Nationalism: an antiquated cult

Nationalism: an antiquated cult

Narisetti Innaiah


In 1938, on the eve of the Second World War, the Humanist revolutionary and philosopher M.N. Roy (1887-1955) called Nationalism an antiquated cult. A person who is born by accident in a country is taught that his birthplace is pious and holy, and that the person must be prepared to sacrifice his or her life for the motherland. In the cult of Nationalism, geography is given religious sanctity. ‘Right or wrong, my country first’ becomes the slogan. When national hysteria is whipped up, only demagogues profit, and many will seek to justify their actions in the name of patriotism. Politicians and rulers use Nationalism for perpetuating their own ends. People are fooled with all sorts of national slogans. No wonder then that Samuel Johnson (Lexicographer in England) cautioned that patriotism was the last refuge of a scoundrel!

Extreme Nationalism as seen in Nazism in Germany and Fascism in Italy were the bloodiest and most crudely capitalist phases in recent European history. They were also reactionary. While extreme nationalism led to fascism, the cult of Superman itself grew out of Fascist and Nazi philosophies. There were philosophers like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche who provided the philosophy for the cult. There were literary people like Carlyle, the British writer who justified the cult of heroes and Superman. Spiritualism added the necessary pep to the cult of the nation. Thus the cultural groundwork was laid for the triumph of these authoritarian, collectivist, irrational ideologies. Fascism and Nazism swore by nationalism, sought the people’s support and exploited their weaknesses by pandering to their prejudices. In the case of Hitler, who committed suicide in 1945, the National Socialists came to power through a democratic means of voting, showing that an entire people can be manipulated into supporting a self-destructive ideological and cultural dictatorship.

Setting aside extreme forms of Nationalism, I believe that even moderate Nationalism is not compatible with Internationalism. As long as nation states continue, it will not be possible to create a world government, something desired by many Humanists. This is because nation states defend and promote their own interests in arming themselves or guarding their own economic interests or imposing trade barriers. Often, their acts are against the interests of other nations and peoples, and at times against the interests of their own citizens. The international order is negatively affected by nations singularly pursuing their own interests. As we see all too often, this is happening in the modern world. During wars, national frenzy is rampant everywhere. People die for the sake of their country. One’s own country is placed above all else. Even children are dragged into war and abused by making them accept this ideal of sacrifice for the nation.

If the history of nations is traced, it is easy to understand that national boundaries often change and then automatically the loyalties of the people have to change as well! After each war, the boundaries of countries are redrawn–specially if the war is on an issue of territoriality. What happens to the previous nation’s piously held geography?

The history of the once-super powers which divided the world is instructive in helping us to see that national boundaries are temporary and constantly evolving.

The Soviet Union

After the communists established their mighty kingdom in Moscow in 1917, they redrew the map of many nations forcibly. Many neighboring nations were amalgamated into the Soviet Union under one red flag. Latvia, Lithuania. Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Belarus came into the Soviet fold. Again after glasnost and perestroika with Gorbachev, the communist world underwent a rearrangement and nations redrew their boundaries (1991). Chechnya wanted to be an independent nation, but Russia is still resisting.

The United States of America

Today’s America is different from what existed when the Pilgrim Fathers from Europe entered America in the sixteenth century. The conquerors of America started with thirteen union states. Much later, the United States of America emerged with fifty states. It developed a national anthem, a national flag, and of course several slogans which are inscribed on coins and notes. The USA put the nation above the individual and demanded sacrifice of the sovereign individual at the ‘altar of nationalism.’

Other Rearrangements

Marshal Tito’s Yugoslavia has totally changed since the communist ruler’s death. Serbia and Montenegro have remained as the Republic of Yugoslavia. Croatia, Slovenia, and Macedonia declared independence. Czechoslovakia broke into the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic in 1993. Prior to these events, the Great Berlin Wall crumbled and the two Germanys reunited (1990) as soon as the Soviet communist domination collapsed in East Germany. The two Vietnams have become one country (1976). Most national identities have been shaped by history and many kept in place by force. The reality is that everywhere, national boundaries are redrawn and are not permanent features, and then anthems and maps change as also national virtues! This exposes the myth of eternal nations, which is a pure creation of rulers.

The United Nations

There are 191 member nations in the United Nations organization. Each nation has its own flag, anthem, and geographical boundaries. Every nation claims greatness on many accounts, though many nations cooperate more internationally than they used to before the advent of the international institutions. East Timor became independent from Indonesia and joined the United Nations in 2002.

In the General Assembly of the United Nations, each nation is entitled to one vote. There is no greater nation or lesser nation. Population is not the basis of vote. There are sparsely populated nations and enormously populated nations like China and India. Yet all nations are treated equally. That itself is a great achievement of cosmopolitanism. The only defect in the United Nations is that it keeps the Vatican as an observer, albeit without voting power. The Vatican represents the Catholic (Christian) religion. Logic and reason fail to understand why a particular denomination is given so much importance. In fact, the Vatican is the stumbling bloc for cosmopolitanism and progressive scientific legislation, human values, and equal rights of men and women. Muslims and Buddhists also can claim representation if population is the basis to have observer status in the United Nations. Let us hope that saner elements will prevail and will delete the observer status of the Vatican in the near future.

Religion often claims to transcend nationalism. But in practice, it is not doing so. Religion uses nationalism to sustain itself. Take the example of Islam. It claims universality. What is happening? Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. He also fought with neighboring Iran for a decade. He tortured the Kurds for claiming separate identity. Where is the role of Islam in all these wars and aggressions? Pakistan and Bangla Desh fought and separated. Both are Muslim. Yet each did not accept the other. Nationalism is very much in vogue in all Islamic countries.

Religion and Nationalism

It is true that the sanctity given to a nation or a land may play some role in consolidating some forces in society, and even yield some positive results–as happened in the twentieth century when many nations rebelled and revolted against colonialism, imperialism, and foreign dominance and exploitation. However, soon after bringing political independence to the people, nationalism develops into a myth and a cult.

A typical example would be India: Historical India is quite different from the present day geographical and political entity that India is. Conquest brought vast areas of land under the rule of emperors. Under colonial British rule, India changed its geographical boundaries radically after a period of consolidation. At the time of the First World War there was no Pakistan, no Sri Lanka, no Myanmar: the whole land was India and all nationalists offered their loyalty to India. But by the time the British left India in 1947 after the Second world War, the above three nations had been carved out of India. Still later, Bangladesh emerged out of Pakistan, and all these countries now have their own nationalist rhetoric, and citizens swear loyalty to the new political entities.

Tibet is now under the ‘protection’ of China since 1959. India recognized the suzerainty of China. The Dalai Lama, the Buddhist religious leader, had to flee the country.

As in India or as in Pakistan, Nationalism uses religion as a tool and an instrument to consolidate its position. Humanists recognize that both Nationalism and religion have the same appeal. They are based on collective identities and marginalize the individual. They treat the individuals as of no consequence. They seek to mediate with a mythical entity on behalf of the people for a supposed better future for the people. While political parties are the instruments of nationalism, priests are the instruments of religion; and together they make a potent and lethal combination. As radical Humanists often point out, the freedom and sovereignty of humans was robbed by religions in earlier days and political parties in modern days. Religions did it in the name of God. Political parties are robbing in the name of delegation of power. While religion theoretically can go beyond nationalism, in practice nationalism and religion are hand in glove, because religion adapts itself to suit national needs.

After independence, extreme Hindu nationalism in India–which existed for a long time–started gaining strength and took the name and shape of Hindutva. Because Pakistan was created on the basis of Islam, many Indian extremists would like to see India as a Hindu homeland. In their minds Indian culture is equated with Hinduism. A leading ideologue and political leader from the extreme right calls for cultural nationalism, where Christians and Muslims in India are asked to adopt Hindu culture to prove their identity and national spirit. The advocates of Hindutva claim that they are democratic and that their ideas have popular support. Hindutva had its roots in pre-independence days. Vivekananda (originally Narendranath Dutt from Bengal) preached spiritual nationalism. He wanted to expand aggressive Hinduism throughout the world, which amounts to Hindu imperialism. That slogan of Vivekananda inspired some Congress Party leaders during early twentieth century.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak from Maharastra brought religion into politics by introducing the Ganesh festival into public demonstration. Anne Besant, the British citizen became the president of the Congress Party and brought theology into politics. Mohan Das Karamchand Gandhi popularized religion through his prayer meetings. He activated religious politics, which antagonized the Muslim community. Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the secular Muslim, turned into a fundamentalist and demanded a separate nation.

Subhas Chandra Bose during the Second World War played aggressive national politics. In his antagonism to British imperialism, Bose sought the help of Fascist, Nazi, and Japanese imperialism. He adopted the slogan “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” and directly approached Hitler and Japan for help to throw out the British from India. At that juncture M.N. Roy advised Subhas Bose not to play into the hands of Nazi and Fascist hands, which were much more dangerous than those of the British. Roy’s advice was not heeded and Bose became very emotional in his national frenzy. In the end M.N. Roy said that after the Second World War the British were bound to leave India, since they became weak and could no longer sustain the colonies. He was right. But Bose had no patience. He jumped into the war fray to die in Taiwan. The Japanese used Bose but did not give any freehand in the freedom fight.

Even the Communists turned a blind eye towards Nazi and Fascist dangers at the beginning. Stalin made a pact with Hitler. M.N. Roy warned of the impending danger of Hitler’s aggressive intentions. But the communists called names and turned away from M.N. Roy. In India the communists blindly supported the Hitler-Stalin pact and hailed the Soviet Union as Father of communism. Very soon they had to suffer at the hands of Hitler. International communism in the Soviet Union changed its colors and suddenly started chanting national songs. The communists abandoned the international anthem after the failure of the Stalin-Hitler pact. That was nationalism.

People migrate to other nations to better their lives, to earn, and to progress. Take the example of Telugu people migrating to the United States of America. When the Indians become citizens of the USA, they take an oath on the constitution. That means the migrant Indians should be loyal to the flag and the nation during war and peace times. If there is conflict between India and USA, naturally the migrant Indians who settled and took an oath in America should opt for the adopted country and support it against their original country, i.e., India. That is nationalism! If the Indians in America support their original country India during war or conflict, they will be treated as traitors and their act is punishable. The same situation exists in every nation. Citizens cannot treat the issues on the basis of merit and according to the UN charter. Only cosmopolitanism can help for such situation.


Religions treat humans as sinners or as unworthy of any dignity other than that which is given them by a god. The morals, values, and principles of religions are oriented towards service to their god(s). The intermediary institution of priesthood was created to negotiate and interpret allegedly divine commands to humans. All religions are stumbling blocks to implementation of human rights, children’s rights, and human values and morals. It is an uphill task to break the religious chains around humans and make them free. The minds of humans are polluted with religious superstitions, blind beliefs from childhood. That is why even scientists are sometimes unable to overcome the indoctrination of their childhood, and are caught in these religious cobwebs. This is antithetical to the concept of a modern society, but religion intimately identified with the identity of a nation makes reform very difficult.

Political Parties

A scourge of Nation states is the system of political parties. Political parties are created to capture power, claiming to represent the best interests of the people. They appeal in the name of the nation, attract voters with manifestos and promises of a bright future. Elections are held periodically to get the consent of people and elect the representatives. In this process the sovereignty of the people is delegated to the representatives. Political parties vie with each other to lure the voters with all sorts of slogans. People cannot go and sit in parliaments or senates to monitor their day-to-day affairs. Hence they prefer the representatives to act on their behalf. In this process the elected representatives become powerful and in due course act as though they are the masters. Ultimately a leader emerges as a very powerful charismatic person with enormous powers. That process leads to corruption. To remain in power and to win elections continuously the persons in power compete in raising more attractive slogans and give false promises. Visions of Great Nations and Great History are propagated.

Political parties enter into every walk of life. In due course they also enter religion. Political parties forget the secular principles of separating religion from state. Religion in turn demands promises from political parties during elections. Thus religion enters politics indirectly. Religion wants the political parties to respect beliefs, holy books, and superstitious commands. Religion obstructs the laws of free choice of birth and opposes birth control. Religion opposes euthanasia. Religion opposes teaching of evolution in schools. Religion demands prayers in primary schools. There is no end of religious demands from political parties. To get votes, the parties promise whatever the religions demand.

The collective notions and irrationality that power either a nation state or a religion are detrimental to human freedom. These myths should end so that Humanism can help create world citizens and a cosmopolitan atmosphere.

After two wars, the nations had bitter lessons. They came together to create the United Nations. Human rights emerged. The world is traveling towards cosmopolitanism. Doctors without boarders are at work. An international court is functioning. UN soldiers are accepted as peacekeeping forces. The Euro has given Europe a single currency.

All nations signed the Charter of Human Rights. That is a great achievement. But nations are still powerful. Science and technology are cutting across the boarders of nations. The benefits of science are universal–the scientific method has no national boundaries. This method has to be inculcated from the primary level to all children so that they overcome the narrow concepts of nationalism and progress towards cosmopolitanism. Then, human values and human dignity will gain the upper hand. We have a long way to go, but that is a desirable and prosperous way indeed.





Select References

1. Ray, Sib Narayan (ed.). Selected works of M.N. Roy, Oxford Books, 4 vols. (2000).

2. Innaiah, Narisetti (ed.). M.N. Roy: Radical Humanism, Prometheus Books. (2004).

3. Zakaria, Fareed. Future of Freedom, Viking Penguin Books, (2003).

4. Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World, Ballantine Books, (1996).

5. Kurtz, Paul. Embracing the Power of Humanism, Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield publishers, (2000).

6. Roberts, J.M. The penguin history of the world, Penguin, (1997).

7. Diamond, Larry, and Mark F. Plattner. Nationalism, Ethnic Conflict and Democracy, John Hopkins University Press (1994).

Dr. Narisetti Innaiah has been a university professor in India and has worked actively in the Humanist movement. He is chairman of a committee of the Indian Humanist and Ethical Union investigating religious abuse of children. He is the author of works on Humanism in both English and Telugu. His Web-site is at .


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