Great Books: E.H. Carr’s Nationalism and After

E.H. Carr envisioned a world ‘after’ nationalism. He did not expect there would be no ‘after’ — just more of the same. But his insights remain instructive on the conditions for international order in a world of nation-states.

Second World War poster.
Second World War poster. Credit: Smith Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Anton Krasovsky, a former Russian LGBT rights activist but now a devout Putinist, had something to say about Ukrainian children who refused to speak Russian. Staring into the camera, smirking menacingly, he proposed that all such children be drowned in a raging river or, better yet, burned alive in wooden houses.

His views proved controversial even for his otherwise shameless bosses at Russia Today, Russia’s propaganda mouthpiece. Krasovsky was suspended. Yet, he was hardly far out of line. Extremist rhetoric has permeated deep into the Russian media discourse. It has become entirely normalised, in fact, largely taken for granted by uncritical domestic audiences. Russian nationalism — a potent, toxic force — has filled the vacuum left by the Soviet implosion. It possesses minds, clouds judgments and nurtures hatreds.

Few are able to resist its alluring simplicity, its conception of ‘us and them,’ its warm fuzzy feeling of belonging to a nation in whose name all crimes are permissible, and all sins are forgiven. Krasovsky stares at us in the mirror. Russians become indistinguishable, bound up by imaginary ties of kinship and to a common murderous intent.

It’s terrifying. But none of this is new. Indeed, it is remarkable to what extent nationalist rhetoric — not just Russia’s, though theirs is particularly toxic — echoes blood and soil narratives of the 1930s, narratives that precipitated and fuelled the Second World War with its record of unparalleled atrocities.

Writing in the aftermath of that war, the renowned British historian and political philosopher Edward Hallett Carr addressed problems posed by nationalism in an extended essay titled Nationalism and After. As books go, this was one of Carr’s shortest interventions. He is much better known for his 14-volume History of Soviet Russia, his acclaimed but also viciously criticised The Twenty Years’ Crisis, and his lectures on the meaning of history, What is History?, still required reading for many an aspiring historian. But while not widely read, Nationalism and After speaks to our own time. It is a plea to cast aside unhealthy and quasi-mystical attachment to nations as the organising principle of human society.

Carr begins his book by explaining the rise of nationalism, and the ramifications of the proliferation of nation states. He is sceptical that nations are necessarily more peace-loving or less self-assertive than a world of princely states. If anything, he argues, nation states are at least as aggressive as individuals and ‘probably less capable than any other groups in modern times of reaching agreement with one another.’ Wars that nations wage tend to be more vicious and more uncompromising than the good old princely wars.

Nationalism, Carr argues, undermines the viability of international law or international agreements. When push comes to shove, national governments will abrogate whatever agreements they may have concluded ‘when these become burdensome or dangerous to the welfare or security of their own nation.’ The international order itself becomes ‘an affair of lath and plaster and will crumble into dust as soon as pressure is placed upon it.’

Elsewhere in the book, he ridicules the idea of equality of nations, arguing that it would be absurd to claim that countries like China, Albania, and Brazil were in any sense ‘equals.’ But it does not matter. What matters is that individual Chinese, Albanians, and Brazilians are seen as equals, and that their individual rights are observed. Carr here presents an appealing, albeit perhaps an unduly idealistic vision of a global society of individuals — not a world of nation states.

An ideal that Carr seemingly aspires to is world government, but he understands that the idea will be impractical for the foreseeable future. But nor does he like the alternative idea of sprawling nation states. In fact, speaking from his perch in 1945, he sees the world going in a very different direction. He even makes a very bad prediction — that ‘we shall not again see a Europe of 20, and a world of more than 60 independent sovereign states’.

Had a historian ever erred more! Carr completely missed out on that decolonisation that would see the number of states multiply as European empires rapidly fell apart, including, of course, his own — the British empire.

Contemporary readers will find much of Carr’s analysis off-putting. He is perhaps at his most objectionable when he speaks of his preferred global arrangement (i.e. the intermediate stage between the unruly assembly of nasty little nations and the unattainable world government). Carr’s frame of reference here is ‘civilisations,’ of which he characteristically (and rather entertainingly from today’s perspective) sees four: British, American, Russian, and Chinese. These need not clash, as Samuel P. Huntington would have it, but rather cooperate for the benefit of the world through functional arrangements that transcend state borders.

All of this leaves precious little space for states that do not want to belong to any great civilisation, but Carr approvingly quotes Walter Lippmann that ‘we must not, as many do, identify the rights of small nations with their right to have an “independent” foreign policy, that is to say, one which manipulates the balance of power among the great states.’ Oh, the troublemakers! Needless to say, those nations that were overrun by the USSR in 1945 would not have found Carr’s (or Lippmann’s) views to their liking but this was only a minor problem for Carr, who in fact cites the Soviet example as a viable political arrangement that combines central authority with due respect for national aspirations.

Carr was a product of his times, and it is easy to dismiss many of his pronouncements as hopelessly imperialistic and contemptuous of the rights of small nations. But, on the other hand, he put his finger on a serious problem that was not addressed in his time, and that plagues our world. Are nation states satisfactory as units of human society? Carr thinks not. ‘A political unit based not on exclusiveness of nation or language but on shared ideals and aspirations of universal applications may be thought to represent a decided advance over a political unit based simply on the cult of a nation or even over a political unit like pre-1939 Yugoslavia or Poland, where it made all the difference in the world whether one was a Serb, Croat or Slovene, a Pole, Ukrainian or Lithuanian’.

Little did Carr suspect that decades later it would still make a world of a difference. He died in 1982, just a few years before things began to fall apart in Yugoslavia, resulting in short order in a brutal genocidal war. And — for all of his expertise in Soviet affairs — Carr never expected the Soviet Union to fall apart. Where his vision did turn prophetic was in imagining nation states overcoming their rivalries and contradictions through functional integration. Arguably, the European Union is this vision playing out in practice. In 1945 it was extremely difficult to see Europe embrace shared political arrangements; no wonder the European ‘civilisation’ didn’t make the cut in Carr’s analysis.

Time proved him wrong on the details, though perhaps not on the principle, that is, the feeling that nations as he knew them — the exclusive and endlessly feuding polities — failed to provide the answer to problems facing the world. In fact, they were part of the problem, not part of the solution. There was a need for something greater, something that would transcend the narrow confines of nationalism for fear of repetition of the horrible wars that Carr witnessed in his time. Yet he greatly underestimated the staying power of nationalist rhetoric. He did not fully grasp the magnetic attraction of irrational national myths.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — a violent outburst of embittered nationalism — would have seemed familiar to Carr and many of his contemporaries. Genocidal rhetoric, dehumanisation, ethnic slurs, calls for total war — all these would have struck him as symptoms of a well-known disease, one that is, moreover, quite contagious. Indeed, there is no reason to believe that any European or non-European country is immune from most hideous forms of nationalism. Nationalism underpins many contemporary identity-building projects, fortunately most of them not yet violent (like Russia’s) but many of them potentially violent. There is no direct pathway from healthy patriotism to violent nationalism but the two are nonetheless connected in the murky passages of the human mind.

Carr envisioned a world ‘after’ nationalism. He did not expect there would be no ‘after’ — just more of the same. It is difficult to read this old little book without a sense of regret and a certain foreboding. True, Carr proved to be a better historian than a prophet, perhaps because he had a more optimistic view of human nature than we really deserve. Krasovsky survives, even prospers, feeding on our hatreds, our hubris, and on our inability and perhaps unwillingness to leave our tribe and embrace the world.


Sergey Radchenko