The Two Faces of Nationalism

Nationalism is a doctrine based on the exaltation of the idea of fatherland or nation, and a political movement of individuals who are aware of constituting a national community by virtue of the factors, whether of the cultural or the linguistic order, which bind them.

Although everyone more or less accepts this minimal definition of nationalism, nevertheless, nationalism has still assumed various forms in different times and places, which turn out to be difficult to classify. Basically, « such categories are not mutually exclusive and many nationalist movements combine some or all of [the] elements [which characterise nationalism] to varying degrees. » In general, their classification is based on the distinction between the liberal-democratic nationalism which asserted itself in Europe during the first half of the nineteenth century, and the nationalism of the second half of that century. The former conceived the nation as a community coexisting on the basis of peace and equality with other nations (this view is typical, for example, of Mazzini), whereas the latter, linked to the reaction against parliamentary democracy and against democratic and liberal ideology in general, promoted a national identity and culture and implied a belief in the superiority of one nation over others.

The French revolution is universally considered to have been a turning point in the affirmation of the idea of the nation as a political and cultural unity, no longer based on the power of the monarch, but on popular sovereignty, and thus, no longer on the fidelity to a dynasty, a ruling house, we would even say to a blood, and on local and regional loyalties, but to the country conceived of in the abstract. With the declarations of ‘human rights’ and the rights of the citizen, the nation was invested with a political power, in which sovereignty, once possessed by the king, passed to the people as sovereignty of the nation. The idea of the nation thus became a historical force able to mobilise millions of Frenchmen for the defence of the principles of the Revolution. In this first stage, even though the fact of belonging to a specific nation was exalted and used as a factor of cohesion for the people, nationalism had a patriotic and cosmopolitan character and was conceived of as an affirmation of popular sovereignty in a missionary context of solidarity and fraternity between peoples. This ‘civic nationalism’ is often seen as originating in Rousseau’s theory of the social contract, and, more generally, in the liberal and rationalist thought of the late eighteenth century. Liberal nationalism (Burke, Guizot, Cavour), which focused on national sovereignty in a context of guaranteed individual, political and economic liberties, and economic nationalism, based on the concept of national economic self-sufficiency, whether along liberal lines (Renan, Mills) or protectionist lines (List), can be considered to a certain extent as its offspring. A form of economic nationalism is found nowadays in some Far-Eastern countries, whether capitalist or communist : it is centred on the feeling of vanity caused by the economic success of the country, exalted as a huge company. Lately, political theoreticians have upheld the contradictory idea of a non-xenophobic form of nationalism compatible with the democratic and liberal values of freedom, tolerance, equality, and individual rights.

In Italy, nationalism appeared first as an elitist movement, in which the figure of Gabriele D’Annunzio stood out, before passing onto a more specifically political phase, linked to the name of Corradini, with a program which aimed at the strengthening of State authority as a remedy against political particularism, and at war for the affirmation of Italian prestige. This movement merged with Fascism in 1923. This form of nationalism, often called ‘State nationalism’, « is very often combined with ethnic nationalism. It implies that the nation is a community of those who contribute to the maintenance and strength of the state, and that the individual exists to contribute to this goal. Italian fascism is the best example, epitomised in this slogan of Mussolini : « Tutto nello Stato, niente al di fuori dello Stato, nulla contro lo Stato » (« Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State ») ». In 1930’s Portugal and Germany, nationalism played a fundamental part in the formulation of the ideologies of, respectively, Salazarism and National-Socialism, tinged, here, with pan-Germanism, militarism, and racism.

Julius Evola summarised this distinction between liberal-democratic nationalism and reactionary nationalism, which may be called, respectively, catagogic nationalism and anagogic nationalism. His criteria, however, were neither civic, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, religious or ideological. His criteria were of the spiritual and traditional order. (*)


It is a statement of fact that the World War, rather than having exhausted the process of actualisation of European and extra-European nationalism, has brought this process to a critical phase. An analysis intended to clarify the meaning of this fact is therefore imperative today.

What is the meaning of nationalism in the context of the philosophy of culture? This is the question we wish to pose, and to answer along the following lines : nationalism admits two ideally distinct and antithetical possibilities, although, in practice, they often appear in combination. One contains elements of degeneration and regression, the other leads instead to superior values – it is a prelude of revival.

Let us see how this sort of approach, which, even in summary terms, appears rich in consequences, can be made more intelligible.

A phenomenon like nationalism cannot be understood without being put into the framework of a comprehensive view of history which is itself based on solid criteria of values.

Now, to this view, what appears as a definite given is the progressive fall of political power from each of the planes which, in ancient civilisations, marked the qualitative differentiation of human possibilities, to the next lower. This process extends from the earliest ‘historical’ times to our days, and has special implications for Western political history (1).

It is well known that ancient tradition sees an analogy between the political organism and the human organism. In any superior form of corporeal organisation, there is a hierarchical connection of four distinct functions : at the inferior limit, there are undifferentiated energies of pure vitality ; but the functions of trade and of general organic economy rule over them ; and these, in their turn, find in will what moves and directs the whole body in space. Finally, at the top, there is a power of intellect and freedom, which functions as the centre and light of the whole organism.

There are traditions according to which the great body of the State requires a division and hierarchisation of strictly corresponding classes and castes, producing almost spiritualised bodies, not creatures of necessity and temporal contingency. Corresponding to vitality, organic economy, will and spirit, there were the four distinct classes of the slaves (workers), of the merchants, of the Warriors, and finally of the bearers of a simultaneously royal and priestly authority. Each caste was constituted hierarchically above the other : the masses were under the control and government of the experts in commerce and the use of natural and economical resources ; these were under the authority of warlike aristocracies, which in their turn were organised around those who, by their achievement and dominating stature, testified in a way to something in man which goes beyond him.

The ancient East (India) and Far East had social organisations of this sort, which ancient Greece and ancient Rome somewhat resembled, and which resurfaced in the political doctrines of Plato and Aristotle, and finally experienced a social revival in the Catholic-feudal Middle Ages.

It is important to point out that this kind of organisation implied qualitative hierarchy, and marked the actualisation of superior forms of interest and of individuality. In the ancient East, the two superior castes were called ‘reborn’, a term which implied that they constituted a spiritual élite, and that the Warrior and the Aristocrat had a ‘sacred’ rather than just a ‘political’ significance. All hierarchy based merely on economy, work, industry and collective administration was confined to the two inferior castes, the equivalent solely of the physical-vital part of the human organism.

In this way, the hierarchy of the four castes represented sensitively the progressive degrees of elevation of the individuality, through adherence to forms of activity superior to those characteristic of day-to-day life. With respect to the anonymity of the mass, to mere everyday life, the organisers of work and wealth – the third caste – to some extent represented the outline of a type, of a ‘person’. But, in the heroism of the Warrior and in the ethos of the Aristocrat – the second caste – the form of something ‘more than life’, of a being who gives himself a law surpassing natural, instinctive, collective and utilitarian law, could be more clearly perceived. If, finally, in the primordial notion of the Leader, Ascetic, King and Pontiff joined in one being, this designated a universal and almost supernatural accomplishment of personality, the entire expression of what, in the common man, does not have the strength to free itself from contingency and achieve its own selfhood. To the extent that such rulers, achieved individuals, acted as axes of the whole social organism, this organism was like a body led by spirit, temporal power and spiritual authority coincided, and hierarchy was legitimate, in the absolute sense of the word.

Once this scheme – which, as an ideal and basis of value, is independent of the forms and extents to which any society of the past may have realised it – is borne in mind, the process of progressive ‘fall’ of power in historical times becomes rawly obvious. The era of ‘Sacred Kings’ – of simultaneously imperial and priestly natures – is perceived at the threshold of ‘mythical’ times. This peak disappears, and power is transferred to the immediately inferior degree – to the caste of the Warriors, monarchs of the secular type, military captains or lords of temporal justice.

In the second stage, great European monarchies fall, aristocracies decline – through revolutions (as in England and France) and the development of constitutionalism they become powerless vestiges as far as concerns the ‘will of the Nation’. Within parliamentarian, republican and bourgeois democracies, the formation of capitalist oligarchies consequently expresses the fatal passage of political power from the second to the modern equivalent of the third caste – the caste of the merchants.

Finally, the crisis of bourgeois society, the proletarian revolt, the despotism of the masses, as purely collective, economical and international entities, foreshadows to us the final collapse, in which power will pass to the last caste of all – that of the nameless and faceless ones, with the consequent reduction of all criteria of life to the plane of matter and number.

This is like the case of a person who, no longer able to bear the tension of spirit, and then unable to bear even that of will – the force which moves the body – collapses altogether, to reappear as an almost soulless, hypnotised body under the control of another force, which emerges from the depths of mere bodily impulse.

It is time to recognise the illusion of all the myths of ‘progress’ and to open our eyes to reality. It is time to recognise the dire destiny of spiritual destruction which has come to bear upon the West, the ultimate fruits of which are ripening today.

For the purposes of our specific problem, it is necessary to stress that, at the centre of the involutionary process which has just been described, there is a shift from the individual to the collective, which is closely related to the reduction of the interests from which the superior castes drew their legitimate hierarchical authority to the interests peculiar to the inferior castes.

It is only by adhering to his freedom of action that man can be true to himself. The pure action (heroism) and pure knowledge (contemplation, ascesis) of the two superior castes, supported by an aristocratic regime, allowed man to participate in the ‘supernatural’ order, which is the only way in which he can belong to himself and grasp the full and universal sense of personality. When all interest in that order is destroyed, and practical and utilitarian purposes, economic achievements, and the rest of the interests of the two inferior castes are focused on, man disintegrates, moves off-centre, and opens himself up to stronger forces which drag him from himself and return him to the irrational and pre-personal energies of collective life, above which any truly superior culture would have endeavoured to raise itself.

Thus, in the social forms of recent times, the collective becomes more and more over-bearing, and now it is about to bring back to life the totemism of primitive communities. Nation, race, society, humanity are elevated today to the status of mystical personalities, which demand unconditional devotion and subordination from the individuals who make them up, while, in the name of ‘freedom’, hatred is stirred up for those superior and dominating individualities in whom alone the principles of subordination and individual obedience were made sacred and justified. And this tyranny of the group does not confine itself to affirmations of a political and social character in the life of the individual : it assumes moral and spiritual rights, and, claiming that culture and spirit are no longer disinterested forms of activity or paths for the elevation of individuality, but have now become organs subordinate to the temporal collective entity, it proclaims that the morality of those who uphold that spirit has sense and value only as an instrument in the service of the body. Man, before feeling he is a personality, a Self, is required to perceive himself as member of a social group, faction or nation – this is one of the specific commandments of the ultimate subversive ideologies, and it is precisely by this means that the relation which the primitive feels himself to possess to the totem of his tribe or clan reappears.

In the reawakening of the Russian race, and in its assumption that via Sovietism it has a prophetic universal mission, we see a confirmation of this regression to primitive forms of social life, which is found in many modern variants. Those who see in the new Russia the definitive revolt of a barbaric Asiatic race, which rejects the attempts made over two centuries by the Tsars to achieve European civilisation, and attempts instead to ally itself to the forms of social decomposition of the European world, are exactly correct. Bolshevism is the institutionalisation in a modern form of the ancient spirit of the Slavic race : a race without tradition, which, in its social mysticism, in its amalgam of sensuality and spirituality, in the predominance of pathos over ethos, of instinctivity over rationality, brings us back to the forms of pre-personal lack of differentiation and communist promiscuity characteristic of primitives.

The great upheaval of the War has restored this element to its free state, and has made it into a dreadful ferment of decomposition for the still healthy parts of Europe. ‘Soviet civilisation’, when announcing the coming of the ‘proletarian era’, dedicates itself openly to the destruction of the ‘leprosy’ of personality and freedom, « venoms of middle-class society », principles of every evil ; to the abolition, in addition, of private property, of all independent thought, and of every « motive which is supernatural, or, in any sense, foreign to the interests of the [working] class » (Lenin) ; to the advent of the « omnipotent mass-man », who alone must survive and give shape to the way of life and thought of all individuals. The modern side of Bolshevism is only in the ‘method’ : mechanisation and rationalisation are the means chosen to realise, in a universal social regime based solely on economics, the ‘Mass Man’, who already lived mystically in the Slavic soul. And, thus, Soviet civilisation converges in aim – consciously – with another race, which also falsely claims a regenerating universal mission and presumes to represent the last word of civilisation : America.

In America, the process, rather than expressing the vigour of a people which has remained in the pre-civilised state, follows an inflexible determinism according to which man, as he closes his mind to all forms of spirituality and gives himself over to the will of temporal things, ceases by this very act to belong to himself, and becomes a subordinate part of an irrational collective authority which he can no longer control. America, by the sanctification of the temporal and the secularisation of the sacred started by the Protestant heresy, has arrived at this exact point. By carrying through with thoroughness the ideal of the materialistic conquest of the world which Europe had first proposed, it has ended up – almost without realising it – with the materialisation in practice of every sense of power, sanity, activity and personality, thus building an even more dreadful form of barbarism. Here asceticism is considered a waste of time, and the ascetic an anachronistic parasite ‘useless to society’ ; the Warrior is considered a dangerous fanatic, whom opportune humanitarian-pacifist prophylaxes should eliminate, and replace, perhaps, with the boxer. The perfect type, the spiritual champion, is instead the ‘man who works, who produces’, and every form of activity, even spiritual, is assessed only in terms of ‘work’, ‘productive work’, ‘social service’ : nothing could show more typically that at the top of such a society is precisely the representative type of the last of the ancient classes, that of the slaves who work. Once again, since he has renounced his spiritual personality, man ceases to have any value other than that imposed by the collective organisation, overcome by the fever of producing, of ‘realising’, of ‘moving about’ : conditions which, moreover, usurp all moral and even religious values, and tend to standardise the souls themselves into a collective, levelled, forma mentis, and even smother the capacity to sense the level of degeneracy to which the whole thing adds up.

These are the forms by means of which the cycle closes, and the fall is completed. Russia and America are two indicators and two converging faces of the same thing. From a human organism, as it was when it was led by the light and by the authority of superior castes, the body regresses to the type of a sub-human acephalous organism. Coming of the faceless animal (2).

And now we have all the elements to tackle seriously the question : what is the meaning of nationalism in the modern world?

One type of nationalism can already be clearly discerned from what has been said : it is the degree immediately preceding the international forms of economic-proletarian collectivism.

In this nationalism, what is really important is not the exaltation of one particular national consciousness over others, but the fact that ‘the nation’ becomes a person, an entity, as such, and the incapacity to go beyond the law of blood and soil, which concerns only the natural and infra-intellectual aspect of man, the inability of the individual to increase his standing except in terms of a given collectivity and tradition, are raised to ethical values. The mere fact of being ‘national’, here, confers a true mystical aureole on everything, which protects its inviolability and compels respect towards it. This infra-intellectual ethnic element not only does not grant any authority to superior principles, but reduces such principles to its service : ‘nation’ demands the first tribute – it is only subsequently, and in a subordinate manner, that there is room for reality, truth and spirit. Furthermore, in certain forms of nationalism, a further step is made : any disinterested and objective criterion is regarded as a mere abstraction, and it is claimed that, for reality, truth, and culture, as well, national tradition and political interest cannot be left aside : thus they start to speak in favour of our scientific, philosophical, and, even, religious tradition (3), and an unfavourable presumption of valuelessness, or, at least, a suspicious indifference, is expressed against all which is not ‘ours’ and does not ‘enhance the nation’.

Just as they will not tolerate the free manifestation of superior activity, which might create a reality superior to that which is conditioned ethnically, so, in the context of such a nationalism, there is respect for the superior personality only insofar as it is ‘representative’ of the nation. Having come to birth within the revolutions which overwhelmed what was left of the aristocratic-feudal régimes, this nationalism thus expresses a pure ‘mob spirit’ – it is a variety of the democratic intolerance for any leader who is not a mere organ of ‘the popular will’, completely subordinate to the sanction of the latter. Thus, it is easy to see that, between nationalism and Soviet-style or American-style anonymity, basically there is only a difference of degree : in the first, the individual is dissolved back into his ethnic-national roots, in the second the differentiation peculiar to these ethnic roots is overstepped, and a larger collectivisation and disintegration in the mass element occurs. To go from one degree to the other, the mysticism of race has to give way to a structure of the purely economic-mechanical type. In such a structure, owing to its impersonal nature, the last residues of qualitative difference are in fact rooted out, and, with the rationalisation and mechanisation of social life, the path for the advent of the ‘Mass Man’, without fatherland, is virtually open. Now, given that civilisation today is precisely on the plane of economic-mechanical power, and that all criteria of value and greatness are more or less directly reduced to this plane, perhaps shiftings of this type will be only a matter of time.

One may ask : can nationalism also take on another meaning? We think that an affirmative answer can be given to this question. We have said that nationalism appears as a transitional form, accompanying the passing of political rule to the hands of the third caste, but before the rule of the last caste. Now, this allows it to have a double meaning, because, if this transitional form can occur on the downward path, it can also be met in the direction of a putting to rights, of a potential restoration. Assuming that the bottom has been reached, anyone who finds the strength to rise will again encounter nationalism – but another nationalism! Like ‘vectors’ in physics, the definition of this phenomenon must include the factor of direction.

In the first nationalism, the direction is towards collectivisation, realised in the degree of ‘nation’ – in the second, it proceeds instead from collectivism towards the construction of a new aristocratic hierarchy.

To express the premises of this second nationalism, the words of Paul Lagarde, the well-known known representative of German nationalism (4), fit perfectly : to be ‘human’ is less than to be ‘national’, and to be ‘national’ is less than to be ‘personal’ – in other words : to the quality ‘humanity’, the element of difference ‘national’ adds an extra value, X, and the element of individual personality adds to this X a further extra value, Y. We observe therefore the idea of a hierarchy, which from the abstract goes towards the concrete, and the abstract is the collective, the general ; the concrete is the difference, the individual. With respect to the amorphous mass ‘humanity’, the reviving of national consciousnesses can therefore constitute a first step upward : but national consciousness, the ethnic trunk, should represent in its turn mere formless matter compared to the individuals who, by accomplishing themselves, by becoming themselves, by developing into forms of life superior to those which are simply conditioned either by blood or by collective needs, lead it from the state of chaos to that of cosmos, from potentiality to actuality. Thus relations change : the nation is no longer the purpose of the individual, but, rather, the individual, as aristocratic and spiritual personality, is the purpose of the nation, even though the latter remains, as it were, its mother ; just as, in a sense, the soil represents the material condition with respect to a tree, which nevertheless frees itself from it in its upper parts and rises towards the free heights.

This is the fundamental nature of the difference. To explain it definitively, it is necessary to recall the qualitative sense of the ancient hierarchy of the castes. A nationalism which is the prelude of revival – not the onset, but the over-coming, of the mechanical-collectivist state – is only possible if the fundamental requirement is met, of restoring an order of values which is irreducible to the practical, ‘social’, and economic, and this order of values receives supremacy and direct authority over all the rest. Otherwise, there is no hierarchy, and, without hierarchy, the return to a superior, spiritualised type of State is not possible. In fact, hierarchy does not mean simply subordination, but means subordination of what has an inferior nature to what has a superior nature, and whatever can be measured in practical, self-interested, mundane terms is inferior ; what is superior is what expresses a pure and disinterested form of activity. Every other criterion is illusory or corrupting. All hierarchy thought in the context of mere economics, and thus on the basis of differences of money, of political or bureaucratic rank, of class in the Marxist sense, and so on, is illusory. It is only in the light of interests superior to the entire economic plane that the principle of a true hierarchy can be born : it is necessary to work on the basis of the idea that we do not live to develop an economy, but that the economy is means to an end, and this end is inner elevation, the display of the personality in the full and ‘supramundane’ sense. Hierarchy is thus an absolute ‘perversion’ when it expresses the subservience of what is not practical to what is practical, and the spirit becomes an organ of the body – and, unfortunately, with the ‘pragmatism’ ruling on all planes, even on that of science, with plain machiavellianism and general social climbing, this occurs today in the vast majority of cases. Nothing can be more anti-hierarchical, or rather more anarchist, than such fictitious types of hierarchies.

For a restorative nationalism, the problem is therefore as follows : first of all, to shape and organise all that corresponds in the social whole to the bodily, vital, or animal part of a human organism, and that was the domain of the two inferior classes – work, economy, political organisation in the strict sense – and to bring about an ‘economic peace’ which, ‘depressurising’ the society, will allow energies of the superior type to free themselves and to act on a higher plane. Then, work for the reconstruction of the second caste, that is, that of the warlike aristocracy, can begin, with the first of the aristocrats, the Monarch. It is in immediate aristocracy that the ideal of the superior formation of the personality can be fulfilled. Let us not look at the corrupt and degenerate stumps, against which easy demagogic criticism is usually exercised : let us look at the original type of the Lord, a being in which self-command, keenness, unselfishness, culture, honour, loyalty, and above all the qualities of leadership, have become a conquest consolidated on the reliable basis of the blood itself. Aristocracy is the necessary extension of positive nationalism, because if nationalism outlines the boundaries of a blood, an ethnic trunk, aristocracy operates a selection and a further differentiation within these boundaries, carrying the process from the general to a higher degree, from the collective toward the individual, which is the sense of all true progress.

Once the reconstruction of the aristocratic tradition is achieved, the first glimmer of spirit will have been infused into the body of the State, and nationalism, once it has carried out its task, will be able to give rise to higher forms, corresponding to the types of States which were ruled by the second caste. This will be characterised by an absolute personalisation of all relations, by the change from the mechanical to the organic, from constraint to freedom. For example, in other times, there were no soldiers, but warriors, and people did not fight for ‘nation’, or for ‘right’, but for their King ; they did not ‘obey’ ‘social law’, but they were ‘faithful’ to their Lord. The one who submitted knew to whom he submitted, and he did so almost with pride. Responsibility was directly assumed by Leaders, by Monarchs, and not shuffled off onto faceless entities and ideological fetishes. Authority derived from greatness of personality, and from the capacity to devote oneself to what no longer belongs to ‘life’, but already to what is ‘more than life’, and could neither be bought, nor sold, nor measured in terms of what is ‘useful’.

This in turn will be the basis for a State of an even higher form, too distant for it to be appropriate to even sketch here. Nevertheless, it should be pointed out that, just as a plurality of men are able to remain free and distinct as bodies, but to be united in a single idea, so, when the élites of the various stocks have managed to put themselves on a plane of true spiritual superiority, the road will be open toward a new universal culture. This does not mean ‘internationalism’, and even less, levelling humanitarianism, both creatures of a materialist mentality ; the States are real and politically distinct at the level of bodies, and we do not propose a unity of bodies, but rather a unity of culture, a genuinely supra-individual conjunction. The Catholic Middle Ages, as well as the Roman Empire and India, show us examples of this universality : they show us the possibility of a deep unity of culture and spirit within an often struggling plurality of States or ethnically distinct races. If it is appropriate to speak of a future European consciousness, it is only in this sense.

But this already goes beyond the task which we set ourselves, to outline the two contrary meanings of nationalism. We think we have made these meanings sufficiently clear. To examine the degrees to which the varieties of nationalism currently present and struggling in the various States conform to the spirits of the respective nations, is a problem of empirical character, which goes completely beyond our analysis.

Julius EVOLA

(*) This essay was published in ‘La Vita Italiana’, March 1931.

(1) The idea of the regression of the castes was first expressed in our ‘Imperialismo pagano’ (Roma-Todi, 1928) ; we have found it again, described in greater detail, in the ideas of V. Vezzani, which, however, have not received a final written formulation yet. Finally, R. Guénon has expressed it in a systematic form in ‘Autorité spirituelle et pouvoir temporel’ (Paris, 1929)

(2) This is the main theme of the essay ‘Americanismo e bolscevismo’, in ‘Nuova Antologia’, May/June 1929, which will become the conclusion of ‘Revolt against the Modern World’

(3) When, as here, we speak of tradition in a negative sense, we mean to refer to that concept of it which does not imply any truly intellectual, and thus supra-ethnic, element, and which, as Chesterton puts it, represents an extension in time of what, in the present moment, is called the will of the majority – the right of the dead on the living, based on the mere fact of being the dead of the same race.

(4) P. de Lagarde, ‘Deutsche Schriften’, vol. I, p. 164.