The Enlightenment and its Romantic aftermath gave birth to two doctrines distinguished only by the letter s. footnote＊ The first was that people had the right to self-determination; the second was that peoples had such a right. The former belief is the keystone of modern democracy, and indeed of socialism; the second is a piece of romantic mystification, a fact which has not prevented a good many on the political Left from endorsing it. Nor has its philosophical basis been much examined in the standard literature on nationalism.
There is nothing in the fact of being Irish or Tibetan which entails that you have a right to political self-determination precisely as Irish or Tibetan, other than that to be Irish or Tibetan is to be human, and so to enjoy a right to self-determination on those grounds. The Irish qua Irish have no more title to collective self-determination than have the freckled, red-haired or bow-legged. Golfers and grocers have not so far demanded their own political state, and the Cornish qua Cornish would have about as much natural title to it as them.
One can understand well enough, however, how the two propositions could become confused. For the fact is that people have to be able to determine their own political destinies where they find themselves, and where they find themselves is very commonly as members of some ‘people’ or ethnic group. Freedom for the Macedonians as human beings would thus seem to come down in practice to freedom for the Macedonians as Macedonians, with what some would regard as a bit of excess metaphysical baggage tied to its tail. Because the globe has been largely carved up into nations, the claims to self-government of colonized peoples tend usually to be framed in ethnic or nationalist terms, and thus, in some sense, cast in the mould of their oppressors. There is this much truth in the claim that nationalism is just a kind of inverted colonialism. If you have been to some extent constituted as a ‘people’ by colonial power itself, or if you already had a strong ethnic or national identity before the colonialists came along, these will almost certainly provide the essential but misleading terms in which you will find yourself having to articulate your universal human right to self-determination. In the well-populated history of Irish nationalism, only the late eighteenth-century United Irishmen, heirs of the radical Enlightenment, cast their anti-colonialism in largely non-nationalist and certainly non-ethnic terms. Anti-colonial demands—the drive to replace a power
Besides, if you have to win your freedom from a foreign power in the name of some less disablingly abstract alternative than universal rights, then ethnicity, or indigenous nationhood, would seem modes of resistance readily, even naturally, to hand, and ones with extraordinary political force. Universalist notions of autonomy and self-determination seem to cry out for some concrete instantiation if they are to mean very much, and nationhood or ethnicity, in all their rich specificity, would seem admirable candidates for this role. Hence the shift from Enlightenment self-emancipation to romantic nationalism, which in Ireland took the form of a transition from the United Irishmen to the Young Irelanders.