Often people talk about nationalism with generalizing negativeness. For many people: one word equals one simple meaning, or at least that's how they use it. However the simple meaning attempted to convey is as subjective as the speaker. Let's try to clarify.
Since the 1930s and 40s, the word nationalism has become negatively loaded in English, while its synonym patriotism is instead preferred, as it conveys more positive connotations. This seems to come from the use in English journalism of the word "nationalist" to refer to fascists, notably Franco's, when actually he and his followers hated that word, which they associated with Basque and Catalan independentism, calling themselves nacionales, that is: nationals, without the "-ism". In Spanish it is the other way around: it is the word patriotism and its root patria (fatherland), which is loaded with negative connotations, precisely because Franco and his mind-slaves used and abused it, while nationalism has for many positive connotations, precisely because democrats and socialists used it with preference. It's all very capriciously loaded on 20th century historical accidents.
The Basque language case is different: Spanish borrowings follow the Spanish cultural rule but Basque lacked originally for any word for nation, let alone fatherland, different than herri (people or country). So back in the late 19th century, when the Arana brothers reinvented Basque Nationalism in terms that have gone mainstream, they also invented many neologisms of their own, quite arbitrary, thought, one of them being aberri (fatherland, from Sumerian and/or Semitic aba = father, in funny amateurish linguistic exercise¹). The derived word abertzale, now fully consolidated, would then translate as patriot but, as this term is seen as negative in the Iberian Peninsula, it is translated as nationalist instead This may sound odd for native English speakers but that's how the subjectivity of meanings go, depending on cultural specifics. Specifics that have a very shallow history in any case.
In addition to that fatherland and patriot have clear patriarchal connotations (they directly appeal to the father and the father's line), while nation and nationalist do not (they appeal to the place and community of birth instead: natio = birth). This may also weight for some in their choice of words and one can well argue that they are indeed more neutral etymologically speaking.
All these arbitrary, subjective and slippery concepts associated with words are not useful for the analysis I intend to make here. I will therefore consider patriotism and nationalism as the synonyms they actually are, and just use nation and nationalism, avoiding hence the patriarchal load of the word patriot.
Two types of nations and two types of nationalism
What is a nation? For many it has become synonym of an established state. However that's not the original meaning and is only a forced recycling imposed by those so-called nation-states in concert, particularly those who fear their own minority nations' rightful claims to sovereignty, to self-rule.
As I said before, nation comes from a Latin word natio, meaning birth. Traditionally and often also in modern speech it refers to a distinctive ethnic community (Greek: ἔθνος = nation). As nation and state were often dissociated in ancient times, at no time this concept meant state (Lat. res publica = public thing, the word state does come from Lat. status but with a modern evolution in meaning) nor polity (Greek: πόλις = city). Only with the invention of modern nationalism, which is the idea that state and nation should be the same, either by giving a state to each existing nation or by forcing all people in each state to be assimilated into the core nation (or sometimes even exterminated or expelled, i.e. various forms of genocide).
We see in the very definition of nationalism that it has two contradictory implications. In fact this means that there are two types of nationalism: defensive nationalism, that of stateless nations striving for self-rule, possibly in the form of a new nation-state, and aggressive nationalism, that of states and its core nations, trying to absorb everybody in their boundaries into the core nation or even expel/mass-murder them.
I will argue here that the categories are therefore:
- People-nationalism: a nation is formed naturally (historically, ethnogenetically) and it deserves its own self-rule, sovereignty, independence and possibly state.
- Imperial-nationalism: a nation is only those that control a state and everybody who falls out of the line must be punished. This one has two variants:
- Roman style: the outlier nations must be assimilated.
- Racist style: the outlier nations must be exterminated and/or expelled.
Imperial nationalism is intrinsically genocidal, either in the "soft" cultural way or in the "hard" murderous one. To some extent every single established nation-state falls into this category. It may be latent but it is there and sooner than later it will become a problem. Even nations that have not yet achieved independence and that are therefore victims of others' imperial-nationalism face this reactionary risk if they ever manage to succeed in their legitimate fight for freedom.
Of course people-nationalism is invariably legitimate, as long as the people-nation historically holds a territory. By this I mean that, for example, it does not apply to Israel, which is an artificial colony on other people's territory, i.e. falls into a sui-generis variant of imperial-nationalism of the racist and genocidal type, the worst type of all.
But it can perfectly happen and does happen that a successful people-nationalism turns petty imperial-nationalism once statehood is achieved. For example the very legitimate Norwegian or Finnish nationalism, turns out as problematically genocidal, at the very least in the cultural way, towards the Sámi nation; the very legitimate Dutch or Portuguese nationalism turned out imperialist against African, American and Asian nations.
I guess that's why many people dislikes the very concept of nationalism. However this stand is utterly naive and, almost invariably, turns out as accomplice of imperial-nationalism.
The naivety of anti-nationalism
Anti-nationalism cannot exist. It can be, I guess, subjectively imagined but it is an error of concept. Nations do exist naturally (historically) and often come into conflict with other nations. You cannot just erase them, just like you cannot erase history, customs, languages, etc. Doing so could only be done by assimilation, always unfair for the new arrivals, into a larger nation.
For example we may imagine a single unified Humankind that only speaks English and holds not anymore any customs, even the calendar may be redesigned to be religion-neutral, proclaiming next year as "year one" of Human Unification. However this would indistinct from an overwhelming success of English imperial-nationalism. Same thing, mutatis mutandi, if the chosen language is Chinese, Arabic or Spanish. One can be passionately humanist but one cannot be naive. It is almost impossible that an artificial language like Esperanto could succeed but, even in such case, it would still be loaded (Esperanto is heavily Latin and other Indoeuropean-based, not neutral at all).
Anti-nationalism is therefore, as such, heavily utopian in concept and camouflaged imperial-nationalism in practice. In fact most anti-nationalists I know are just Spanish-nationalists with a very poor pretext and/or a most worrisome confusion.
Democratic Confederalism as only real solution
The concept of Democratic Confederalism is a quite new one by that name, one proposed very creatively and wisely by Kurdish nationalists aiming to overcome this profound problematic. How? Going beyond the concept and praxis of the state, proclaiming in theory and practice the states obsolete and illegitimate: only the self-given democratic institutions of each community have real legitimacy but none of them is legitimate to interfere into the internal affairs of any other democratically self-ruled community. Common affairs will be taken care of via freely established confederate institutions.
The concept by that name may be new but we do have a historical model for something very similar to such solution in Switzerland. A model that, in general terms, has withstood the test of time, with a record longevity of almost 800 years, something that no other democratic polity can claim. It is a system that is not only based on very radical decentralization, even in its current more centralist form, not just for the cantons (states) but also for the municipalities, but also on a democracy that is far more real than that of any other state I know: with referendums being a regular way of establishing or challenging laws, something that in nearly every other democratic (?) country is rejected as chaos and anarchy, populism and what not!
Switzerland is not a nation-state but a multi-national federation, exactly what we need at larger scale, world-wide even.
Of course our Kurdish comrades go a step or two further but the basic idea is the same one. This is the only way out of the nationalist quagmire: one that respects, on democratic and confederal basis, the differences as something that makes us better, not that attempts to suppress everything and everyone that is different and wants to remain so.
The issue is not being not-nationalist or anti-nationalist, that's just a stupid ill-thought or outright hypocritical stand, the issue is going beyond the state. The problem is not in the nation but in the state, whose greater or lesser lack of democracy is nothing but tyranny.
¹ It was then en vogue for every other language to claim relatedness to Sumerian and Basque was no exception. There are two basic words in Basque vocabulary that have an ab(a)- root: one is apaiz (priest), which clearly evolves from romance for abbot, having in turn a recent Semitic (Hebrew) root aba=father; the other is "abere" (domestic animal or livestock) much older and quite possibly related to Sumerian "ab", meaning cow, as well as some other words scattered in West Asian vocabulary. In this case it's probably a very old Neolithic term and has nothing to do with the idea of "father" or "parent".