Nationalism and Multiculturalism

In politics at the present time there is a resurgence of nationalism, the idea that a country should be unified by the predominance of a single "ethnicity", defined in terms of race, descent, language, religion and culture.

Anning is importing ideas from the US:

Trump shares ideas with European nationalists,

Nationalists are not all Nazis of Fascists (and these terms should not be bandied about), but Nazis and Fascists were nationalists, so there is a kinship:,_1933%E2%80%931945,

Those who deplore the "one nation" turn in Australian politics generally invoke "multiculturalism", but often, I think, without a good idea of what multiculturalism means (how it relates to assimilation/ integration).

Below are extracts from two papers:

The Israel/Palestine Conflict: How did it begin? Will it ever end?
Self-determination and the right to establish a government


The background to this declaration [the Balfour declaration] is the political philosophy of nationalism in Europe. In English “nation” just means the population of a country, but in 19th century Europe a nation meant an ethnic group. Ethnic nationalism began with the French Revolution. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen(1789), article 3, says: “The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation”. This is not just the medieval  idea that the rights of government depend on the consent of the governed: the reference is  not to those who live under French government, but to those who belong to the French nation.  The word Nation in French derives from the Latin word nasci, which means to be born; a nation is a group formed by birth, i.e. by descent. Post-Revolution European nationalism, developed first in France and later in Germany and other parts of central Europe, was the belief that each ethnic group ought to have its own state, and each state should be based on one ethnic group. This is the concept of a “nation-state”. An associated idea is “self-determination”. The “self” here is not the individual, but the ethnic group—each such group has the right, it was claimed, to determine itself, i.e. to govern itself. (On the idea of "national" self-determination, and an alternative, see my paper "Self-determination and the right to establish a government".)

The argument in favour of nationalism is that political institutions won’t work well unless individuals are willing sometimes to subordinate their own interests to the interests of other members of the political community. Identification with a community, according to the nationalists, requires common language and outlook, and common language and culture requires historical continuity going back to some remote time, i.e. it requires descent from common ancestors.

The argument against nationalism is that ethnic groups always are mixed on the ground: it is simply not possible, and probably was never in history possible, to draw reasonable borders between ethnic, linguistic or cultural groups. The opposite of nationalism is multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is the acknowledgement that every state will normally contain a plurality of cultures, and that no one of these groups should claim a privileged place. It suits some to define multiculturalism as the fostering of social division, but this is a travesty. Multiculturalism is the recognition that human beings have a right to go on living where they are living—where they were born, or where they have moved to legitimately—and a right, while living in that place, to be treated with equal respect. Multiculturalism means no discrimination, no ethnic cleansing,  no genocide.

In Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries the upsurge of nationalism was a disaster for the Jews. For centuries they had been discriminated against on religious grounds, because their ancestors had killed Christ. (Mt 27:24-25: “His blood be on us, and on our children”.) Nationalism gave another ground of discrimination. The Jewish scriptures were full of the idea of the Jews as a people descended from common ancestors, a nation over against the other nations. In fact, the nationalist idea came to Europeans partly through the Jewish scriptures, which they read as part of the Christian Bible. But if Jews were a nation themselves, they could not also be part of other nations. On these grounds they were excluded from many European communities, which led eventually to the Nazi attempt to kill all the Jews in Europe. Nationalism prompted discrimination, discrimination led to genocide.



In this paper I compare the modern conception of a human right to self-determination with the medieval conception of a natural right to establish law and government and argue that the medieval conception should be revived. I suggest also that an approach in terms of “good government” may be a better way to resolve conflicts over claims to “self-determination” than the more common approach in terms of human rights.

There are several rights mentioned in modern human rights doctrines that need to be distinguished. There is said to be a right of “national self-determination”, some say there is a  right to secede, most say there is a right to rebel against a tyranny. Imagine a situation in which a majority group rules some ethnic minority tyrannically: the minority may have the right to rebel, rebellion may lead to secession, and this may be represented as an exercise of the right of national self-determination. The right to rebel against tyranny has been recognised in European thought for a long time. Some theologians urged respect for the powers that be even when tyrannical,[1] but most theologians as well as secular thinkers have held that there is a right of self-defence that sometimes justifies rebellion.[2] The right to secede[3] has always been contentious. The American Civil War was fought by the North to deny the right of secession claimed by the slave-holding states. Against the claimed right of secession, one argument is that secession will adversely affects the interests of the people left behind, and they therefore have a right to oppose it. Another argument is that no state will function properly unless its citizens are committed to one another; the cohesion of the state is undermined if some claim a right to secede even if secession never takes place. For these and other reasons, many do not recognise a right to secede except as an implication of the right to rebel—that is, if the existing state is tyrannical, its victims may have a right to form a state of their own. But others uphold an unconditional right of secession, arguing that just government requires the consent of the governed and that consent cannot be freely given unless citizens are free to secede.

The right of self-determination

Setting aside rebellion and secession, I wish to focus on self-determination. There is a widespread opinion that if the population of a state contains a sub-set that constitutes a “people” or a “nation”, then they have a right of self-determination in relation to that state. Even if this does not mean a right to secede, it is commonly held that such a “people” have some right to a special status of autonomy within the state. The right of self-determination is well embedded in the philosophy of the United Nations. Although it is not mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the term self-determination was used in the UN Charter[4] and has been defined in various declarations and covenants . The first (common) article of The United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) reads: “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.[5] Note that this is a universal right: it belongs to “all peoples”.

However, in UN thinking and in international law, the idea of self-determination is balanced by the principle of integrity of existing states: According to the Vienna Declaration, UN World Conference on Human Rights, 1993, the right of self-determination “shall not be construed as authorizing or encouraging any action which would dismember or impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political unity of sovereign and independent States  conducting themselves in compliance with the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples  and thus possessed of a Government representing the whole people belonging to the territory without distinction of any kind”.[6]

Notice that there is a reference to self-determination in the clause that defines what it means for a government to conduct itself properly: the right of self-determination does not justify dismemberment, if a state is conducting itself in accordance with the right of self-determination. This suggests two kinds of self-determination, one that involves dismemberment of states that do not conduct themselves properly, and a second kind that is respected by states that do conduct themselves properly. The second kind is what is sometimes called internal self-determination.[7] What counts as internal self-determination is not altogether clear. In Canada, Quebec is a French province, and in other parts of Canada French-speaking Canadians have various rights (e.g. to education in French and to communicate with the government in French), and some other sections of the Canadian population (e.g. the native peoples) also have special group rights. Canada has gone much further in this direction than the United States. However, the US would probably also satisfy the Vienna declaration, since (on an optimistic view, anyway), it meets the last requirement, “a government representing the whole people… without distinction of any kind”. Perhaps internal self-determination does not require all that Canada has done, perhaps it means simply absence of discrimination in political and legal institutions.

There are obscurities in all these matters, but the right of self-determination of peoples has been well-entrenched since World War II by the process of de-colonisation. The colonising state and its colonies did not constitute an integrated political unit. There was generally no great difficulty in recognising that the residents of the colony were a different people from the colonisers. The colonisers were white, the colonials black or brown; the colonisers had come from Europe a fairly short time before, whereas the ancestors of the colonials had lived there from long ago; the colonisers had their own home state of which they were citizens with political rights, the colonials were not citizens of the colonizing state and their political rights were limited or non-existent. The decolonization process was represented as an exercise of the right of peoples or nations to self-determination. However, the borders of colonies often had little relationship with ethnography. One colony would include members of several different ethnic groups, on the other hand the one ethnic group would be divided between adjacent colonies ruled by different colonial powers; but after decolonisation the boundaries remained what they had been before (in accordance with the rule uti possidetis). Other lines of thought could have provided good reasons for decolonisation. If the colonial government was exploitative and oppressive, the traditional political theory would have approved rebellion as a remedy for injustice. Even if the colonial power treated its colonial subjects justly, the independence of the colony could have been justified on grounds of good government: the metropolitan government was too far away, the cultural differences were too great, the consent of the local population was unenthusiastic. Such reasons may well have been more influential in practice than the theory of a human right to national self-determination.

But although through decolonisation the right of self-determination has become well-entrenched in international law and UN practice, it remains philosophically questionable.[8] The first question is, what constitutes a people or nation? Second, why should nations and states correspond, ideally? Third, when they do not, why should each nation included in the state have internal self-determination, and what does that mean? There are various possible answers to these questions. I will not pursue them, but I will say something about the most basic of these questions, what constitutes a people, before going on to the second of my topics, the right to be governed.

Self-determination was of course not invented by the United Nations, or even by the League of Nations. During World War I the rhetoric of self-determination was used not only by Woodrow Wilson but also by Lloyd George and Leon Trotsky and Lenin,[9] and it was already commonplace. The idea goes back to the French Revolution. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789), article 3, says: “The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation”.[10] In English this sounds simply like a re-statement of the familiar principle that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.[11] But in the Declaration of the Rights of Man the word “nation” had overtones derived from its Latin root. It derives from Latin “nasci”, to be born, or, metaphorically, to arise: a nation are people who have a common origin, people who are related by birth.[12] The French were not in fact racially homogeneous; what the revolutionaries took as an index of nationality was language. The “principle of nationality” during the nineteenth century meant the idea that all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation, in the sense of a race of people who speak the same language.

A philosophical basis for the idea that the principle of sovereignty derives from race as such would be difficult to find. The idea that people who speak the same language should form a state is more promising. This idea was provided with a philosophical justification especially by German writers of the early nineteenth century, when Germans, living in their various states, were threatened by the military energy of the French nation. Johann Gottfried Herder and others emphasized the importance of language in the constitution of an individual’s personality, in the development of culture and in the integration of individuals into a society.[13] Add this to the idea that human kind progresses through struggle and conflict, and the idea that it is good intrinsically that there should be a variety of distinct and well-developed cultures (an application of the “principle of plenitude”),[14] and you have a philosophical foundation for the “principle of nationality”.

In the course of the nineteenth century the criterion of shared language was supplemented, or even replaced, by other criteria of nationhood. Nationality became a “cluster concept”, i.e. a concept for which there is a list of defining characteristics, none of which is necessary, none by itself sufficient; the concept is applicable if a “fair number” of these characteristics are present. Here, for example, is John Stuart Mill, Considerations on Representative Government (1861), chapter 16:

A portion of mankind may be said to constitute a Nationality if they are united among themselves by common sympathies which do not exist between them and any others—which make them co-operate with each other more willingly than with other people, desire to be under the same government, and desire that it should be government by themselves or a portion of themselves exclusively. This feeling of nationality may have been generated by various causes. Sometimes it is the effect of identity of race and descent. Community of language, and community of religion, greatly contribute to it. Geographical limits are one of its causes. But the strongest of all is identity of political antecedents; the possession of a national history, and consequent community of recollections; collective pride and humiliation, pleasure and regret, connected with the same incidents in the past. None of these circumstances, however, are either indispensable, or necessarily sufficient by themselves.[15]

A UNESCO meeting in 1989 defined nationality in a very similar way:

A people for the rights of peoples in international law, including the right to self-determination, has the following characteristics: 1. A group of individual human beings who enjoy some or all of the following common features: (a) A common historical tradition; (b) Racial or ethnic identity; (c) Cultural homogeneity; (d) Linguistic unity; (e) Religious or ideological affinity; (f) Territorial connection; (g) Common economic life. 2. The group must be of a certain [i.e. uncertain] number who need not be large (e.g. the people of micro States) but must be more than a mere association of individuals within a State; 3. The group as a whole must have the will to be identified as a people or the consciousness of being a people--allowing that groups or some members of such groups, though sharing the foregoing characteristics, may not have the will or consciousness; and 4. Possibly the group must have institutions or other means of expressing its common characteristics and will for identity.[16]

If “nation” is construed in this way as a cluster concept, it may seem more reasonable to talk of national self-determination, since it no longer implies a promise of a separate state for each language group. But why not simply say instead that in adjusting state boundaries, and in framing internal institutions, all these things should be considered—history, geography, language, religion, sentiment, etc., etc.? When nationality was defined by shared language, national self-determination meant something distinctive, but impracticable. Now national self-determination seems more practicable, but it is no longer based on a distinctive principle. Why is it nations, in what is now a vague sense, that have the right of self-determination?

If you cannot invoke a right, you may nevertheless have a good case: rights are not the only possible basis of political reasoning. An alternative is what I would call a “good government” approach, in which reasoning is based on what is good or better, in terms of values such as friendliness, fraternity, usefulness, efficiency, fairness, etc.—whatever is relevant to the good life of a political community. Such considerations do not have as high a priority as rights (rights are “trumps”), but reasoning on such a basis can be cogent all the same—certainly more cogent than rights reasoning where the right itself, or the identity of the right-holder (which is the “self” with a right to self-determination?), is contentious. Often there will be good reason to adjust boundaries or institutions in view of language, religion, culture, etc., even if we do not acknowledge any right to national self-determination.[17]
[several pages on the idea of "a right to be governed"]

Importance of the right to be governed

As far as I know, no medieval or early modern writer suggested that a people or nation, in the sense of an ethnic group, has a right of self-determination. The difference between these two approaches—that is, between the alleged right of self-determination and the right to be well governed—is especially relevant to one contemporary conflict that is especially bitter, especially damaging to international harmony, especially dangerous to the peace of the world, namely the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. You may have heard the remark attributed to the Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir, “There are no Palestinians”. I understand that she did not say exactly that. She said: “There is no Palestinian people. There are Palestinian refugees”.[37] “There is no Palestinian people”, i.e. there is no Palestinian people or nation in the sense of the article of the International Covenant, “All peoples have the right of self-determination.” That the Palestinians are not a people is an argument sometimes used by Jews to reject the claim that the Palestinians are being denied their right to self-determination. Sometimes the reply is given that the shared experience of dispossession has made the Palestinians a people (which would be an application of Mill’s criterion, “collective pride and humiliation, pleasure and regret, connected with the same incidents in the past”). Jews on the other hand claim that there has been a Jewish people since Abraham. But some on the other side of this conflict question that. For example, in the recent book by Ghadi Karmi, Married to Another Man, there is a review of objections to the view that the Jews are a nation.[38] Some claim that modern Jews are largely descended from people who were converted to Judaism, who were not born Jews; this is meant to undermine their claim to be a nation. To rebut such objections genetic studies have been undertaken to determine whether Jews have a common descent.[39]

From the point of view of the right to live under government, as expressed by Ockham, controversy of that kind is utterly pointless. It simply does not matter whether the Palestinians, or the Jews, are a people or nation as defined by descent, religion, language or culture, or even common experience. If the people on our imaginary desert island—Chinese, Arabs, Portuguese, Dutch, etc.—would have a right to establish a law and a government, then the set of people who live in Palestine have a right to be governed, i.e. by a government that furthers their common good, a government responsive to their needs and concerns.

It seems to me that the idea of national self-determination, though by now well-established in international law, remains unclear and its foundation remains uncertain. There is no way of determining which group counts as a nation, states have always included diverse ethnic groups and this will be increasingly true in the future, there is no good philosophical reason why each ethnic group should have a separate state. For modern states, the norm ought to be multiculturalism, i.e. the acknowledgement that every state will normally contain a plurality of cultures and that no one of these groups should claim a privileged place.[40] From time to time there will be conflicts that can or should be resolved by re-drawing state boundaries closer to cultural boundaries, but the intellectual resources of the medieval and early modern tradition of political thought (the “good government” approach) are quite adequate to the analysis of such conflicts, without appeal to a right of national self-determination. The idea that each state should represent the self-determination of some nation overlooks ethnically mixed populations, it leaves out not only my imaginary island but also Palestine and no doubt other territories that need a government to control discord. The medieval idea expressed by Ockham, and by early modern writers such as Locke, that every population finding  itself without a government that serves  its well-being  has a natural right to establish such a government, i.e. that there is a "human right" to be well governed, should be revived.

Return to