One almost wishes it could be true. Listening to the catty chorus of disapproval that Prospect editor David Goodhart’s call for a progressive nationalism has drawn makes it sound positively attractive. The charge of ‘rootless cosmopolitanism’ has always been suspect, since Joseph Stalin first coined it as a coded attack on the remaining Jewish members of the Soviet nomenklatura. But in this case, Goodhart’s critics are precisely rootless cosmopolitans. Unfortunately, Goodhart’s Demos pamphlet calling for said progressive nationalism only expresses the isolation that the cosmopolitans feel from the rest of society, without really explaining how it could be overcome.
No issue expresses the inner confusion of the intelligentsia more clearly than their attitude to nationalism, because the question of nationalism turns on popular identification with the state. As an isolated minority, intellectuals yearn for the big inclusivity of nationalism. But at the same time they dread it – because they dread the rest of society forming up in ranks and squeezing them out of the leadership position they think they deserve.
In the early twentieth century the radical middle classes were both champions and critics of nationalism. It was the middle classes that reclaimed Britain’s pre-Conquest heritage with their pre-Raphaelite images of Merrie England; top-hatted socialist Henry Hyndman re-wrote Marx’s Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production as England for All. Even so, the same middle classes lived in fear of a popular nationalism – so much so that they convinced themselves, against all the evidence, that such a movement was emerging.
When Lord Kitchener relieved the Boers’ Siege of Mafeking (an ancient city in modern-day South Africa) the British press was full of reports of violent ‘Mafficking’ (a word invented to describe riots celebrating the relief of Mafeking). As it happened, the riots were as invented as the word, but liberal intellectuals like Beatrice Webb, John Hobson and Graham Wallas continually fretted that the masses would get carried away with the dangerous genie of nationalism (1).
For the most part, the intellectuals were projecting their own sordid chauvinism on to the working class. Nationalism had precious little appeal to ordinary people until the modern Labour Party succeeded in building a bridge between popular aspirations and the state – and even that was only achieved once working-class organisations like the trade unions and socialist parties had been thoroughly beaten in a cycle of recessions and world wars.