The Nationalistic Epidemic

Herbert A. Miller

THE purpose of this paper is to show that the nationalism of Europe has been in part induced by the reaction in Asia to European imperialism, and also to indicate that its course in Asia will be modified by the varied cultural structures of the several countries there. Although I omit much of the discussions usually involved in nationalism, I would not exclude their validity.


I have said elsewhere: There is no concrete and permanent definition of a nation. It usually has some geographical relations, but may exist without them; it may inhere in a consciousness of blood relationship, but aliens may be adopted into it; it may turn on tradition and history, but myth may be just as effective; it may claim high moral justification and purpose, but an analysis of its history may show that it came into existence by ruthless injustice. A nation is merely a psychological union for political and economic administration that also satisfies the yearning of the individual to belong to a group that will give him social dignity.

Patriotism is not slavish acquiescence to the dictates of policy and sentimentality, but the virtue of loyalty to administrative and moral purposes. It is under the guise of patriotism that nationalism reaches a degree of emotional exaggeration that throws out of focus all ultimate values, distorting to its own purposes social, political, and economic relations.

Nationalism appeared first where national freedom had been curtailed, but it is now taking the same form among peoples whose national sovereignty is well established. In Europe it is the boomerang sent out by imperialism, returning to strike a deadlier blow at the sender. It is a fine example of sins coming home a hundredfold. Germany adds a year to military service to keep the Poles in their place; France, frightened, adds a year also; a Serbian nationalistic youth kills an Austrian prince and the Great War begins. In its wake come the disorganization and demoralization of human society.

A hundred years ago slaves and subject peoples accepted their status as the order of nature; but when the struggle for freedom in Ireland and in Central Europe reverberated around the world, victims of domination in Asia rose to the call and started a movement that has become a panic.

Before the nationalist era, religions fought each other with fanatical zeal, urged on by the idea of saving men by imposing their religion upon them. In the same way nations of today hope to save the world by imposing their special cultures upon it. Hitler, Mussolini, and the spokesmen for Japan use almost identical language in proclaiming the dominant destinies of their systems for the good of the world. The preachers of the medieval crusades must have used the same words when they persuaded the masses to save their souls by converting or killing the Moslems in Jerusalem. No claims are too exaggerated so long as they are effective propaganda. History, lan-

(10) -guage, religion, blood, and myth are magnified into absolutes. The nation and its culture are supplanting God. Economic organization, linguistic and historical unity, and racial identity are offered as substitutes for ecclesiastical systems, ritual, traditions of the prophets, and brotherhood within the faith. In short, all the psychological processes and symbols of fanatical religion are being appropriated for the worship of the state. That is nationalism.

The frenzy that has replaced practical reason is making people easy victims of political, economic, and military manipulations by selfish and unscrupulous demagogues. What has happened to the world is the sudden appearance of uncertainty and instability. In the past when men have been in confusion they have turned to religion for assurance, but now even religion itself is being tossed on the rocks of insecurity by science and comparative history, and can no longer offer the secure harbor of unshakable faith.

All this can only be called pathological, and to explain it some years ago I gave the name "oppression psychosis" to the emotional reactions resulting from domination and exploitation and their resultant nationalism. Its symptoms are a self-consciousness that precludes objectivity, suspicion that always has a chip on its shoulder, aggressiveness, and abnormal hatreds. Always it overemphasizes the qualities of its language, national religion, history, and blood.

Beginning about 1850, imperialism discovered Asia. Never before had organized freebooters found such rich loot and such docile prey. The ancient Asiatic civilizations were totally unprepared to meet the onslaught. For half a century they merely gasped. Now they are catching their breath and are beginning to blow the whirlwind of nationalism which self-seeking imperialism sowed and will have to reap.


Eighty years ago last December Commodore Perry pushed his foot into the tightly closed door of Japan that for three hundred years had permitted no one to come in or to go out. During the whole period since that time Japan has been on the offensive-defensive against the Western World. She offers the most clean-cut and unqualified example of nationalistic resistance to imperialism that the world affords.

The organization of Japan presented a perfect set-up for the development of nationalism: a group of small islands whose resources were so limited that existence was insecure; numbers so small—then only thirty millions—that there was danger of being overwhelmed; a military caste, the samurai, who dominated the whole system; an emperor of divine origin whose status had always symbolized a divinity that is Japan, and whose relation to the people was interpreted as that of the father of the family, thus conferring upon all an element of divinity; a cocksureness of the purity of their blood, though really they are of many bloods; and finally the religion of Shintoism, which, in its ancestor worship, in some mystical way included the ancestors of the emperor and thus the continuity and the exclusiveness of Japan.

In earlier days Chinese had come to Japan and both they and their culture had been absorbed. When the Europeans came, their culture was associated with a consciousness of race, and they could not be absorbed as the Chinese had been. The Japanese were quick pupils in taking what of the

(11) culture they wanted and in assuming a compensatory attitude about race. From the beginning they have set themselves up as the champions of the yellow race, with a conviction of their own superiority that has intensified their assimilation of Western culture while rejecting the assumptions of the people who brought it.

From the first, then, the Japanese have succeeded in forestalling exploitation by adopting the techniques of the West, not only those mechanical but also those political. The solidarity and the religious character of the nation made possible what has been interpreted as amazing speed in the imitation of the West; but all the time what has really occurred is an intensification of the qualities in the structure that were peculiarly Japanese. Japan's numbers and location nurtured fear, for which she overcompensated by aggressiveness and pride. She imitated first the machinery of the military which fitted into the samurai tradition, and then the commercial and the industrial that are needed to support an aggressive military system. European imperialism developed for practical reasons and was essentially non-moral; but Japan made hers grandiose and assumed moral imperatives, just as Germany is now doing. This is the imperialism of nationalism.

The first country on which Japan practiced her imperialism was Korea, a nation older than Japan, from which she had obtained much of her culture. She magnified her motive of doing it for the "good of the subjects," and while she imitated the imperialism of Europe, she practiced the fanaticism of a religious war in trying to make the Koreans into Japanese. By 1910, when Japan completed her annexation, the Koreans had heard of the struggle for freedom elsewhere and had started a nationalist movement which now embraces the whole population and is making Japan more trouble than ever gets into the news. In Korea history is the chief symbol, and strangely enough, the religion adopted by the leaders is Christianity. As Korea lies between Japan and Manchuria, the Korean disaffection is likely to spread into the new kingdom of Manchukuo to hearten the resistance of the Chinese people there, just as the struggle of Ireland has repercussions in India.


The most momentous fact in Asia is the awakening of China, whose stereotyped organization lacked every characteristic that prepared Japan for nationalism. She, like India, had unity but did not know it, for it came from a common culture that was maintained without any influence from a conscious governmental system. She had a vast territory and a vast population, and a history so old that even in this time of chaos no Chinese fears for the continued existence of China, while all Japanese fear lest Japan be extinguished. The Chinese despised soldiers, had no regard for the reigning dynasty, and no religion except the ancestor worship of the personal family. The ethical philosophy around which all social life turned was static and could not be fundamentally changed until every individual was touched.

Russia, Germany, France, and England were the villains in the Asiatic tragedy. Russia is now doing penance and the others are entering into the consequences of their deeds, which include imitation and revenge by Japan. They were self-seeking and ruthless, and they have built the world into a madhouse.

Although China became a republic in 1911, nationalism in the modern

(12) sense began just ten years ago, when demonstrating students were shot in Shanghai and at the same time Sun Yat-sen rose to his zenith. It had been brewing, however, since the defeat by Japan in 1895, and had been greatly stimulated by the Twenty-one Demands in 1915.

Now for the first time China has a religion, that of nationalism. This means fundamental disorganization due to the transfer of emotions from the stable interests of old patterns to new and unfamiliar values. The Confucian philosophy which was so long sufficient is being discarded for the moment, and, along with it, all the controls which it nurtured. The family as an ultimate institution is yielding to the nation. Since all virtues were inculcated by the family system, this means disorganization of personality. For the first time in history, military values are magnified instead of despised. The respect for and authority of age are in abeyance; in all of present China there are not ten men in positions of leadership who have reached the age of President Roosevelt.

While the facts of change are obvious, I differ from many who know China much better than I do, in feeling confident that there will soon be a return to the old symbols. Otherwise there will be nothing to which to tie Chinese nationalism. Already we see a return, in matters like dress, to the Chinese custom. As the repudiation of alien models becomes more complete, the turn back will be to patterns that have penetrated by thousands of years of practice to the very depths of Chinese life. The present middle-aged leaders will grow old and have an authority that can control the chaos. The war will be won and soldiers relegated to their ancient status. In other words, there is no possibility that China will ever take on the aggressive military character that Japan was predisposed to take, because China can keep it up only by artificial effort to which the momentum of the past will always offer resistance.

In spite of the almost universal psychopathic resentment of the Chinese towards the Japanese and the West, and the efforts to organize a solid front, there is no more political unity in China than there has ever been. It makes little difference whether China goes communist or not, China is going to insist on being Chinese, which in part means indifference to central government. She has a devil to fight now in the form of Japan, and lesser imps in the form of all other aliens. The nationalism of China must for many years be devoted to her own inner organization, and by the time that problem has been solved we may hope that the present epidemic will have run its course and that China will be ready to enter into a reorganized world with her own ancient and valuable social and political system welded into new forms on the old pattern. The fact that nothing like the overcompensated aggressiveness of Japan is possible in the awakening of China gives us a hope for peace and stability in the future which nothing else affords.


The Filipinos and the Indians are of different races from the Japanese and the Chinese. This demonstrates the fact that there is nothing racial about the oppression psychosis, for they both have it. This is further illustrated by the fact that of the two outstanding nationalist leaders in the Philippines, one is part Spanish and the other is part Chinese.

The Government of the United States has been more benevolent and

(13) more constructive than most governments in its one imperialistic enterprise. But just as a fever does not discriminate between the good and the bad, so the reaction of nationalism in the Philippines does not differ in form or intensity from that in Korea, where uncompromising measures are always imposed. The Filipinos have neither linguistic nor cultural unity, but rather tribal disintegration. Nevertheless, the unifying force of nationalism is growing apace. The complaint is constantly made that the Filipinos are so absorbed in their revolt that they cannot give proper attention to solving their internal problems, and that instead of appreciating what is being done for them, they appropriate all that they can absorb. This is a characteristic of nationalism; fitness for self-government plays no part in a struggle for freedom. The Filipinos have heard what is going on elsewhere and are influenced by the large number of Chinese among them in their feeling of chagrin at being dominated by a distant people who cannot conceal their consciousness of racial superiority.


It is difficult to estimate, but we can hardly overestimate, the influence on nationalism of the revolution now going on in India. When it succeeds (no one doubts that it will succeed sometime) the significance of the British Empire will be profoundly changed; what remaining victims of imperialism are left elsewhere will take a new courage. From the beginning they have been watching India's progress and imitating her to a degree that the censorship in several countries has tried to conceal. For approximately as long as the history of China, this next largest group of people of the world has had a cultural unity of which it was as little conscious as was China.

More than in China, nationalism in India has elements of race feeling, because the English, obviously aliens in race, rather than the Japanese, of the same race as the Chinese, have been the objects of hatred. The structure of India is even farther from that of England than China's is from that of Japan, and her method of resistance built upon even more divergent patterns. India is religion. The very religiousness of the people has made for division rather than unity, but all the divisive elements were in comparatively comfortable adjustment until imperialism played them against one another. For a long time there has been a growing feeling against the English, which has increased even as concessions have been made. The spectacular and powerful character of Gandhi has focused attention both within and without India, until now religions and castes are uniting as seemed impossible a few years ago. A common language has been decided upon, and English is proscribed in many assemblies where formerly it was always used.

As in China, there are a vast number of internal problems that will take time for the solving, but now there is an awareness of them. When I asked Mr. Gandhi if the English had done India any good, he replied: "Yes, a great deal of good, but the greatest good they did not intend and therefore deserve no credit. By being here they have aroused the Indians to seek self-respect."

Swaraj—independence, cultural and political, is the watchword of India. To obtain it, there is the same disregard for practical interests and the same exaggeration of emotions that occur elsewhere, in spite of the high moral influence of Gandhi.



Beyond India, the Arabs and the Turks are filled with the same spirit as the other Asiatics. The Arabs have had a common language and religion, but tribal and geographical separateness. Only in the last few years have the germs of nationalism lodged in them, but they are now working fiercely. Month by month the attendance at the mosques diminishes, while the example of Turkey and the hatred of the English in Iraq and of the Jews in Palestine are drawing them together. They are motivated by a half-formed consciousness of hatred of common foes, but that consciousness is becoming increasingly keen and articulate. The Arabic language is their symbol of unity.

Thanks to the High Commission appointed to rule over a Turkey shorn of its empire after the war, and to the invasion of the Greeks, Turkey rose full-fledged as a nation almost overnight. She abolished the old religion and substituted Turkey, discarded the alien Arabic letters in which her language had been written, and decreed that Turkey belong to the Turks exclusively. That she has shown wisdom and moderation in her development cannot be denied. Now, however, Turkey along with Japan can be pointed out as an example of nationalism that has succeeded, as those who watch these nations intend to succeed.


In the meantime this sickness germinated by imperialism has swept back into Europe like a torrent. Established relations were dislocated by the war, and hyperpatriotism has supplanted indulgent self-confidence. Every major power has lost prestige before the world and especially before those whom it has ruled. The justification for the continuance of imperialism can no longer be based on the right of impregnable power in any case, but has been driven to rationalization about "moral responsibility for inferior cultures" and the demand for national self-respect to be measured in terms of force.

At the same time, fear for existence has created psychological situations similar to those of oppressed peoples. The techniques have been prepared for the rulers by the ruled. Germany talks like Japan, and the rest of the Western World is catching their tone. Economic reality is thrown to the winds, while the false god of nationalism deludes the worshipers.

If there had been no imperialism there would be little nationalism. Now the tottering world in which we are living is discarding the judgment of experience and insight, and following mad illusions. We are in the psychopathic ward of the cosmic hospital, and the return to health and sanity promises to be painful and slow.

Herbert Adolphus Miller, Ph.D., is lecturer in social economy at Bryn Mawr College. He was formerly professor of sociology at Oberlin College, Ohio State University, and the University of California. orna. He has given courses at Yenching University, Peiping, China, and lectured at universities in China, India, and Syria. He is author of "The School and the Immigrant," "Races, Nations and Classes," "The Beginnings of Tomorrow," and joint author of "Old World Traits Transplanted."


No notes

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2