Nationalism and the Future of Civilization

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Harold Laski (1893 - 1950)
Professor Harold Laski (1893 – 1950)
Henry Noel Brailsford (1873 - 1958)
Henry Noel Brailsford (1873 – 1958)
Conway Memorial Lecture
Conway Memorial Lecture
Moncure Conway photo by Edward Steichen, 1907. Courtesy of Dickinson College.
Moncure Conway photo by Edward Steichen, 1907. Courtesy of Dickinson College.
Delivered at Conway Hall 6 April 1932. Chaired by H. N. Brailsford and presented by Professor Harold Laski.

Statehood does not necessarily mean having a sovereign-state mentality, but where the latter exists, it creates problems: the nation- state becomes exclusively concerned with its own interests, and expansionist, increasingly impinging on other states. In the 20th century, with the growth of science, industry and communications, powerful states increasingly affect less powerful ones.

A world of competing nation-states, each a law unto itself, threatens the very survival of civilisation. It creates international anarchy. Only when limits are set to national self- determination can this anarchy be avoided. Nations should see themselves as components of a world- community, as provinces of a ‘civitas maxima’. There should be an international government to deal with a wide range of issues currently the remit of national governments. The basis for such a governments is the present League of Nations.

Nationalism produces economic imperialism, and the acquisition of profit by the commercial and investing classes. Also nationalism flourishes in conditions of popular ignorance: that is why nationalistic and imperialistic societies do not adequately educate their working classes. Further, while nationalism breeds imperialism, the latter engenders nationalism in the peoples it dominates. This new nationalism may in turn become belligerent. All the more need, then, for international govt.

Within societies, social and economic conditions should be equalised, to annul the power of the commercial and investing classes, and terminate their dominant

influence on government policy, especially foreign policy. While social conditions remain unequal, the resultant tension leads the dominant classes into imperialism as a way of evading efforts to establish economic justice at home. Until economic equality is achieved, there can be no true democracy, and therefore no large-scale channelling of resources into the common good, either nationally or internationally. Also central to democracy is the power of citizens to call the state to account, but this power does not exist when the state is sovereign.

The idea of a world-community is not new in history. It dates back at least to Grotius and other 16th century philosophers of international law. Fortunately, this idea is now being succeeded by that of the rule of law. The latter is indispensable to our survival.

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