The myth of civic nationalism

In his paper on civil society and nationalism in Hungary, Virág Molnár explores the rise of the far-right Jobbik party, which since publication of the paper in 2016 is now the second largest party in the National Assembly.[1] The rise of Jobbik, according to Molnár, needs to be seen as part of a wider phenomenon of ex-communist countries ‘backsliding’ from their brush with liberal democracy post-1991.

Molnár’s basic argument is that, contrary to received (academic) wisdom, the existence of a thriving civil society in Hungary has not acted as a buttress against right-wing populism and extremism, but, on the contrary, has proved to be the breeding ground of such movements and ideologies. Molnár cites three main approaches to the concept of civil society, the first being the ‘liberal’ view which argues that civil society acts as a balance between the state and the market, and also between the state as a social collective and the individual. Civil society enables individuation but in a collective context. Essentially civil society mediates between the demands of the state and those of the market. As Molnár points out, this liberal perspective remains the dominant one in the literature of civil society.

Another view, which stems from the ideas and literature of social movements, is that although civil society may have initially been a factor in the introduction of (liberal) democracy in former communist countries, its function has become increasingly ‘institutionalised’ and brought ‘inhouse’, so to speak, by the emerging democratic institutions themselves.

The third approach, which is the one Molnár adheres to, argues that, contrary to both the liberal and social movement perspectives, civil society has historically been the driver for extremism, and especially fascism. This idea rests largely on studies of the rise of fascism in the inter-war period, with a particular reference to Germany, Italy and Hungary. Molnár writes:

These studies all critique neo-Tocquevillean theories and Robert Putnam’s social capital thesis by demonstrating that under conditions of weak political institutionalisation, high levels of associationalism can actually lead to social fragmentation, political radicalisation and the triumph of illiberal politics.[2]

He cites the example of a number of groups and networks in contemporary Hungarian society which, although technically part of civil society, are in fact based on, and openly propagating, ethnic nationalist ideas and values, which are essentially based on a mythologisation of Hungary’s past. One example are the Goyim riders, a motorcycle association whose stated aim is “…to protect Hungarian national and Christian ideas and values, cultivate national traditions, and organise motorcycle tours to visit historical landmarks and commemorate key figures of Hungarian history.”[3] Although the group denies being overtly racist, Molnár points out that much of their behaviour and use of traditional Hungarian symbols shows that they embrace an ethnic nationalist view of Hungarian identity. For example, by deliberately cruising through small towns known to house significant Roma populations.

This all seems a long way from the ‘classic’ (liberal) view of civil society and its close relationship to civic nationalism. Both civil society and civic nationalism rely on the idea of an ideologically and politically ‘free’ or ‘neutral’ space within society that is being continually renegotiated by the citizens within such a space. Such an idea is the basis for Donald Ipperciel’s reading of Habermas’ theory of democracy, which he applies to the question of civic nationalism.[4] Broadly speaking, Habermas’ theory argues that communication, and more specifically, a shared language, is the basis of civic nationalism and a democratic society. At the same time, and this is where I think Ipperciel’s argument runs into problems, he is also arguing that a shared language is not sufficient for such a society:

On the basis of the communicative logic inherent in democracy, a common language will be defined as more than a means of facilitating the democratic process, and in fact as a necessary yet insufficient condition for bringing it about. Indeed, language cannot be a sufficient condition since other factors contribute to the effectuation of communication (for example, some sort of contiguity that enables the establishment of a communicative relationship, willingness to communicate, etc.).[5]

Interestingly, Ipperciel cites other factors that are important in facilitating public communication, which he equates with constitutional democracy. These include a common culture, a common worldview and common interests. However, he proceeds to develop his argument on the basis that a common language is the basis of civic nationalism, which in his view represents a shift towards ‘post-ethnic nationalism’. Perhaps it is important to note that his paper on civic nationalism was published in 2007, just prior to the massive resurgence of the right across Europe, bringing in its wake a revival of ethnic nationalism. If he had written it ten years later he might well have been mourning the demise of ‘post-ethnic nationalism’ instead of celebrating it.

The key point about the idea of public communication, based on a shared language, is that it facilitates the expression of public opinion and what Ipperciel calls ‘will-formation’, which in turn influences the governing bodies. In other words, in this model democratic government is based on listening to public opinion and the ‘will of the people’ and then formulating and enacting policies that express the ‘common good’. However, this should not be construed in terms of populism; that is, the government representing a particular ‘will’ and a particular ‘people’. Rather, this is about developing a consensus based on dialogue and rational judgement.

As Ipperciel points out, on the basis of this theory, or at least as Habermas formulated it, there is no need “for a concept of nation that would provide a prior consensus among a homogeneous group of citizens.”[6] What this means is that the consensus is established through the process of dialogue rather than being a necessary condition for such a dialogue:

One would thereby escape the logic of exclusion peculiar to nations, in that all self-legislating citizens are equally included. It is worth mentioning that Habermas specifically challenges the Volksnation, or ethnic nation, and that he implicitly defends the idea of a civic nation founded, as is right and proper, on principles of justice.[7]

This contrasts with the idea of ethnic nationalism in which the consensus would have to be established by some other means in order for a dialogue, a public communication, to take place. And clearly, that ‘commonality’ in the case of ethnic nationalism is a shared ethnicity, which in turn would be associated with a shared culture and shared values.

Ipperciel explores in some detail the example of post-Revolutionary France where there was an attempt to introduce a common French language, divested of all regional dialects and idioms. He goes onto to argue that “the French example seems to be relevant (to modern, Western democracies) in so far as it brings to light the communicative logic at work in establishing and maintaining the nation in a democratic context.”[8]

Ipperciel appears quite adamant that a shared language is the cornerstone of civic nationalism, even though there are historically plenty of examples to the contrary; one has only to think of Nazi Germany and its persecution of German speaking Jews. Furthermore, there seems to be a more fundamental flaw in his reasoning, which he half recognises when he acknowledges that a shared language is a necessary but not sufficient factor in establishing a shared, public discourse. If we take the French example I referred to earlier, then the imposition of a particular version of the French language on a diverse population can hardly be described as ‘democratic’ in the first place. Furthermore, those carrying out this ‘enforcement’ of the common language shared a set of political ideals and values, which they wanted to disseminate throughout France.

In this sense it could be argued, as Ipperciel does, that having a shared language would greatly facilitate this process. However, this is completely contrary to the idea of a consensus developing through public dialogue. Rather, the language is simply a vehicle for propagating a particular ideology. And this seems to touch on the real problem with both Habermas’ and Ipperciel’s argument: the theory itself is underpinned by a particular ideology, which in this case is a liberal democratic one. All the key values of liberalism are present in the theory: universalism, meliorism (belief in progress), and an appeal to reason. The very concept of ‘post-ethnic nationalism’ is grounded in liberal ideology, which portrays ethnic nationalism as ‘regressive’ and civic nationalism as ‘progressive’.

However, these are not the only problems with the idea of civic nationalism. Fozdar and Low, for example, use the example of the discourse surrounding immigrants entering contemporary Australia.[9] They argue that this is essentially an ethno-nationalist discourse ‘masquerading’ as a civic nationalist one. According to Fozdar and Low, such a civic nationalist discourse ‘encodes’ within itself a set of ethno-cultural values, which arriving immigrants are expected to assimilate and abide by. These values include respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual, freedom of religion, adherence to the rule of law, a commitment to the equality of the sexes, equality of opportunity, and the use of English as a common language.

Bearing in mind that many of the immigrants in question come from non-Western backgrounds, they are essentially being asked to give up a whole way of life and culture in order to become ‘proper Australians’; whereas most Western immigrants would have already ‘internalised’ what is effectively the ideology of liberal democracy, so the process of assimilation would be much less traumatic.

What’s particularly interesting about Fozdar and Low’s argument is the idea of ‘encoding’; in other words, how ideas and values that would appear to be contrary to the ideas and values of civic nationalism are ‘smuggled in’, so to speak, within its own framework. One such framework in this example is the Australian Values Statement, which was shown to a number of focus groups whose participants were then asked to express their expectations regarding migrant assimilation. The majority of participants were very clear that they expected migrants to abide by Australian laws and values. As the authors point out, such laws and values are not framed explicitly in ethnic or racist terms; rather, they are framed as being perfectly reasonable and ‘liberal’. But as I noted in my discussion of Ipperciel’s paper, such ‘liberal’ values are themselves ideological.

So perhaps the key question here is whether such a liberal ideology is itself ethno-nationalist. In other words, in spite of its apparent championing of universal rights, equality, the rule of law, democracy, and the rejection of ethnicity as the basis of national identity and citizenship, is such a liberal ideology based on an ‘encoding’ (to follow Fozdar and Low’s argument) of ethnic nationalist values and principles?


  1. Virág Molnár, ‘Civil Society, Radicalism and the Rediscovery of Mythic Nationalism’, Nations and Nationalism, 22.1 (2016), 165–85. In 2019 Fidesz, a national-conservative party, led by Viktor Orbán, is the largest party.
  2. Ibid p.168.
  3. Ibid p.175, quoting from the Goyim riders’ website
  4. Donald Ipperciel, ‘Constitutional Democracy and Civic Nationalism’, Nations and Nationalism, 13.3 (2007), 395–416.
  5. Ibid p.396.
  6. Ibid p.399.
  7. Ibid p.399.
  8. Ibid p.407.
  9. Farida Fozdar and Mitchell Low, ‘“They Have to Abide by Our Laws … and Stuff”: Ethnonationalism Masquerading as Civic Nationalism’, Nations and Nationalism, 21.3 (2015), 524–43 <>.