Two especially enduring myths seem to have organized liberal thought about socialism and nationalism. Of socialism, liberals concede that it is certainly ethical and—theoretically—commendable, but that it is not suited for humans. On nationalism, on the other hand, though liberals generally admit that it is dangerous, many still insist that it is all too well suited for humans, and therefore they must have it—but a tame version of it, one which liberal cultural brokers would mete out and control. Though many liberals during the 1990s seemed to hail the end of nationalism (and ideology more generally), in recent decades such sentiments—since 9/11 and the success of a wave of virulent strands of nationalism worldwide—somehow seem to have ever more appeal. Perhaps most distressing, many such commentators are historians who should know better.
Meanwhile, as public discussions over the founding of the country in the wake of the New York Times’ 1619 Project and the fallout from that—including the Trumpian 1776 commission—have percolated more broadly, the stakes for contesting or reaffirming American nationalism seem higher than ever, both within and outside of the academic discipline of history. Just a few days ago, an article in The Atlantic doubling down on some unfortunate remarks made by the president of the American Historical Association, James Sweet, reinforce the sense that history is always political and will always be politicized. Far from harnessing nationalism, perhaps the most dangerous ideology of the modern period, (or attempting to insulate history from contemporary political culture, as Sweet insinuated) historians should be at the forefront of struggles to challenge and deconstruct it.
History, as a modern discipline of study, emerged in the late eighteenth century, largely as an extension of the nationalist project. At the time, prominent nationalist thinkers like Johann Gottfried Herder in Germany or, several decades later, Giuseppe Mazzini in Italy, imagined a world in which liberalism and nationalism would abide together in harmony. In the United States too, ideologues such as Thomas Jefferson imagined an “empire of liberty,” a new kind of nation that would weave commitments to liberty with a capacious idea of “the people” and will usher in a new type of harmonious political order. With time, in the United States such commitments culminated during the mid-nineteenth century in the ideology of Manifest Destiny that underscored a violent expansion across the continent. The United States, according to thinking that endures to this day, was providentially ordained to expand its “liberty” in this way across a savage continent and inspire the world. As some recent scholarship has shown, they in fact did inspire Germany’s eastern expansion during the Third Reich—maybe not quite an empire of liberty after all.
The earliest modern historians, like George Bancroft in the United States or Thomas Macaulay in England, were some of the most vocal supporters of such nationalist rhetoric. In this vein, most early historians told their nations self-affirming stories that were often more interested in myth than truth. It was only later, towards the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that historians started—even if still quite tentatively—to poke holes in such national mythologies. In fact the emergence of history as a reliable academic discipline—one that champions commitment to a careful examination of primary sources and to contextualizing events after immersing oneself in the discourse and codes of the period under investigation—is a story of turning away, with varying degrees of success, from complicity in nationalist indoctrination.
Therefore, it has been particularly dispiriting to read more and more historical scholarship and thought pieces that seem to want to turn back to that old frame of mind. Moreover, some recent pieces come from surprising sources. Reading reactionary essays that repudiate much needed critical histories of the United States from the likes of Sean Wilentz and Gordon Wood is one thing. Both Wilentz and Wood have by now long established themselves as the chief apologists within the historical discipline of American nationalism. Thus, reading their violent reactions to pieces like The New York Times’ 1619 Project, that were then picked up eagerly by conservatives, is to be expected. More disappointing, are pro-nationalist pieces by historians, who have long sympathized with leftist challenges to national mythologies, such as Jill Lepore and Michael Kazin (to be fair, for Kazin, this is hardly a new theme).