Nationalism: Overview

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Nationalism: Overview

Nationalism is one of the most significant political ideas of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, at the heart of worldwide and local conflicts penetrating every region of the globe. It can be defined simply as a political ideology that aims to bring about or to increase the political representation or power of "the nation" and has appeared in many forms in a wide variety of circumstances. It is first and foremost a theory of political legitimacy, which arose and developed in opposition to various theories that derived political legitimacy from other principles. Firstly, nationalism contested the absolutist claim to the divine right of kings that had supported the monarchies of the European ancien régime, claiming that "the nation" was a more legitimate source of power than a monarch. Secondly, nationalism can be seen in opposition to the Marxist theories that aristocratic or bourgeois supremacy should or will be replaced by the unification of the proletarian lower classes around the world, where class is held to be legitimate, rather than a nation. Marxist theories give economics precedence over culture and integrate the ideology of nationalism into a class-based understanding of the world by labeling it as a "bourgeois" theory of legitimacy. Thus nationalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries can be thought of as one theory of political legitimacy competing with others for acceptance.

In different historical contexts, nationalism has been compatible with a wide variety of other political positions, from nineteenth-century economic liberalism, to fascism in the early twentieth century, and indeed forms of Marxism in the postcolonial debate. It can be argued that much of its power as a mover of people comes from its flexibility and adaptability, which in turn can be attributed to the vagueness of the concept of the "nation" that underlies it. A nation is a group of people identified as sharing any number of real or perceived characteristics, such as common ancestry, language, religion, culture, specific institutions, historic traditions, or shared territory. The members of such a group can identify themselves and the others as belonging to the group, and who have the will or desire to remain as a group, united through some form of organization, most often political. Since no two nations need to be defined in the same way, many different combinations of characteristics may be used as the basis for a national identity at the foundation of a nationalist movement. Nationalism thus exists in a variety of forms, the common feature being the use of a culturally defined national identity in a quest for political representation, legitimacy, or power.

In order to understand the ideology of nationalism, it is helpful to examine several of the historical contexts in which nationalism has played a significant part, and then to turn to several theoretical approaches that have been used to classify and interpret nationalism, including areas of debate.

Historical Manifestations

Nationalism first came to prominence in the Western world during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. With roots in the Enlightenment, nationalism was proliferated during the French Revolution of 1789 and elsewhere by those who opposed absolutism, seeking the replacement of kings by nations as the source of all legal and political authority. The revolutionaries sought, for example, to bring about a constitutional, legal regime with a national assembly dedicated to representing the citizens of the nation, thereby overthrowing absolutism and the idea of a hierarchical society of privileges based upon birth.

The idea of the legitimacy of the nation was spread around Europe via the Revolutionary and Napoleonic French armies, who both took their ideology with them, as well as provoking "nationalist" reactions to the French conquests. Although following Napoléon's defeat in 1815 the absolute monarchies were restored around Europe, republican nationalism had already penetrated much of the Continent, and for the next half century there were repeated outbreaks of violence in support of popular nationalism. At this stage, many of the nationalists thought of each other as allies, that the fight against absolutism was one that needed to be fought by the many nations and peoples together. Secret societies of democratic, nationalist opposition, such as Young Italy, Young Germany, and Young Ireland, were affiliated with one another in the quest to overthrow absolutism. Wars and revolutions were fought both to overthrow an absolutist order and to bring about some kind of representative liberal assembly, and at the same time to create individual nation-states, either through the unification of numerous smaller states (such as Italy and Germany) or via the breakup of larger empires (such as Austria-Hungary). During the first half of the nineteenth century, nationalism was primarily supported by the educated middle classes and associated with the economic doctrines of liberalism.

The reaction to invasion during the Napoleonic period sowed the seeds for the type of nationalism that would become more common later in the nineteenth century, when constitutional monarchies and republics had replaced absolute monarchies in most of the European nations. Once absolutism ceased to be the enemy, the common cause of the nationalists disappeared and nation-states found their principal rivals in one another. National leaders concentrated on solidifying their position both with respect to their own populations and with other nations through the championship of their own nation's virtues, often relative to those of other nations.

In each nation-state, national identities were encouraged and developed by national school systems and the proliferation of the symbolism of each nation through flags, anthems, or monuments. Historians such as Jules Michelet (17981874) in France, musicians such as Frédéric Chopin (18101849) or Giuseppe Verdi (18131901), and poets and writers from all over Europe, convinced of their political mission, encouraged national awareness and gave the weight of their popularity and of their academically recognized publications to their nation's glory. Wars involving the conscription of the common citizens used nationalist rhetoric to motivate their soldiers to fight, and many wars were fought in the name of the defense of nations and of national honor and glory, culminating in Europe in World Wars I and II.

At this stage, nationalism became associated with more right-wing, populist parties who sought to promote their own national cultural values and to increase the power and glory of their nation, often at the expense of other nations or of immigrants, at least rhetorically. This kind of populist nationalism can be understood as more than just patriotism, which is a sentiment of loyalty to the nation to which one belongs, because it includes the beliefs that one's own nation has a higher calling and greater value than other nations.

Nationalism was also a key motivating factor in European imperialist expansion throughout the nineteenth century. However, this very imperialist expansion provoked a nationalist reaction throughout much of the rest of the world. Nationalist ideas of independence were brought by the colonizers, and the occupation and rule by the imperial powers led to the anti-imperial national independence movements. From the principle of self-determination found in Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points and used as a basis for the postWorld War I international settlement came the theory to support the numerous twentieth-century wars of national liberation both from colonial powers and from larger states composed of more than one "nation."

The twentieth century saw innumerable conflicts in which nationalism was a motivating factor, and at the same time it saw the solidification of the system of nation-states as the primary form of social organization throughout the world. The United Nations became the primary international body, and nationhood became the goal of any group seeking to increase its political power.

Theories of Nationalism

In the same way that different nations may be defined according to quite different combinations of cultural characteristics, nationalism has not appeared in a single form, nor has it always conformed to the rough chronology outlined above. Sometimes nationalism emerges as a democratic antiauthoritarian movement, and at other times as a means to promote wars between nations, or obtain the unification or subdivision of territory, or as a force seeking the liberation of a territory from "foreign" domination. Nationalism's diversity has made it extremely difficult to develop an all-inclusive theory that can explain every historical apparition. Distinctions can be made between reformist, unificatory, and secessionist types, between revolutionary and counterrevolutionary forms, between successive liberal and conservative variants, and between European and colonial manifestations of nationalism. Many of these systems of classification have as their base a fundamental distinction between two types of nation: civic and ethnic.

Civic and Ethnic Nations

According to this model, civic nations are characterized by the early development of a unified state, a long and shared political history and an emphasis on citizenship, whereas ethnic nations are characterized by threatened elites, early democratization or late modernization, the consolidation of a national culture, xenophobia, and the repressive presence of polyglot empires. The model tends to categorize northern and western European nations such as Britain, France, or the Netherlands as civic, with Germany, Italy, Russia, and nations of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires as ethnic. Held occasionally to be "good" and "bad" types of nationalism, the model aimed in part to explain the phenomenon of violent, expansionist, or anti-Semitic nationalism without qualifying all nationalism as negative. Recent work has demonstrated the limitations of this model, as all nationalisms exhibited both civic and ethnic characteristics, and a simple classification is not always helpful.

The Perennialists

The question of how certain cultural characteristics come to be identified as those defining a nation, as well as how they come to exist in the first place, has inspired two scholarly debates: first the question of invention or preexistence of nations, and second whether nations and nationalism are linked with modernity. The first position with regard to the origins of the common cultural base is that national cultural characteristics exist and are a natural result of humans living in society. This is the position of the "perennialists," who argue that nations, whether natural or not, have existed as long as humans have lived in "society," as well as of many nationalists who seek to claim that their nations are "natural," having existed for many centuries. According to this position, the history of nations and nationalism can be found by tracing the evolution of the cultural characteristics that define each nation and their inscription on the human landscape over time. Even where the characteristics are considered to be symbolic or mythical, they are held to preexist consciousness of them by the members of the nation.

This debate is linked to, but not completely identical with, the question of the existence of nations in the premodern period. Historians such as Adrian Hastings argue that even if they have not "always" existed, nations have existed in Europe for several centuries, and their development is not directly linked to the arrival of modernity. Their arguments are based upon the certain existence and consciousness of large ethnic groupings, as well as the use of the word nation by these groups to describe themselves during the Middle Ages.

The Modernists

The opposite position to those who describe nation as perennial is that nations as they are understood now have developed within a particularly modern context and are invented or imagined rather than naturally existing. This is the position of Benedict Anderson, who defines nations as "imagined political communities." This imagination does not imply "falsity" but only that the reality of national cultural characteristics lies in the perception of them by both the members and those outside of the nation, rather than in an underlying "fact" of their existence independent of any consciousness of them. Further to this idea is the notion that much of the culture defined as national is made up of what Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger have described as "invented" traditions: rituals or symbols that imply continuity with the past and seek, through repetition, to encourage certain patterns of behavior or thinking. According to this position, when examining questions about the nation it is more profitable to begin with nationalism and the nation than with the reality they represent. It is the differing concepts of the nation that eventually, through time, inscribe themselves into the very society that they claim to portray. Ernest Gellner writes that the high culture which characterizes nations is not something that is natural but that must be learned, and nationalism's roots must be found in the pervading social order rather than in human nature, instinct, or the human psyche. The defined national culture gradually infuses the rest of the population with the image(s) it has formed of itself.

According to this theory, the modern state is central in this endeavor as a framework within which nationalist movements can operate. It is also necessary as a mechanism to encourage the people's identification with national history and other images, as well as the extension of the national high culture that is at the center of the nation's identity. John Breuilly stresses this role of the modern state and its institutions in the growth of nationalism and argues indeed that the modern state is the most important feature of the political context in which a nationalist movement can arise. This does not imply that nationalism is a direct product of the modern state, only that within the context of such a state nationalism has much greater potential as a political force. Nationalism, seen as a form of political opposition to absolutism within the newly emerging type of state, leads directly to a conflict over organization and sovereignty. The increasing significance of the state, its institutions and administrative structure, as well as its ability to control and manipulate images in the modern period also contribute to the extension of both national ideologies or traditions and the literate culture to the masses once one group of nationalists has gained control.

The development of technology that enables mass communication, rapid travel, and sophisticated record keeping provided nation-states with enhanced resources to preserve the loyalty of populations and also to encourage what Michael Billig has termed Banal Nationalism (not "banal" in the sense of unimportant). He refers to the phenomenon of the reinforcement of national identity through numerous unconscious reminders of the nation in all of the small habits of social life, via expanding material culture and through the media. From "national" forms such as income tax or social security to the shape and color of mailboxes, lettering on license plates, vocabulary developed to describe diplomas, jobs, laws or customs, and national weather and news reports, everywhere there are subtle and subconscious reminders of the nation, in such a way as to make that which is national seem natural and given.

Permeating societies at a variety of conscious and subconscious levels, capable of application to any number of combinations of group characteristics, and compatible with a wide range of other political ideologies, nationalism is not yet a political idea that has inspired consensus among those analyzing it. Nevertheless, over two hundred years after its emergence as a political theory, it is still one of the most powerful political forces in the world.

See also Historiography ; Nation ; National History ; Political Science .


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Berger, Stefan, Mark Donovan, and Kevin Passmore, eds. Writing National Histories: Western Europe since 1800. London and New York: Routledge, 1999.

Billig, Michael. Banal Nationalism. London and Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1995.

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Woolf, Stuart, ed. Nationalism in Europe, 1815 to the Present: A Reader. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. Collection of important primary texts.

Timothy Baycroft

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Nationalism: Overview

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Nationalism: Overview