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Lord Acton and the two types of nationalism

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Kai Weiss, Research Fellow at the Austrian Economics Center, has a new essay on Law and Liberty exploring Lord Acton’s thoughts on nationalism:

A little-known 1862 work called Nationality by Lord Acton can perhaps shed new light, too, on the topic. For Acton, there are two types of nationality: the one of 1688, the other of 1789, i.e., English or French nationalism, which “are connected in name only, and are in reality the opposite extremes of political thought.”

French nationalism arose during the French Revolution, though this version would wreak havoc for much longer in Europe and still, some would argue, does to this day. Acton’s main issue with this type of nationality is its utopian and idealist character, by elevating one’s imaginary construct of the nation above anything else.

As all readers of Edmund Burke know (and Acton was certainly among them), the revolutionaries of 1789 broke not only with the ancien regime but with any tradition, with any notion of a history of France, that had existed before. Instead, a fully new concept would have to be implemented, though this “was no longer France, but some unknown country to which the nation was transported.” As “every effaceable trace and relic of national history was carefully wiped away, … France was no longer bounded by the limits she had received from the condemned influence of her history.” A vision of French greatness in which this nation was to be more glorious than anything else was to be made a reality. On the path to this French greatness, the centralized power had the legitimacy to get rid of everything that stood in its way.

Kai’s entire essay is well worth reading. Lord Acton’s essay ‘Nationality’ also explores other threats to liberty in the 19th century including radical egalitarianism and socialism. All three are still with us and Lord Acton’s analysis is still both timely and necessary. ‘Nationality’ is included in the anthology Lord Acton: Historical and Moral Essays available through the Acton Bookshop.

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Dan Hugger Dan Hugger is Librarian and Research Associate at the Acton Institute.

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