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Nationalism and the Open Society

Andrew Vincent


Nationalism has had a complex relation with the discipline of political

theory during the 20th century. Political theory has often been deeply

uneasy with nationalism in relation to its role in the events leading up

to and during the Second World War. Many theorists saw nationalism

as an overly narrow and potentially irrationalist doctrine. In essence it

embodied a closed vision of the world. This paper focuses on one key

contributor to the immediate post-war debate—Karl Popper—who

retained deep misgivings about nationalism until the end of his life, and

indeed saw the events of the early 1990s (shortly before his death) as a

confirmation of this distrust. Popper was one of a number of immediate

post war writers, such as Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises,

who shared this unease with nationalism. They all had a powerful effect

on social and political thought in the English-speaking world. Popper

particularly articulated a deeply influential perspective which fortuitously

encapsulated a cold war mentality in the 1950s. In 2005 Popper’s

critical views are doubly interesting, since the last decade has

seen a renaissance of nationalist interests. The collapse of the Berlin

wall in 1989, and the changing political landscape of international and

domestic politics, has seen once again a massive growth of interest in

nationalism, particularly from liberal political theorists and a growing,

and, at times, immensely enthusiastic academic literature, trying to

provide a distinctively benign benediction to nationalism.

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