Like religion, it is not the inevitable organisation system or belief system of humanity. It is simply a set of ideas that is prevalent in our historical epoch. It only appears to be inescapable and unchangeable - just as religion once did.
As humanists who support the dignity of all human beings, we need to call out political nationalism for what it is. It’s a collectively created myth that justifies warfare, discrimination and persecution. Humanists need to expose and challenge this destructive myth.
Nationalism also interacts dangerously with existential fear: All human beings struggle with the angst created by the combination of our awareness that we are mortals with limited ability to control our lives, and our ability to imagine something better than this for ourselves.
I use the word existential fear to describe the awful sense of fear and insignificance which we must battle with in our lives when we fully comprehend our mortality and our limitations.
Most people deal with existential fear and dread by pushing it to the back of their minds. It lurks there ready to reach out and grip us at moments of stress or danger.
The humanist approach to existential fear is of course to accept our mortality, and realise that as human beings we have inherent potentials such as those for sympathy, compassion, love and friendship in life. We can build on these potentials to live a happy and fulfilling life.
Life is an opportunity to be enjoyed and realised as much as we can. Humanism relies on our intrinsic resources to deal with existential fear, and find a way to a happy and fulfilling life. Humanism does not deny death, but supports and celebrates living.
Unfortunately transcendent approaches are far more popular methods than humanism for dealing with existential fear. Transcendent approaches do not rely on our inherent human resources to find meaning and fulfilment, but seek to connect with something higher and better than our authentic humanity.
The most well-known example of a transcendent approach in our culture is Christianity. In return for entering a relationship with ‘God’, or Jesus, which supposedly transcends our humanity, it offers eternal life and eternal love. While it appears a perfect solution to existential fear, it suffers from the key weakness that there is no evidence that the Christian God exists.
A second weakness not just of Christianity, but of virtually all transcendent approaches, is the danger of erecting something to be higher, and more important, than the dignity of our fellow human beings.
Transcendent approaches can make it easy to justify the persecution and killing of human beings as they are subordinate to, and less important than, the dignity and wellbeing of the higher thing, whether it be a god, a nation, or something else.
Relying on some higher transcendent thing to assuage our existential fears also creates the risk that, if there is a threat to, or even a thought which doubts, the reality of, that higher thing, the believer faces not just a dry intellectual challenge, but the risk of all the repressed existential fear being unleashed in their mind.
An obvious solution to the rush of fear is to destroy the lesser thing that is threatening the higher thing. In this way transcendent approaches to existential fear erect idols, such as gods or nations. The slightest whiff of doubt, or disloyalty, can produce a reaction of offence and outrage of ‘biblical’ proportions in some believers, as they cope with the rush of existential fear.
It is not just that transcendent approaches lack evidence, but they erect something higher than humanity, which then justifies cruelty to others. Destroying the source of criticism or challenge can be justified in the name of the higher power, and so justify the persecution and slaughter of fellow human beings.
Unbelievers, sceptics, doubters and other heretics are all a terrible threat simply by reminding the rational part of the believer’s mind that they’re still a vulnerable mortal, and that all that fear can come rushing back.
Ernest Becker argued that religion and most cultural ideas were techniques for repressing the fear of death, and for giving us a sense of meaning and purpose to get us through life3. It’s not hard to see how nationalism performs a similar function in relation to existential fear.
Nationalism offers a promise of continuity after death in which the nation will triumph, thanks to the sacrifice of its soldiers. It offers a sanctification of those who died for the fatherland, at war memorials to unknown soldiers with eternal flames, and annual ceremonies like Anzac Day. Venerating the martyrs and heroes offers a transcendent solution to existential fear. The nation will live on, and is worth fighting and dying for. All are ‘saved’ by the sacrifices of the few.
This helps explain the terrible fact noted earlier, that more people in recent history have been killed for the nation than for religion. The nation has become a transcendent entity that we are willing to risk and sacrifice our lives for. Fighting for the nation is usually seen as one of the highest and noblest callings there is.
Thus the first great error is to regard the nation state as the only possible unit for political systems. The assembly of nations is a contingent historical creation. It is just one more ideological creation thrown up by history, with as much claim to being the inherent structure of human societies as discredited social constructs based on caste, class, race, religion, slavery or hereditary aristocracy.
The second dangerous error is classifying something as ‘higher’ than our fellow human beings. The role of existential fear helps explain why political nationalism is not just an eccentric idea, but a ferocious force responsible for destroying the lives of millions of people.
There can be no doubt about the level of violence that has been committed in the name of the nation in the last few hundred years.
What is the situation of nationalism in the 21st century?
Today a range of issues including economic inequality, decline of job security, a sense of purposelessness and malaise in many societies, and the apparent inability of the western political class to offer new and relevant ideas, has seen many people experience a heightened sense of economic and social insecurity.
The Brexit vote, ‘making America great again’, the ‘Chinese Dream’, and Putinism in Russia, are all indicators of nationalism being put forward as the one organising principle that can rally people, provide a sense of security and purpose in challenging times, and become a bulwark in an increasingly unpredictable and threatening world.
Political nationalism is reasserting itself.
This reassertion will, at best, further undermine global co-operative action on issues such as human rights, economic development and climate change, and at worst plunge us into another round of global civil war. The arms race between such countries as Russia, China and the USA is already accelerating. Nationalism is re-emerging. It needs to be challenged rather than ignored.
Humanism is an intrinsically cosmopolitan movement. As I noted at the outset of this essay its ideals are expressed as ideals for all of humanity. It emphasises that the rights to freedom and fulfilment are rights of all human beings, regardless of their religious or national background.
Humanism is an approach to life which can offer and support a path to fulfilment and happiness based on respect for all human beings. it is the natural political and philosophical platform to develop not just a critique, but an alternative to a world based on competing nations.
Seeking respect for the dignity and rights of all people is an intrinsically humanist project. It is not that nationalism needs to be wiped out altogether. A sense of national identity can be a significant part of a person’s development, and should be respected in that sense.
But we need to reach a point where a person’s national identity is just one of their multiple identities, rather than the primary one. Our humanity, and that of others, should not be subordinated to our nationality. It should be the other way around.
We should not discriminate against, or oppress our fellow human beings simply because they do not share our national identity. Humanists need to encourage putting human identity before, rather than after, national identity, to bring an end to the civil war of humanity.
Adopting this as a humanist project is crucial in today’s world where nationalism presents such a threat. It is also crucial for humanism to focus on the issues of today. Political nationalism presents an immediate and obvious challenge to both the values of humanism, and the safety and security of many people around the world. A campaign against political nationalism should be one of the highest priorities of the humanist movement.
There are two necessary parts to a campaign against political nationalism as an organising force for our world. The first is to continue to expose the fact that nationalism is a human creation. Exposing the illusions of nationalism is just as important for the humanist movement as exposing the delusions of religion.
The second part of any such campaign is to inspire people to think that something better is possible. The danger is that people may say that, even if we show that the nation state is merely a contingent historical development, it is not possible to develop an alternative political system.
The great 20th century conferences that gave birth to the League of Nations, and the United Nations, each failed to create entities that could go beyond the nation state system. The UN has done much good, but ‘national sovereignty’ makes it incapable, in its current form, of guiding us towards a world where the nation state is subordinated to our humanity, rather than overriding it.
In the past, it was said that the subordination of races, women, or gay people, was natural and inevitable. In the past, it was said that a guiding role for religion in society was unchangeable. History is full of horrors, but also shows us change is possible. Movements can start out small, but eventually change ideas of what is fair or just.
A political system based on respect for the dignity of all humans, beyond the priorities of nations, is another one of those ideas that will go from being outlandish, to being the conventional wisdom. The sooner we make that change happen, the better.
Not only does history show that such huge changes are possible, but today we have the benefit of a political experiment which goes a long way to demonstrating this particular possibility.
The European Union (EU) has been a shining example of how a political system that moves beyond the power of the sovereign state can be developed; not by one grand gesture, but by steady political progress over a period of more than fifty years.
Of course the EU has many problems. In particular the surfeit of bureaucracy and an over-emphasis on neo-liberal economic goals, rather than political and social goals. Indeed fanatical adherence to the priority of the single currency and protecting large financial institutions has threatened the very existence of the EU.
Consider the positives. Europe, the crucible of political nationalism and the world wars has not seen warfare between EU members - an astonishing achievement.
Imagine a hundred years ago, in the last year of World War I, telling someone that France and Germany would become partners in a European political union! The idea would have seemed a fantasy.
Try scrolling forward 25 years from there to 1943, with World War II in full swing, and tell someone then that Europe would be united in the EU by the end of the century. The idea would seem even more preposterous. We so quickly forget the horrors that preceded the EU.
After the Cold War ended, the democratic requirements of EU membership were a key incentive for politicians in former soviet bloc states to support the building of democracy and human rights in their own countries.
Through these processes the EU has been an engine for building respect for democracy and human rights.
The EU, unlike the UN, requires a basic level of democracy and respect for human rights amongst its members. While this has produced many problems and angst, it has also been a key to the EU becoming a genuinely transnational system, rather than just another conglomeration of states with no new common identity.
Some argue the EU has only worked because of the common cultural background of Europe. But this is the same background that produced centuries of warfare, and even genocide. The development of the EU is evidence that people can change their minds, and make new realities based on shared identities. It’s not evidence that things always stays the same. They don’t.
The simplest lesson to learn from the development of the EU is that people can change their sense of identity. They don’t abandon their sense of national identity, but accept a sense of identity that can go beyond it, in this case a European identity, which EU members share along with their individual national identities.
Another lesson is that an international institution with common values such as democracy in its membership criteria, is more likely to succeed in building a transnational community, than one which just espouses values without requiring members to share them.
A third lesson is that gradualism can succeed. Transforming everything on one glorious moment is not necessarily the best way to achieve social change.
A fourth lesson is that the emphasis needs to be on developing shared democratic institutions more than the interests of bureaucrats. Putting the interests of bankers and financial institutions ahead of shared democratic values and the interests of individual human beings has in fact imperiled the very existence of the EU.
The simplest path forward for the world would be for the EU to change its name from the European Union to the Human Union and let any country which shares its respect for democracy and human rights join. That is unlikely to happen tomorrow of course.
But it does suggest a model for humanists to support. Whether this goal could be achieved by reforming the European Union to make it a Human Union, reforming the United Nations, starting a Human Union from scratch, or in some other way, (under the name Human Union or not) need not be decided now.
The goal for now should be to not just deplore the excesses of political nationalism, but to critique the very idea of it, as discussed, and find ways to move beyond it. We need to develop a Human Union, or some similar system, that puts our humanity before our nationality.
Humanism can offer a critique of nationalism, develop alternatives, present a non-transcendent path to addressing existential fear, and inspire and support proposals to develop a new system, replacing the turmoil of competing national loyalties with a common human identity, and with global problem solving.
It is time to bring an end to the civil war of humanity.
1 For full text of the Amsterdam Declaration see the IHEU website at:
2 Anderson, Benedict “Imagined Communities” Verso 1991
2 Hayes, Carlton J.H. “Nationalism A Religion” Routledge 2017
3 Becker, Ernest “The Denial of Death” Free Press 1973
3 Becker, Ernest “The Birth and Death of Meaning” Free Press 1971