By Mario Albertini | Thirty Years Ago , Year XXXII, 1990, Number 1 - Page 83

Important conclusions can be reached if we accept that the typical character of the “nation” is not the language, nor the possession of a territory, nor tradition, nor race, by virtue of the fact that these elements are too vague (tradition), or retrospective (possession of the territory), or incomprehensible (race) or not always present (language) where there are people who feel they belong to a nation and if we also admit that the “nation” in the specific sense is an ideological fact.[1]

To begin with, a criterion can be established to judge the degree of nationalism. The national feeling – according to what we claim – is the ideological reflection of the citizen’s ties with his nation-state. Consequently, the national feeling becomes stronger and more exclusive as these ties increase in extension (number of citizens actually involved) and depth (number of human activities linked to the state). This relationship can be described more accurately as follows. When all citizens take part in national life, and a sufficient number of important human activities lie within the scope of the state, the interest of the group considered as supreme good becomes the criterion by which everybody can judge these activities (which also tie the citizen psychologically to the nation). In this case these activities are no longer judged only for their specific value – for example economic activity in exclusively economic terms – but also are valued for the services they can render to the nation, that is for their national value. And this is not all. In the case of a conflict between the specific value of a certain activity and the national value, the national value prevails (for example, companies which are not competitive but necessary for the nation’s glory or security will be maintained through protectionism). As the state increases its powers, the number of human activities to which this scale of values is applied also increases. Of course, if state powers end up by covering the most important aspects of social life, and also concern the school system, culture, religion and so on, nationalism, through the very extension of its scale of values to all these activities, ends up by becoming exclusive, levelling, totalitarian and really turns the national group into a horde, as Namier claims.[2]

In conclusion, strong nationalism causes an inversion in the scales of values which emerge spontaneously from the different human experiences, and the subordination of all these values to the national value. At this point it is important to note that this inversion in the scales of values determined by national conscience can also be observed in the action of individuals who are not aware of it, and instead in good faith believe they are abiding by the scale of values typical of their profession, of their political party, and so on. This depends on the fact that national reality in its specific character is not, as we said, a linguistic or ethnic reality and so on, but an ideological reality. National conscience is an ideological conscience and therefore, according to the old Hegelian-Marxist terminology, it involves self-mystification, considering natural, or necessary, or universal, and in any case absolutely good, what is simply historical and contingent.

Whoever believes in an ideology ignores that the representation of society contained in his ideology is a simple psychological reflection, half true and half false, of the situation of power; and has a steadfast faith in the correspondence of this representation to reality. For this reason ideological man lives in an imaginary world, or rather in a world where the concrete aspects of the actual situation are present in his mind, but in a completely distorted and idealized manner. For example, in the case of the nation, the individual possessed of an Italian national sentiment really believes (which is what he is taught at school) that the chain of the Alps, if not actually sacred and created by God to mark the borders of his country, is at least something natural, intangible, and not simply the mobile point of arrival of a certain type of social organization – the nation-state – destined, like every historical fact, to be overcome; likewise, he believes his being Italian is an ethnic-linguistic-cultural-juridical-political condition which has its natural foundation in history, and cannot be questioned, and easily changed, like the condition of being Liberal, Socialist or Conservative, because it would concern God knows what fundamental character of his personality; and he thus hides to himself that a century and a half ago this condition did not exist, just as it will certainly not exist in not too distant a future, because the economic and political evolution of mankind will impose much wider social groupings in the future than those of the past.

Because of this screen between his representation of the world and the world itself, ideological man does not exactly realize what he is doing nor the values he actually conforms to. It is due to this fact that the national value is considered supreme also by individuals who, in their open professions of faith, affirm the priority of Liberal, Social or Christian values, or any other values whatever, over the national value. Indeed a Socialist who has accepted, as normally happens, the national road to Socialism and who carries out his political action exclusively within the national framework would be surprised if one objected that in this way he has put the national value above the Social value. But the objection is true because this Socialist, if he lives in an industrialized country, engages a political struggle to improve the situation of those of his fellow-countrymen who are workers, who are now privileged people, and is not concerned, if not platonically or to the insignificant extent allowed by foreign policy, with the billion and a half people who live at or below the poverty line. Likewise the Liberal faithful to the nation sacrifices, in favour of the security or power of the state, economic and individual freedom; and the Christian, for the same reasons, even sacrifices the divine character of the human being every time he sees an enemy in a foreigner; and generally neither realizes that he is first a nationalist, then a Liberal or a Christian.

This mystification did not represent a serious danger in the 19th century mostly for two reasons: a) in the 19th century a large number of the members of nation-states did not possess a national conscience or indeed had an anti-national one,[3] and the states had fewer powers than at present. In other terms, national ties did not concern the whole population, and were not very deep; consequently the national ideology was not widespread nor deep-rooted in society, and there therefore remained a wide margin for the affirmation of the scales of values, emerging from the different human experiences, which were independent from the nation and/or in any case faced a relatively weak national value; b) not only was national integration lower, and therefore many activities took place freely within a supranational framework without any intervention on the part of the state but, insofar as this integration existed, it did not represent a factor of stagnation. Due to the degree of development of science, technology, economy and the division of work of a century ago, the dimensions of nation-states were in fact generally much larger than the optimal dimensions for economic development, for the necessary framework to have sufficient means for scientific research, and in general larger than the dimensions necessary at that time for actual and effective interdependence of human activities which were already controlled by the state. For this reason the development of these activities was not restrained either.

Instead in our time national mystification represents a grave danger. In our time the dimension of the actual interdependence of human relations, in the field of economy as in many other fields, has definitely surpassed the dimensions of the classic nation-states. But this process has been accompanied, in the state order, by the opposite process. In fact at the same time nation-states have constantly increased their powers, and therefore have constricted a large number of human activities within their now oppressive framework; and for this reason they have reinforced the creation of a national ideology in society, preventing individuals from realizing what was happening.

The nation-states really do force individuals to expend their energies at a much lower level of efficiency than the optimum in decisive areas of human action: science, economics and so on. For example, Maurice Allais has calculated that solely for the difference in the size of the market, the general productivity of work in France is half of that in America.[4] But this obstacle – the nation-state – is difficult to overcome for the very reason that it translates itself, in the conscience of the individual, into the nation; and the nation is an ideological fact which produces, in the mind of those individuals who make no effort to evade the national psychological state by breaking their ties with the national political power, the conviction that their national condition is natural and unalterable. It is evident that the citizens of small or medium-sized bordering states could, by establishing regional federations, achieve the optimum dimensions for the political and economic process, like the USA and the USSR, but this observation is made with difficulty, or it does not achieve a strength equal to its evidence, because it encounters the widespread conviction that the national condition is a kind of natural state, and not a situation produced by men and which can be modified by men.

This conviction – which, if it is not overcome, will condemn the inhabitants of small and medium-sized states to economic and spiritual decadence – represents the most serious disequilibrium factor in the contemporary world, in which the barriers maintained by the old European system, and by the limited development of science, have disappeared. The world state system, and the rapid evolution of science and technology, are unifying the world, and producing the aspiration to live at the highest level of human possibilities everywhere. This impressive urge cannot evolve in a satisfactory way if it does not, at the political level, turn into a system of large continental federations, and subsequently into a world federation. For this reason the identification of the ideological character of the nation, and the related possibility of demystifying the ideological justification of the nation-state, can in our time be at least as important as the demystification of the ideological justification of capitalism. Indeed, the results which could be obtained by politically associating men at the continental level would certainly not be inferior to those obtained during the previous century through workers’ associations, which allowed employees to have at their disposal an economic and political power to face the economic and political power of employers.

Mario Albertini

*This text was published in Il Federalista in the year 1960 (n. 3, pp. 173 ff.).

[1]Obviously the situation of power is also made up of elements such as linguistic behaviour, territory, traditions, and even race (so far as there are individuals who believe in the racial myth). But these elements are only partly autonomous (and in this case they represent the “spontaneous nationalities” which are not linked with political power, and have nothing to do with modern nations),and as for the rest they are products of the state’s activity (the language, too, especially as regards its extension to the whole national territory). In any case these elements become political facts, and in the minds of citizens they turn into the idea of “nation” only because they become part of the situation of power, and not because of the mysterious effect, not traceable historically, of a “national” origin of all human behaviour, an origin that national historians place vaguely in times when individuals had no idea they belonged to a French nation, or an Italian nation, and so on, and in which these expressions did not even exist. Concerning this, see the revised edition of the volume Lo Stato nazionale by Mario Albertini, soon to be published by Giuffré, Milan.

[2]Obviously in decentralized states, or rather in federal states, nationalism is less strong because human activities linked to political power are not regulated only by central government, but also by local governments (or powers), and thus determine different centres of reference, different loyalties, that break down the monolithic psychological bloc of centralized unitary states. This is true in particular for the school system and culture. If the government which has the powers of foreign and military policy also has responsibility for education, it ends up by using it to educate citizens in the cult of the nation, in other words of the state, through gross cultural distortions which did not, and do not, appear outrageous even to those who believe the value of culture is truth. These observations on decentralized and federal states are confirmed by the situation of the English-speaking countries, Great Britain and the USA, whose nationalism has remained rather modest despite the great incentive resulting from being, one in the past century and the other in this, the first world power. In conclusion the typical nation has as its power substrate the modern
bureaucratic state of the unitary and centralized type.

[3]In the second half of the nineteenth century, and in many cases still in the early twentieth century, the nation was a value that was questioned, and often denied, above all by the two large political groups that had difficulty in becoming part of the nation-state: the Catholics and the Socialists. Undoubtedly, when in 1847 Father Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio wrote, in the pamphlet Della Nazionalità (On Nationality), that the nation is a relative good and that in its name civil wars should not be fought; and in general when he claimed that it is not at all necessary for state and nation to coincide, he expressed opinions much closer to Christianity than those of the Catholics who became servants, in war and in peace, of the nation-state, thus placing his fellow-countryman at the top of the scale of human values, and in second position man made in the image of God, whom one must kill even if he is a Christian, even if he is a Catholic, when the state to which he belongs is at war with his own. The Socialists were even more drastic than the Catholics. They had educated their militants to feel and think in an anti-patriotic way: among the workers of fifty years ago there were many who mocked the national flag, derided their fatherland in songs with expressions such as “porcassa Italia” (“dirty Italy”), and considered any service to the state, starting from national service, as a service rendered to the ruling class, the bourgeoisie. The strong emphasis placed on the social value naturally induced the Socialists to feel solidarity not with their bourgeois fellow-countrymen, but with the proletariat all over the world, and even to consider nationalism and patriotism as tricks of the bourgeoisie, means to divide the workers, to weaken them and beat them.

[4]See Maurice Allais, Les perspectives économiques de l’unification européenne, in “Annales des Mines,” May 1959. This alone is enough to objectively decree that the French Socialist leaders (and likewise the Italian, German, etc. leaders), for the very reason that they concern themselves exclusively with the national political struggle and national planning, and do not fight for the immediate establishment of the Federation of Western continental Europe, seriously damage the workers of their countries with the only aim of keeping them French, Italian and German, in other words national.