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.

There may be certain extreme conditions—the threat of genocide, for example—which justify an ethnic group having its own state, but one cannot in general judge by the extreme. We shall be looking at certain other, less extreme conditions later. You may belong to a political community which is more or less coterminous with a particular ethnic group, but your community’s right to self-determination is a political matter, not one inherent in your ethnicity. An ethnic Scot is not unquestionably entitled to participate in some future self-determining Scotland if she has taken up permanent residence in Tasmania. People have a right to affirm their ethnic identities; but there is no reason in principle to suppose that they need to fashion their own political state in order to do so. In any case, a right to free cultural self-expression itself presupposes a prior commitment to certain universal values of justice, equality, autonomy and the like, if it is to be enjoyed equally by all ethnic groups. And such self-expression is also constrained by the political rights of others. Pace much postmodern thought, which in this sense resembles nothing so much as a naïve romantic libertarianism, cultural self-realization is not an absolute good in itself, if, for example, a particular instance of it threatens the democratic framework which secures such rights for everyone. In these senses too, politics takes precedence over culture.

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 imposed on you from elsewhere with a popular-democratic one—will thus generally prove hard to distinguish from ethnic or nationalist claims, and this crossing of wires between politics and culture will be, on the whole, the fault of colonialist history rather than of your own myopia. That history in a sense determines the forms in which we can free ourselves from it, however much we may resent them. If my own oppression takes the form of being a sex-slave to the vice-chancellor of my university, then it is as a sex-slave that I will need to emancipate myself, which is the last way I want to define myself. My desire is not to be a liberated sex-slave; it is to be a free human being who once suffered this particular indignity, but whose freedom now consists in no longer having to work within these terms at all.

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.

If the Enlightenment demand for self-determination was too often framed in Kantian-individualist style, the problem was how to translate this atomistic autarchy into more communal terms. It is this difficulty to which Marx would eventually address himself; but in the meantime, given the fact that there was scant basis for such communality in class society, an alternative form of Gemeinschaft was within easy reach in the form of nationalism, which took Kant’s autonomous, self-determining human subject and rewrote it in terms of the nation or ethnic group. A collectivized version of the solitary modern subject could now be deployed as an alternative to the disintegrative condition of modernity itself. If Kantian autonomy includes both freedom from heteronomous forms of determination, and the positing of a unified—if noumenally inaccessible—self which could act as the source of such liberty, then it was not hard for some later German idealists to translate this into the image of the unifying, self-determining nation. The positive and negative aspects of nationalism were thus twinned at birth, inseparable parts of the same theoretical creed: on the one hand, the drive to political emancipation from an oppressive heteronomous power; on the other hand, the assumption that this process made sense only by positing as its source an ethnic essence or unifying, self-moving spirit of the nation. One of the several embarrassments of this case was that, if the people needed to be essentially undivided in order to achieve their national unity, it might follow that they had really no need of it in the first place.

What started life as a demystifying account of human rationality thus soon mutated into a species of organicist mysticism. And this mystical particularism was at once the metaphorical extension of an Enlightenment model, and a mode of resistance to its rebarbative abstraction. A world of unique nations, rather like the inner form of the aesthetic artefact, would constitute a universe of sensuous particulars, thus promising to transcend at a stroke both empty universality and blind particularity. Universal and particular consorted fluently in this sense too, that the abstract world of the political state appeared essential for the flourishing of a specific ethnic culture. If nationalism clamoured for a one-to-one hook-up between state and people, it was partly because the state was what brought a people to its finest flowering; and if the political state contained a number of distinct peoples, some of them would be bound to go under in this respect. The one nation-one state monolith was thus, ironically, in the cause of cultural diversity. But since nations, ethnicities, cultures and political states do not slot together in the real world quite as smoothly as they do in the pages of Herder or Fichte, the result of this doctrine has been a history of fissions, secessions, civil wars and ethnic conflicts, as those convinced that their status as distinctive peoples is enough to qualify them for political autonomy have fought over the same territories or engaged in internecine border disputes.