Friday, January 30, 2009

Lord Acton

With an article published in 1862 in The Home and Foreign Review, the great historian Lord Acton became one of the first thinkers, if not the first, to publically attack nationalism. He did so from a universalist Enlightenment point-of-view; Acton saw the 'nation-state' as residue from the French Revolution ''a variant on the 'modern' tendency to found the state on abstract, speculative, monistic ideas.'' Acton felt that intelligent men had always sought to remove abuses in the conception of an ideal society. This usually happens via religion. The French Revolution, however, ''taught the people to regard their wishes as the sole criterion of rights.'' In such a situation, ''only the attraction of an abstract idea or an ideal state'' can unite people. Three main theories had thus arisen: equality, communism, and nationality; attacking the aristocracy, the middle class, and sovereignty; their prophets, respectively, were Rousseau, Babeuf, and Mazzini.

Acton explains that, in the Old Regime, the rights of nationalities were not considered. But the vicious partition of Poland by the absolutist powers awakened the theory of nationality. The French Revolution was founded on an ideal of the state of nature; not nationality. But in Latin countries, Acton believes that revolution always involves throwing off a foreign power- feudalism was always an import in France. The Revolution meant the elimination of intermediate powers. But it contained the germ of the national idea. Men like Stein and Görres, Humboldt, Müller, and de Maistre would sew the seeds for insistence on national rights. Nationality then suffered its greatest blow at the Congress of Vienna. Metternich's Austria tried to suppress it; meanwhile, it sprung up in Ireland, Greece, Belgium, and Poland. Metternich is important because of the ''anti-national character of the restoration in Austria''.

''Exile is the nursery of nationality, as oppression is the school of liberalism...'' Mazzini's revolution made the Austrians stronger, and more hated, in Italy. The Revolutions of 1848 also meant the triumph of the democratic principle in France. Nationality now animates revolutions. The collective will of the nation becomes tyrannical. Whenever a single definite object becomes the supreme end of the State, it inevitably becomes absolute. Therefore, diversity in the State is a sure barrier against the intrusion of government beyond the political sphere. Moreover, Acton writes, ''The combination of different nations in one State is as necessary a condition of civilized life as the combination of men in society.''

Then there is the ''moral and political country'' that Acton points out is often distinct from the geographical nation, and sometimes collides with it. Nationalities realize their political capacity by uniting in a political nation, and the state recognizes political liberty by recognizing nationality. But making one race commensurate with the State makes all other groups inferior races, without political rights. Subject races are exterminated, outlawed, reduced to servitude, or put in a position of dependence.

Besides, the theory of nationality is a chimera- its goals are impossible to obtain. It marks the logical end- the exhaustion- of revolutionary doctrine. It doesn't aim at liberty or prosperity. It doesn't even allow for change. Its only real value is in putting an end to the absolute monarchy and to the revolution.

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