Nationalism is a belief, creed or political ideology that involves an individual identifying with, or becoming attached to, one’s nation. Nationalism involves national identity, by contrast with the related construct of patriotism, which involves the social conditioning and personal behaviors that support a state’s decisions and actions.
From a political or sociological perspective, there are two main perspectives on the origins and basis of nationalism. One is the primordialist perspective that describes nationalism as a reflection of the ancient and perceived evolutionary tendency of humans to organize into distinct groupings based on an affinity of birth. The other is the modernist perspective that describes nationalism as a recent phenomenon that requires the structural conditions of modern society in order to exist.
An alternative perspective to both of these lineages comes out of Engaged theory, and argues that while the form of nationalism is modern, the content and subjective reach of nationalism depends upon ‘primordial’ sentiments.
There are various definitions for what constitutes a nation, however, which leads to several different strands of nationalism. It can be a belief that citizenship in a state should be limited to one ethnic, cultural, religious, or identity group, or that multinationality in a single state should necessarily comprise the right to express and exercise national identity even by minorities. The adoption of national identity in terms of historical development has commonly been the result of a response by influential groups unsatisfied with traditional identities due to inconsistency between their defined social order and the experience of that social order by its members, resulting in a situation of anomie that nationalists seek to resolve. This anomie results in a society or societies reinterpreting identity, retaining elements that are deemed acceptable and removing elements deemed unacceptable, in order to create a unified community. This development may be the result of internal structural issues or the result of resentment by an existing group or groups towards other communities, especially foreign powers that are or are deemed to be controlling them.
National flags, national anthems and other symbols of national identity are commonly considered highly important symbols of the national community.
The growth of a national identity was expressed in a variety of symbolic ways, including the adoption of a national flag. Pictured, a Scottish Union Flag in the 1704 edition of The Present State of the Universe.
In Europe before the development of nationalism, people were generally loyal to a religion or to a particular leader rather than to their nations.
With the emergence of a national public sphere and an integrated, country-wide economy in 18th century England, people began to identify with the country at large, rather than the smaller unit of their family, town or province. The early emergence of a popular patriotic nationalism took place in the mid-18th century, and was actively promoted by the government and by the writers and intellectuals of the time. National symbols, anthems, myths, flags and narratives were assiduously constructed and adopted. The Union Flag was adopted as a national one, the patriotic song Rule, Britannia! was composed by Thomas Arne in 1740, and the cartoonist John Arbuthnot created the character of John Bull as the personification of the national spirit.
The widespread appeal of patriotic nationalism was massively augmented by the political convulsions of the late 18th century, the American and French Revolutions. Ultra-nationalist parties sprung up in France during the French Revolution.
The term nationalism was first used by Johann Gottfried Herder the prophet of this new creed. Herder gave Germans new pride in their origins, and proclaimed a national message within the sphere of language, which he believed determines national thought and culture. He attached exceptional importance to the concept of nationality and of patriotism – “he that has lost his patriotic spirit has lost himself and the whole worlds about himself”, whilst teaching that “in a certain sense every human perfection is national”.
The political development of nationalism and the push for popular sovereignty culminated with the ethnic/national revolutions of Europe, for instance the Greek War of Independence. Since that time, nationalism has become one of the most significant political and social forces in history, perhaps most notably as a major influence or postulate of World War I and especially World War II. Benedict Anderson argued that, “Print language is what invents nationalism, not a particular language per se”.
Two major bodies of thought address the causes of nationalism:
- the modernist perspective describes nationalism as a recent phenomenon that requires the structural conditions of modern society in order to exist
- the primordialist perspective describes nationalism as a reflection of the ancient and perceived evolutionary tendency of humans to organize into distinct groupings based on an affinity of birth
Roger Masters in The Nature of Politics (1989) says that both the primordialist and modernist conceptions of nationalism involve an acceptance of three levels of common interest of individuals or groups in national identity
- at an inter-group level, humans respond to competition or conflict by organizing into groups to either attack other groups or defend their group from hostile groups
- at the intragroup level, individuals gain advantage through cooperation with others in securing collective goods that are not accessible through individual effort alone
- on the individual level, self-interested concerns over personal fitness by individuals either consciously or subconsciously motivate the creation of group formation as a means of security
The behaviour of leadership groups or élites that involves efforts to advance their own fitness when they are involved in the mobilization of an ethnic or national group is crucial in the development of the culture of that group.
Beginning in 1821, the Greek War of Independence began as a rebellion by Greek nationalists against the ruling Ottoman Empire.
The primordialist perspective is based upon evolutionary theory. The evolutionary theory of nationalism perceives nationalism to be the result of the evolution of human beings into identifying with groups, such as ethnic groups, or other groups that form the foundation of a nation. Roger Masters in The Nature of Politics describes the primordial explanation of the origin of ethnic and national groups as recognizing group attachments that are thought to be unique, emotional, intense, and durable because they are based upon kinship and promoted along lines of common ancestry.
The primordialist evolutionary view of nationalism has its origins in the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin that were later substantially elaborated by John Tooby and Leda Cosmides. Central to evolutionary theory is that all biological organisms undergo changes in their anatomical features and their characteristic behaviour patterns. Darwin’s theory of natural selection as a mechanism of evolutionary change of organisms is utilized to describe the development of human societies and particularly the development of mental and physical traits of members of such societies.
In addition to evolutionary development of mental and physical traits, Darwin and other evolutionary theorists emphasize the influence of the types of environment upon behaviour. First of all there are ancestral environments that are typically long-term and stable forms of situations that influence mental development of individuals or groups gained either biologically through birth or learned from family or relatives, which cause the emphasis of certain mental behaviours that are developed due to the requirements of the ancestral environment. In national group settings, these ancestral environments can result in psychological triggers in the minds of individuals within a group, such as responding positively to patriotic cues. There are immediate environments that are those situations that confront an individual or group at a given point and activate certain mental responses. In the case of a national group, the example of seeing the mobilization of a foreign military force on the nation’s borders may provoke members of a national group to unify and mobilize themselves in response. There are proximate environments where individuals identify nonimmediate real or imagined situations in combination with immediate situations that make individuals confront a common situation of both subjective and objective components that affect their decisions. As such proximate environments cause people to make decisions based on existing situations and anticipated situations. In the context of the politics of nations and nationalism, a political leader may adopt an international treaty not out of a benevolent stance but in the belief that such a treaty will either benefit their nation or will increase the prestige of their nation. The proximate environment plays a role in the politics of nations that are angry with their circumstances (in much the same way that an individual or group’s anger in response to feelings that they are being exploited usually results in efforts to accommodate them, while being passive results in them being ignored). Nations that are angry with circumstances imposed on them by others are affected by the proximate environment that shapes the nationalism of such nations.
Nationalist and liberal pressure led to the European revolutions of 1848
Pierre van den Berghe in The Ethnic Phenomenon (1981) emphasizes the role of ethnicity and kinship involving family biological ties to members of an ethnic group as being an important element of national identity. Van den Berghe states the sense of family attachments among related people as creating durable, intense, emotional, and cooperative attachments, that he claims are utilized within ethnic groups. Van den Berghe identifies genetic-relatedness as being a basis for the durable attachments of family groups, as genetic ties cannot be removed and they are passed on from generation to generation. Van den Berge identifies common descent as the basis for the establishment of boundaries of ethnic groups, as most people do not join ethnic groups but are born into them. Berghe notes that this kinship group affiliation and solidarity does not require actual relatedness but can include imagined relatedness that may not be biologically accurate. Berghe notes that feelings of ethnic solidarity usually arise in small and compact groups whereas there is less solidarity in large and dispersed groups.
There are functionalist interpretations of the primordialist evolutionary theory. The functionalists claim that ethnic and national groups are founded upon individuals’ concerns over distribution of resources acquired through individual and collective action. This is resolved by the formation of a clan group that defines who is accepted within the group and defines the boundaries within which the resources will be distributed. This functionalist interpretation does not require genetic-relatedness, and identifies a variety of reasons for ethnic or national group formation. The first reason is that such groups may extend group identity and cooperation beyond the limits of family and kinship out of reciprocal altruism, in the belief that helping other individuals will produce an advantageous situation for both the sender and receiver of that help; this tendency has been noted in studies by Robert Axelrod that are summarized in his book The Evolution of Cooperation (1984). The second reason is that such groups may be formed as a means of defense to insure survival, fears by one group of a hostile group threatening them can increase solidarity amongst that group, R. Paul Shaw and Yuwa Wong in their book The Genetic Seeds of Warfare (1989) identify this as the foundation of xenophobia that they identify as originating in hunter gatherer societies.
The modernist interpretation of nationalism and nation-building perceives that nationalism arises and flourishes in modern societies described as being associated with having: an industrial economy capable of self-sustainability of the society, a central supreme authority capable of maintaining authority and unity, and a centralized language or small group of centralized languages understood by a community of people. Modernist theorists note that this is only possible in modern societies, while traditional societies typically: lack a modern industrial self-sustainable economy, have divided authorities, have multiple languages resulting in many people being unable to communicate with each other.
Karl Marx wrote about the creation of nations as requiring a bourgeois revolution and an industrial economy. Marx applied the modern versus traditional parallel to British colonial rule in India that Marx saw in positive terms as he claimed that British colonial rule was developing India, bringing India out of the “rural idiocy” of its “feudalism”. However Marx’s theories at the time of his writing had little impact on academic thinking on the development of nation states.
Prominent theorists who developed the modernist interpretation of nations and nationalism include: Carlton Joseph Huntley Hayes, Henry Maine, Ferdinand Tönnies, Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Talcott Parsons.
Euromaidan activists carry flags of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, Ukraine, 2014
Henry Maine in his analysis of the historical changes and development of human societies noted the key distinction between traditional societies defined as “status” societies based on family association and functionally diffuse roles for individuals; and modern societies defined as “contract” societies where social relations are determined by rational contracts pursued by individuals to advance their interests. Maine saw the development of societies as moving away from traditional status societies to modern contract societies.
Ferdinand Tönnies in his book Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (1887) defined a gemeinschaft (community) as being based on emotional attachments as attributed with traditional societies, while defining a Gesellschaft (society) as an impersonal society that is modern. While he recognized the advantages of modern societies he also criticized them for their cold and impersonal nature that caused alienation while praising the intimacy of traditional communities.
Émile Durkheim expanded upon Tönnies’ recognition of alienation, and defined the differences between traditional and modern societies as being between societies based upon “mechanical solidarity” versus societies based on “organic solidarity”. Durkheim identified mechanical solidarity as involving custom, habit, and repression that was necessary to maintain shared views. Durkheim identified organic solidarity-based societies as modern societies where there exists a division of labour based on social differentiation that causes alienation. Durkheim claimed that social integration in traditional society required authoritarian culture involving acceptance of a social order. Durkheim claimed that modern society bases integration on the mutual benefits of the division of labour, but noted that the impersonal character of modern urban life caused alienation and feelings of anomie.
Max Weber claimed the change that developed modern society and nations is the result of the rise of a charismatic leader to power in a society who creates a new tradition or a rational-legal system that establishes the supreme authority of the state. Weber’s conception of charismatic authority has been noted as the basis of many nationalist governments.
Liberty Leading the People (Eugène Delacroix, 1830) is a famous example of nationalist art.
Civic nationalism (also known as liberal nationalism) defines the nation as an association of people who identify themselves as belonging to the nation, who have equal and shared political rights, and allegiance to similar political procedures.According to the principles of civic nationalism, the nation is not based on common ethnic ancestry, but is a political entity whose core identity is not ethnicity. This civic concept of nationalism is exemplified by Ernest Renan in his lecture in 1882 “What is a Nation?”, where he defined the nation as a “daily referendum” (frequently translated ‘daily plebiscite”) dependent on the will of its people to continue living together”.
Civic nationalism is a kind of non-xenophobic nationalism that is claimed to be compatible with liberal values of freedom, tolerance, equality, and individual rights.Ernest Renan and John Stuart Mill are often thought to be early liberal nationalists. Liberal nationalists often defend the value of national identity by saying that individuals need a national identity in order to lead meaningful, autonomous lives, and that liberal democratic polities need national identity in order to function properly.
Civic nationalism lies within the traditions of rationalism and liberalism, but as a form of nationalism it is contrasted with ethnic nationalism. Membership of the civic nation is considered voluntary, as in Ernest Renan’s “daily referendum” formulation in What is a Nation?. Civic-national ideals influenced the development of representative democracy in countries such as the United States and France (see the United States Declaration of Independence of 1776, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789).
Whereas nationalism in and of itself does not necessarily imply a belief in the superiority of one ethnicity or country over others, some nationalists support ethnocentric supremacy and/or ethnocentric protectionism.
Some nationalists exclude certain groups. Some nationalists, defining the national community in ethnic, linguistic, cultural, historic, or religious terms (or a combination of these), may then seek to deem certain minorities as not truly being a part of the ‘national community’ as they define it. Sometimes a mythic homeland is more important for the national identity than the actual territory occupied by the nation.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, many Polish nationalist leaders were in thrall to the Piast Concept. It held there was a Polish utopia during the Piast Dynasty a thousand years before, and modern Polish nationalists should restore its central values of Poland for the Poles. Jan Poplawski had developed the “Piast Concept” in the 1890s, and it formed the centerpiece of Polish nationalist ideology, especially as presented by the National Democracy Party, known as the “Endecja,” which was led by Roman Dmowski. There was no place in the Piast Concept for a multicultural Poland.
The Piast concept stood in opposition to the “Jagellon Concept,” which allowed for multiculturalism and Polish rule over numerous minorities. The Jagellon Concept was the official policy of the government in the 1920s and 1930s. Stalin at Tehran rejected the Jagellon Concept because it involved Polish rule over Ukrainians and Belorussians. He instead endorsed the Piast Concept, which justified a massive shift of Poland’s frontiers to the west. After 1945 the Communist regime wholeheartedly adopted the Piast Concept, making it the centerpiece of their claim to be the true inheritors of Polish nationalism. After all the killings and population transfers during and after the war the nation was 99% “Polish.”
Parts of Caracas slums friendly to former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez often feature political murals with anti-American and anti-imperialist messages.
Left-wing nationalism (occasionally known as socialist nationalism, not to be confused with national socialism) refers to any political movement that combines left-wing politics with nationalism.
Many nationalist movements are dedicated to national liberation, in the view that their nations are being persecuted by other nations and thus need to exercise self-determination by liberating themselves from the accused persecutors. Anti-revisionist Marxist-Leninism is closely tied with this ideology, and practical examples include Stalin’s early work Marxism and the National Question and his Socialism in One Country edict, which declares that nationalism can be used in an internationalist context, fighting for national liberation without racial or religious divisions. Other examples of left-wing nationalism include Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement that launched the Cuban Revolution ousting the American-backed Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Cornwalls Mebyon Kernow, Ireland’s Sinn Féin, Wales’s Plaid Cymru, Scotland’s SNP, the Awami League in Bangladesh and the African National Congress in South Africa.
Main article: Territorial nationalism
Nationalist slogan “Brazil, love it or leave it“, often used during the Brazilian military dictatorship.
Territorial nationalists assume that all inhabitants of a particular nation owe allegiance to their country of birth or adoption. A sacred quality is sought in the nation and in the popular memories it evokes. Citizenship is idealised by territorial nationalists. A criterion of a territorial nationalism is the establishment of a mass, public culture based on common values, codes and traditions of the population.
Pan-nationalism is unique in that it covers a large area span. Pan-nationalism focuses more on “clusters” of ethnic groups. Pan-Slavism is one example of Pan-nationalism. The goal was to unite all Slavic people into one country. They did succeed by uniting several south Slavic people into Yugoslavia 1918.
Ultranationalism is a zealous nationalism that expresses extremist support for one’s nationalist ideals. It is often characterized by authoritarianism, efforts toward reduction or stoppage of immigration, expulsion and or oppression of non-native populations within the nation or its territories, demagoguery of leadership, emotionalism, fomenting talk of presumed, real, or imagined enemies, predicating the existence of threats to the survival of the native, dominant or otherwise idealized national ethnicity or population group, instigation or extremist reaction to crack-down policies in law enforcement, efforts to limit international trade through tariffs, tight control over businesses and production, militarism, populism and propaganda. Prevalent ultranationalism typically leads to or is the result of conflict within a state, and or between states, and is identified as a condition of pre-war in national politics. In its extremist forms ultranationalism is characterized as a call to war against enemies of the nation/state, secession or, in the case of ethnocentrist ultranationalism, genocide.
Fascism is a form of palingenetic ultranationalism that promotes “class collaboration” (as opposed to class struggle), a totalitarian state, and irredentism or expansionism to unify and allow the growth of a nation. Fascists sometimes promote ethnic or cultural nationalism. Fascism stresses the subservience of the individual to the state, and the need for absolute and unquestioned loyalty to a strong ruler.
This form of nationalism came about during the decolonization of the post war periods. It was a reaction mainly in Africa and Asia against being subdued by foreign powers. It also appeared in the non-Russian territories of the Tsarist empire and later, the USSR, where Ukrainianists and Islamic Marxists condemned Russian Bolshevik rule in their territories as a renewed Russian imperialism. This form of nationalism took many guises, including the peaceful passive resistance movement led by Mahatma Gandhi in the Indian subcontinent.
Benedict Anderson argued that anti-colonial nationalism is grounded in the experience of literate and bilingual indigenous intellectuals fluent in the language of the imperial power, schooled in its “national” history, and staffing the colonial administrative cadres up to but not including its highest levels. Post-colonial national governments have been essentially indigenous forms of the previous imperial administration.
Critics of nationalism have argued that it is often unclear what constitutes a “nation”, or why a nation should be the only legitimate unit of political rule. A nation is a cultural entity, and not necessarily a political association, nor is it necessarily linked to a particular territorial area—although nationalists argue that the boundaries of a nation and a state should, as far as possible, coincide.Philosopher A.C. Grayling describes nations as artificial constructs, “their boundaries drawn in the blood of past wars”. He argues that “there is no country on earth which is not home to more than one different but usually coexisting culture. Cultural heritage is not the same thing as national identity”.
A snack bar sign advertising “American” fries at Knott’s Berry Farm. The sign formerly read “French”.
Nationalism is inherently divisive because it highlights perceived differences between people, emphasizing an individual’s identification with their own nation. The idea is also potentially oppressive because it submerges individual identity within a national whole, and gives elites or political leaders potential opportunities to manipulate or control the masses. Much of the early opposition to nationalism was related to its geopolitical ideal of a separate state for every nation. The classic nationalist movements of the 19th century rejected the very existence of the multi-ethnic empires in Europe. Even in that early stage, however, there was an ideological critique of nationalism. That has developed into several forms of anti-nationalism in the western world. The Islamic revival of the 20th century also produced an Islamic critique of the nation-state.
At the end of the 19th century, Marxists and other socialists (such as Rosa Luxemburg) produced political analysis that were critical of the nationalist movements then active in central and eastern Europe (though a variety of other contemporary socialists and communists, from Lenin (a communist) to Józef Piłsudski (a socialist), were more sympathetic to national self-determination).
In his classic essay on the topic George Orwell distinguishes nationalism from patriotism, which he defines as devotion to a particular place. Nationalism, more abstractly, is “power-hunger tempered by self-deception.”
For Orwell, the nationalist is more likely than not dominated by irrational negative impulses:
There are, for example, Trotskyists who have become simply enemies of the U.S.S.R. without developing a corresponding loyalty to any other unit. When one grasps the implications of this, the nature of what I mean by nationalism becomes a good deal clearer. A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige. He may be a positive or a negative nationalist—that is, he may use his mental energy either in boosting or in denigrating—but at any rate his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations. He sees history, especially contemporary history, as the endless rise and decline of great power units, and every event that happens seems to him a demonstration that his own side is on the upgrade and some hated rival is on the downgrade. But finally, it is important not to confuse nationalism with mere worship of success. The nationalist does not go on the principle of simply ganging up with the strongest side. On the contrary, having picked his side, he persuades himself that it is the strongest, and is able to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him.
In the liberal political tradition there is widespread criticism of ‘nationalism’ as a dangerous force and a cause of conflict and war between nation-states. Nationalism has often been exploited to encourage citizens to partake in the nations’ conflicts. Such examples include the two World Wars, where nationalism was a key component of propaganda material. Liberals do not generally dispute the existence of the nation-states. The liberal critique also emphasizes individual freedom as opposed to national identity, which is by definition collective.
The pacifist critique of nationalism also concentrates on the violence of nationalist movements, the associated militarism, and on conflicts between nations inspired by jingoism or chauvinism. National symbols and patriotic assertiveness are in some countries discredited by their historical link with past wars, especially in Germany. Famous pacifist Bertrand Russell criticizes nationalism for diminishing the individual’s capacity to judge his or her fatherland’s foreign policy. Albert Einstein stated that “Nationalism is an infantile disease. … It is the measles of mankind.”
The Encyclopedia of Religion states that “Nationalism has become a dominant form of religion in the modern world.”
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