The Reception of Lord Byron at Missolonghi by the Greek artist, Theodoros Vryzakis (1819-1878), oil on canvas, 1861 Picture Credit: IanDagnall Computing / Alamy Stock Photo

The romance of nationalism

National Conservatives are reclaiming nationalism — but which nationalism?

Artillery Row

Last week I attended the national conservatism conference in Brussels. The city itself was a shock — a monument to the dysfunctions of globalisation, and thus a paradoxically fitting venue for a conference on nationalism. Of course the whole conference as something of a paradox — those committed to national sovereignty and transnational institutions working internationally, forming alliances, and adopting foreign philosophies (with Anglo-American conservatism, culture war and all, heading east, and old-style European conservatism heading back across the Atlantic to influence the emerging populist right).

The event itself, as I reported, was overshadowed by Ukraine, and tensions were rumbling beneath the service between the Anglos and the continentals, not to mention the Poles and the Hungarians. 

Nationalism is in its origins a liberal ideology

Yoram Hazony himself circled the event like a kindly but worried father trying to locate his children (as well he might have been, I was informed that 10 members of his extended family were in attendance). There was a fair amount to wrinkle his brow on the final day, with the Prime Ministers of Slovenia and Poland (the stars of the show, who were a large part of the reason the conference was in Brussels), having to cancel — the NATO summit couldn’t spare them. 

Hazony’s idiosyncratic political philosophy, in which he paints a Manichean contrast between nationhood and empire, the former of which receives God’s blessing in the pages of the Hebrew Bible, is a curious uniting factor. A sort of mystical classical liberalism, it seems an odd creed for European Catholic politicians to embrace. 

In something of a running theme for the conference, it shouldn’t work, but it does. It’s worth remembering this event (and the ideology that lends it its name) only came to widespread attention in Europe two years ago, in Rome in 2020 (having had its first conference just a year earlier in DC), fuelled by controversy and commanding big names, not least of which was Victor Orban himself. At the time, all the tensions were with the liberal West, now everyone is falling over themselves to say they are the liberal west. 

The professional political right has long been good at overlooking differences and contradictions in order to build an effective machine for taking power — it’s one of the reasons parties of the right now govern in most countries across Europe, a trend that has been underway since the 2000s. But the participants in the National Conservatism conference were brought together by a stronger factor than convenience or tactics — there was a sense of entire populations unhappy with globalisation and the leaders that represent them desperate for ideas that seem to offer an alternative to that once hegemonic model of open borders and open economies. 

The media consensus here in the UK is very much that everyone involved in the event is an extremist. Trying to determine that for oneself is rather hard. For one thing, the opinions of the majority of my parent’s generation would now be considered incredibly extreme, as indeed is anyone who upholds even the mildest version of, say, traditional religious ethics and orthodoxy. What is extreme is shifting every year, and you can join the ranks of extremists just by pausing too long on the path of inexorable progress. 

It’s a useless term, and more so today than ever. The more useful question is if those involved are authoritarian — dedicated to restricting civil liberties and eroding democratic processes. And this too is not easy to determine. Obviously many political leaders in Eastern and Central Europe, living in post-Communist states, are corrupt and authoritarian. But those tendencies are not unique to countries like Poland and Hungary that so draw the ire of the West. Indeed they are vastly more pronounced in Ukraine, a country now lionised by western liberals. 

Before modernity, there was no nation state

What struck me about the political operatives I met, many of them young and extremely well educated, was that none of them appeared remotely beholden to their party leaders. They were considerably more frank with me, a stranger and a reporter from another country, than I could imagine their English-speaking equivalents being. On the frontiers of Europe, far closer to the genuinely despotic regimes to their East, these are people who are clearly intensely aware that they enjoy liberty, peace and relative prosperity, and are desperate to hang onto them.

Nationalism is regarded by many modern liberals as the antithesis of their worldview, but nationalism is in its origins a liberal ideology. This should trouble the assumptions of both left and right, as it erases the comfortable and familiar distinction between enlightened cosmopolitans and rooted in the ground reactionary patriots that both trade on. 

Every ill of globalisation, every offence against a settled custom or way of life that the right now complains of, was anticipated and prefigured by the rationalising, centralising, hegemonic ambitions of the nation state. The imposition of a single currency, a single system of weights and measures, of a single language, a single code of law, a single military and solitary government were all necessary stages to the invention of every country that national conservatives now proudly defend as guardians of sovereignty. 

Before modernity, there was no nation state. There were certainly many ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic groups, but these identities overlapped and did not map straightforwardly onto political entities, let alone ones that assert “political sovereignty”. That very concept — sovereignty — is the product of liberal constitutional and political theories that were quite novel. The need for a sovereign nation had little to do with upholding ancient traditions and ways of life from interference, and indeed had quite the opposite intent — of dissolving the differences and distinctions between the inhabitants of a territory and giving them a new, shared identity. 

Once upon a time it was the right that defended transnational empires (and local particularity) whilst the revolutionary forces of the left sought to carve nation states out of the empires of old Europe. 

Nevertheless, nationalism is an ambiguous ideology, and nationhood did indeed emerge as a focus of resistance against liberalising forces, especially in the spheres of economics and culture. It is strongly associated with the intellectual and artistic movement we know as romanticism. Initially it was an ideology of the left, with its most famous representative, Lord Byron, writing odes to Napoleon. Nationalism too was at the heart of this liberal endeavour, with Byron giving his life to the Greek Revolution against the Ottoman Empire. 

But this association was swiftly complicated as romanticism came to be taken up by socialists, reactionaries and conservatives too, coinciding with a shift in the significance of nationalist thought in general. Just as urbanisation and industrialisation were dissolving traditional customs, there was a tremendous movement to record and value the folk culture that previous generations had derided as the rough customs of peasants. 

National identities were in a sense invented — they are as Benedict Anderson suggests, “imagined communities” — but it would be a mistake to thus see them as inauthentic or unreal. Tradition in general is an imaginative project of perpetual reinvention, of perpetual rearticulation, innovation and improvisation. 

They need to take a page from Marxist intellectuals

Something deep, sacred and true was communicated to future generations, something of the spirit that animated their forebears, by the efforts of this new movement of recapture and romance. Scottish identity was born amidst defeat, trauma, displacement (at least for those in the Highlands) as well as the temptations of newfound wealth and empire. This difficult birth was assisted by writers like Walter Scott, who though often not taken seriously by contemporary Scottish nationalists and literary critics, is owed an incalculable debt for his imaginative mediation of the lost world of pre-modern Scotland. 

Whether it was Scott’s historical fiction, folklorists like the Brothers Grimm, or composers like Bartok, much about romantic national culture can be understood as a creative attempt to mend the wounds of revolution, rupture and industrial modernity. 

Nationalism was also a powerful force for an emerging socialism, which was not then a straightforwardly “left” ideology, as it reacted against the same modernising forces that conservatives resisted. For example Ruskin in England and Gaudi in Catalonia were advocates of a patriotic, socialist and religious vision, which involved a humanistic and Christian renaissance of culture and politics drawing inspiration from the High Middle Ages.

Both men were of course committed to traditional crafts and architectural forms, a fixation shared by many modern conservatives, for which they are often mocked by the left. But the left too has its aesthetic fixations, they’re just too ubiquitous and hegemonic to need much defending — the “international style” has become the uniform for every modern city on earth.

The great failure of the “aesthetic right” and the Scutonians arguing for traditional architecture is a failure to see the deeper forms and patterns that drive modern aesthetics. Our art and built environment are brought into being by our systems of economic and political organisation, and their motivating ideology. See also the obsession with neo-classical rather than neo-gothic architecture, the spiritual equivalent to Scuton’s embrace of Kant rather than, say, Aquinas. 

Nationalists today stand ambiguously poised between the rival legacies of nationhood. Are they crusading revolutionary liberals, raging across the world imposing constitutions like Napoleon? Are they classical liberals arguing for the rights of small states? Are they reactionaries seeking to reorient the nation towards traditional values? Or are they advocates of a more genuinely post-liberal vision which leads away from rationalism, capitalism and globalisation?

This, essentially, is what is missing in National Conservatism. Without a serious criticism of capitalism and a vision of human dignity and the common good, nationalism risks becoming simply an alliance of authoritarian state and exploitative market, with romantic conservatism as its thin façade, treading the grim path laid out by China and Russia. 

But nationhood can provide a channel for renewal — a fruitful space in which the dream of a new European renaissance can develop. Those who claim to uphold traditionalism and conservatism need to ask themselves hard questions about what they want to conserve and how. They need to take a page from Marxist intellectuals and interrogate the systems of power around them, especially that of the market. 

That may be a big ask, but I sensed an appetite for it from the participants I talked to and many of the speakers too. Many wished that the event had been a more serious forum for ideas. I was especially struck by something that Mateusz Morawiecki, the Polish Prime Minister, (who appeared by video link in the end) said: there is “too much power in the hands of the market…money has no moral compass”. 

Left and right in the west are obsessed with people crossing borders (and being fanatically for or against it), but both are strangely indifferent to an arguably far more potent migration: the movement of capital, the force that rules us all. One can doubt the sincerity of statements like Morawiecki’s , or the efficacy of the policy that follows them, but it is surprising and heartening to see that they are made at all on the European right. It’s the sort of discussion that we desperately need in the UK and America, and I hope that we one day break out of the myopic culture war and actually have it.

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