Nationalism as emergent nature, nationalism as reaction
This essay consists of some unfinished philosophical ramblings and some related historical interpretations. If the philosophy is too rambling, I hope at least that the history holds some interest.
Reaction has a bad name but a rather long and complex history. For the sake of brevity, as well as relevance to us, we can place an age limit on it and date it from the onset of modernity. So, for example, a reactionary’s history might commence with the aesthetic of romanticism, that emotionally freeing and humanising response to the encroachment upon nature and the transcendent of industrialisation and urbanisation, materialism, the beginnings of mass consumption, and everything that was “modern”, say, when Beethoven composed his Symphony No. 3 in E flat major Op.55, the Eroica, between August 1804 and April 1805.
No rabble but a nation in the making
However, nationalism did not begin in reaction, and for most of its existence it has not been reactionary. Its intellectual history is usually traced to the thought of Johan Gottfried Herder, who invented the word and, in acknowledging the place of the national community, was the first thinker to challenge the distinction of sovereign and subject, replacing both within a Volk who were in no wise the eponymous common rabble. Apparently, up to this time people who could think actually thought there was only their gilded selves and the civilisationally incompetent Platonic masses. Which makes one wonder what William Shakespeare was describing nearly two centuries earlier when he wrote in King Richard II, Act 2 scene 1 of “This happy breed of men, this little world”. But, then again, there were the tribunes and the commoners of The Tragedy of Coriolanus, written c. 1605:
Sicinius Velutus: Assemble presently the people hither;
... sentiments appropriate to any modern media moghul pondering democracy and his own self. But what were the sentiments and the real will of the people themselves?
In settled times, of course, European peoples (who we might, after the modern globalist practise, term “the post-tribe”) do not require a constant expression of national community. It retires to its abode in the instincts of the people and in the personnification of the sovereign. The collective will to be ... to be secure in the possession of all that is necessary for life ... makes its settlement with the world and turns to smaller things, attenuating to a will to increase and, finally, to live collectively in a way that satisfies the intellect, the senses and the heart, and leaves no collective need unmet and no wrongdoing undone. And part of that latter, it would seem, is a Heideggerian care of altruism for suffering humanity, regardless of tribe, regardless even of race.
I think this progressive retirement of ethnocentrism is particularly condign to Europeans. With us, the imperative to be does not begin (or end) in tribal competition. It begins in the struggle against climatic circumstances under which human existence is parlous at best. The audacious European response is the act of challenging Nature herself. That is what nationalists mean when they speak of the restless creativity and prometheanism of the European race.
That does not, by the way, imply some bracing movement towards a state of, say, “greatness” or “triumph”, but a return to our one state of truth, which is great enough and which is in us always and requires that the people be healthy and whole, and their identity authentic (that is, detached from artifice, from the acquired).
In other words, of herself Nature is subsistent, not purposive. She does not destin beyond her struggle to be. Notwithstanding European creativity, then, our struggle is the endless struggle of all life, and such purposivity as may enter it is always party to that. To be precise, teleology roams the space between existence and subsistence, and never goes beyond, though to the eyes of all believers it will certainly appear to.
The evolution of European history can be understood as an expansive journey, via many set-backs and tribulations, in this cause of subsistence, from the tribe to the nation, and from the raw struggle to exist to the work of increase. The whole history of Anglo-Saxon Britain after the migrations across the North German Sea to World War II fits this paradigm. It was a process of the emergence and maturation of a post-tribal national consciousnesses in each of Britain’s constituent parts. In the south - the difficult case of the three - Bede wrote his historia nostrae nationis in 730, or thereabouts. He wrote only of the Germanics like him, not the British. But it was indicative of a transformation of indigeneity. The English were becoming a people in and of the land, and had history to prove it. Their progress was punctuated by the Viking raids, Bede’s abbey at Jarrow becoming their second monastic target after Lindisfarne (attacked 793). The great Danish invasion, however, did not occur until 835, lasting until 896 when Alfred, who styled himself King of the Anglo-Saxons, finally imposed peace. Those Danes who had reason to remain settled in East Englia and the north-east. Three generations later in 973, when the whole country was unified under a single crown with the coronation of Edgar at Bath in 973, the process of English nation-building was near complete.
Are we to assume, then, that in England between, say, the death of Harold and, far away in Weimar, Herder finding nation in the rabble there was only the dismissive judgement of the aristocracy, clergy and clerisy? Well, no. After the Conquest the Norman elites were certainly dismissive towards the English, murderously so when challenged. But in 1215 the barons obtained Magna Carta, “The Great Charter of the Liberties of England, and of the Liberties of the Forest”, from King John, and forced him to inaugurate parliament. Edward I confirmed the first and reformed the second, intruducing representatives of the commoners. He also, of course, issued the Edict of Expulsion of 1290. Before the Black Death had done its work the language spoken at court was French. After it had departed in 1350 that language was English.
Central and Western Europe seethed with rebellions and uprisings in the late Middle Ages. There were many in England after the Peasants Revolt of 1381. The last one of any seriousness was Kett’s Rebellion against the rapacious elites of the day:
None of these rebellions were successful, of course. The historical dynamic, however, was irresistible. In her time, Elizabeth, anticipating Herder by two centuries, was wont to call herself “mere English”. And whereas her father Henry had declared, “We are, by the sufferance of God, king of England; and the kings of England in times past never had any superior but God” she was the first Tudor monarch to acknowledge that rule was, if not derived from popular consent, certainly reliant upon it. The will of the people (which is, and must be, the will to be) was proving more all-encompassing and constant than ever the will of the hereditary sovereign was.
Indeed, just forty-six years after Elizabeth’s passing, and one hundred and forty years before the fire-storm of radicalism which engendered revolution and regicide in France, a king of England was executed in Whitehall for the treason of making war (twice, in fact) on Parliament. On the scaffold he declared, “A subject and a sovereign are clean different things.”
A year and a half earlier, officers and men of the New Model Army, along with commoners, had gathered at a church in Putney to debate the rights of free Englishmen and the future Constitution of England. They were the very antithesis of a rabble. The enduring sentiment from the Putney Debates was put into words by Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, a Leveller, member of Parliament, and the highest ranking officer present. “For really,” he said, “I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he.”
The Putney Debates resonate strongly with liberals, and have their place in liberal historiography as a watershed for rights-based, constitutional liberty. But Rainsborough’s terminology affirms not just the nominal equality of any individual’s rights in the constitutional space called England. Beneath that lies the principle of belonging and kinship in which such recognition abides, and without which it reduces to a mere accountancy of bloodless civic units. Rainsborough’s “England” is not a neutral administrative space, nor even a space at all. It is the people itself. He is saying, “Each of our folk has the life inherent to us all, and no Englishman has other”. And this he is saying during a nine-year period at the close of which not far off 4% of the population was lost (as was Rainsborough himself, in fact, a year after he uttered those words).
Thus it is that the Leveller manifestos published from 1647-9 culminated in a document titled An Agreement Of The Free People of England, Tendered as a Peace-Offering to this distressed Nation. For sure, freedom and the care of altruism are “clean different things”, but collectivised in this way they are not ultimately irreconcilable as they appear in the liberal extrapolations of radical individualism and social justice, or in Kevin MacDonald’s hope-sapping analysis of the traits of individualism and altruism. In fact, they tend to the same good. The inchoate will to wholeness, as it appears in Rainsborough’s dictum and in the long history of the emergent ethnic facticity of the English, is care (1). The desire for freedom, meanwhile, is reactionary, and the reaction is to a debased quality of the lived life. This also evinces care.
There is a unity here, and it is valuable to nationalism. We do not have to think of freedom only as a liberal abstraction cleansed of human meaning and human relation and proffered us regardless of the pathologies which attend any attempt to concretise it.
The, as liberals see it, long journey towards a free life is not a going out but a coming back, a collective gesture in the direction of return by a people whose circumstances have ceased to provide the possibility to subsist. Freedom, especially, is our device too. As explained in slightly different terms earlier, it is wrought by the return to collective care, the will to be (which we may also call attention), and is the condition of what we are when we are ourselves. In a world in which freedom is the constantly referenced gold standard of human political values, it is high time that nationalist thought, for too long the preserve of authoritarians and fantasists, claimed it for itself.
And a brief history of nationalism so far
The political history of nationalism is dated from the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789. It was not a core principle of the revolutionary government, except in so much as it accommodated the Rousseau-esque principle of the sovereignty of the people. But it had utility as a focal point for French national identity in the bloodied absence of the monarchy. So from the beginning there was a nationalism of sorts, romantic in conception, democratic in appeal, and non-reactionary, within the liberal ouevre.
By the July Revolution of 1830 this vision of nationalism was deeply entrenched in the politics of the bourgeoisie (the class we might now term the metropolitan elite). It found expression far beyond France, particularly in high art. Thus, the callous Russian oppressor in Chopin’s Poland had the Mighty Handful, the Abramtsevo Colony and the Russian Revival back home. Chopin himself, effectively an exile, arrived in Paris in 1831. His greatest expression of Polish nationalism was his Polonaise in A-flat major, Op. 53, the Heroic, which he premiered in 1842 to the wild adulation of an audience of fellow exiled Poles.
Arthur Rubinstein playing the Heroic, which he described as the symbol of Polish glory. During the German occupation of Warsaw the performance of Chopin’s Polonaises was banned.
The ultimate act of the romantic imagination, however, was not this but the populist, wholly reactionary and radically ethnic nationalist volkisch movement, which originated in the late 19th century and was influential in both Germany and Austria. According to Adolf Hitler it might have won the power struggle of the post WW1 period, had it been a unified force and had its leaders known how to get their people on the streets.
The volkisch movement had its deepest root in the Reden an die deutsche Nation (Addresses to the German Nation) of Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Herder’s contemporary. The Reden were written during the period of French occupation and represent a turn for Fichte, which may have been temporary, from Kantian moral philosophy to (at least a proto) German ethnic nationalism. Since1945, such has been the belief among academics in the pathology of ethnic nationalism that serious study of Fichte’s nationalism has been avoided in the English-speaking world, while in France it has been conveniently assigned to the ethno-suicidal cultural variety. But the volkisch movement drew no such conclusion, and was as clear and unconstrained in its adoration of blood and race as a counter-weight to modernity as it could possibly be.
Alongside it was the conservative revolutionary movement, a grown-up, metapolitical reaction to the impoverishment of modern existence. In place of the populist fantasia of the volkisch movement it proferred a not always backward-glancing conservatism socialised in the Volksgemeinschaft (which can be either the German racial identity or the social phenomenon of the solidising unity of German peoplehood). It was a concept taken up aggressively by NSDAP and, indeed, through the Weimar period there was some correspondence between the two movements. In the end, the progressive idea proved an intolerable affront to the conservative instinct, and vice versa. Neither saw revolution in the other’s politics. By 1933 Himmler was so convinced of reaction’s toxicity, he began to persecute the movement. Its members scattered for cover, but they retained their ideological integrity. There were conservative revolutionaries among the 20 July Plotters.
The movement survived the death of romance in 1914-18 (for it, the romance of the enspiriting nature of combat) and it survived National Socialism. But liberalism has survived it. Of course, all the reaction of the 19th and 20th centuries has suffered the same depressing fate. To be sure, fascism, which was rooted in Hegel’s perfectly naive assumptions about race and Providence, and emerged on the road to Rome via the thoughts of Georges Sorel, Charles Maurras, Giovanni Gentile and his friend Benedetto Croce, remains part of the Italian body politic to this day. But to what effect is another matter. Liberalism, aided and abetted by its entwinement with modernity, given two deadly Jewish twists, and, finally, pimped as the socio-economic context for globalisation, has survived. European Man, that demi-god of creativity and adventure, is being reduced to Homo deracinatus. Our children and theirs will know a life as de-nationed and denatured cyphers interchangeable with Africans and Asians and any others you care to mention. Compliant consumers, wage slaves all, immersed in a world of endless, morally debasing entertainment without the possibility of political struggle.
As dissenters and men of ideas surveying reaction’s long and tragic history, we can’t take much pride in, or hope from, our own reaction. We are too atomised. We have been comprehensively excluded from mainstream intellectual life (a function of globalisation and Jewish hostility to European blood, and of the self-estrangement which liberalism and the modern life engender). It is costly, and constrains us from any public engagement beyond electoral politcs. We have no aesthetic, for example. We have no Chopin. The last wave of romantic nationalist composition - Edward Elgar, Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan-Williams, Ottorino Respighi - faded to silence before any possibility of the demographic horror which awaits our innocent, betrayed children was understood.
But most of all, we have no intellectual movement and no proposal. There is the European New Right, it is true. But its intellectual product is hardly more than a re-statement of what went before, in that more promising age. It is not new. It is not possessed of something that was missing previously. It does not contain the seeds of present revolution. In America there is race-realism, and the critique of Jewry. But they are not such seeds, indeed, they are not in the least politically viable. Bereft of direction, then, Anglosphere nationalists are reduced to waiting for the beast to be exhausted while we console ourselves with the desperate hope that “Worse is better”, when it’s all too likely just worse.
Meanwhile, public faith in politicians is sunk at the bottom of some ocean trench, the parties are identical, the politics identi-kit, all the really great issues of the age are removed from the discourse. Endless debt and the proximity of collapse overhang everything. Yet still, somehow, the whole production staggers on from election to election, government to government. More than that, the dynamic of liberalism has come to a hard stop against Nature itself. The project of the individual is at its limit. The semiotics of liberty have ceased to persuade, never mind inspire. There is nothing left to believe in.
In one sense, Western civilisation has been here before, in France in the Fin de siecle period of the 1880s and 1890s. Although reaction was firmly on the intellectual menu then in a way it isn’t now, there was a pessimistic, even cynical character to the public mood. The modern world of decadence, materialism, and liberal democratic values had made the bourgeois young of (in particular) Paris sick with the very depletion it engendered in them. They anticipated a vitalistic, revolutionary sweeping away, a burning out of all traces of corruption, much as the new idealists of the left agitate for today, and the heirs of Ioannis Metaxas in Golden Dawn. If one is not much of an optimist, and if there is a Spenglerian inevitability to the path of revolution, then this tells you something about where we might be now.
(1) care in that Heideggerian sense of the character of the engagement of being with life.
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