Nationalist Movements

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Nationalist Movements

A nationalist movement is a social and political movement for obtaining and maintaining national identity and autonomy among a group of people that some of its members consider a nation. The underlying principle of its motivating ideology, nationalism, is to uphold national interest or national identity as the primary basis on which political decisions are made.

Most historians agree that, as an ideology, nationalism became prevalent in North America and Western Europe in the latter half of the eighteenth century, and shortly thereafter in Latin America. The first wave of nationalist movements reached its peak during the 1848 revolutions in Europe, which led to the unification of Germany and Italy. Toward the end of the nineteenth century a second wave swept Eastern and Northern Europe, as well as Japan, India, Armenia, and Egypt. Soon nationalist movements spread to most of Asia and parts of Africa. In the twentieth century nationalist movements became a global phenomenon. In many instances, such as the anticolonial struggles in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, nationalist movements were a progressive force. However, nationalist movements also led to some of the darkest moments in modern history, such as the rise of fascism in Europe during the 1930s and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s.

The early theorists of nationalism highlighted the crucial role of sentiments in modern politics as well as the importance of preexisting traditions such as race, language, and culture. Later European nationalists reacted to industrialization and linked the economic aspect of a nation's life to its culture and politics, thus making nationalism a more powerful ideology. Nationalism's appeal is based on the perception of individuals as an integral part of a community who cannot be defined in isolation from this community, rather than as independent and self-sufficient people. Such a viewpoint provides ample justification for a nationalist movement and its perceived uniqueness.

theories and debates

Nationalism and nationalist movements did not become the subject of historical enquiry until the mid-nineteenth century, or of social scientific analysis until the early twentieth century. In the wake of the widespread nationalist movements of decolonization in Africa and Asia in the 1950s and 1960s, many models and theories of nationalism emerged with the premise that nations and nationalism are intrinsic to modernity. These theories perceive the nation as the creation of a distinctively modernizing, industrial, and capitalist West, and the product of specific social, economic, bureaucratic, and technological innovations.

During the decades that followed, the "modernist " view of nationalism was further developed and refined as scholars redefined the nation as a purely intellectual construct. The fundamental premise of this kind of theory is challenged by "primordialists," who point to modernism's failure to grasp the recurring nature of ethnic ties and to ground its understanding of modern nations in history and earlier traditions. They argue that the power of ethnicity and ethnic history is crucial to understanding the modern nation-state, and the modern nation-state would simply not exist without ethnic foundations, even though such foundations are often idealized. These theorists hold that ethnicity, although mutable and constantly evolving, limits the degree to which a given cultural identity may be transformed. In this sense, it is not a mere fiction and cannot be expected to vanish gradually as a result of modernization.

Over the years the differences between the modernists and primordialists seem to have narrowed, at least among leading voices. At the same time, some argue that both intellectual camps have adopted a perspective emphasizing historical progress and the necessary development of nation-states that has, in fact, become an impediment to understanding non-Western national consciousness and new forms of modern community.

contemporary challenges

It is widely recognized that nationalism has both a positive and negative side. A nation may be democratic, inclusive, secular, and forward-looking, or authoritarian, exclusionary, religious, and backward-looking. Similarly, nationalist movements may be progressive, such as many anticolonial struggles, or virulent, such as ethnic cleansing. Well-known leaders of nationalist movements include not only the chief proponent of nonviolence, India's Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948), but also Nazi Germany's Adolf Hitler (1889–1945), brutal Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu (1918–1989), and the former Yugoslavia's strongman, Slobodan Milosevic (b. 1941).

Some scholars believe that Western European nationalism began as predominantly liberal and democratic, whereas Eastern nationalism has fundamental and pervasive tendencies toward "authoritarianism." According to this binary view of nationalism, nationalism can be divided into two categories: civic nationalism and ethnic nationalism. Civic nationalism defines national membership in terms of adherence to democratic principles, whereas ethnic nationalism defines national membership in terms of the more exclusionary categories of ethnicity and culture. In practice, however, these types are often closely intertwined, and sometimes it is not difficult to move from one version to another as circumstances change. Moreover, diffusion of a common language and national culture occurs even in the most liberal democracies.

Many have suggested that there is little intellectual content behind nationalism, and hence its historical manifestations cannot be fully understood unless placed in the context of major political traditions such as liberalism, conservatism, and Marxism. Despite the fact that most of these political traditions relegated nationalism to a secondary position, nationalism has demonstrated astounding resilience through centuries of political turmoil. Many philosophers, such as Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill, have tried to explain away nationalism and failed. This makes the relationship between nationalism and liberalism, the political ideology on which the ideas of liberal democracy and universal human rights are based, a particularly important theoretical and practical issue in the contemporary world.

Liberalism's core ideas, such as the beliefs that the individual is the primary political actor, that the state is the exclusive arena for civic identification, and that individuals should be granted a set of rights guaranteeing freedom and equality which the state must not take away, seem radically incompatible with nationalist movements that demand complete loyalty and partiality, and prioritize national interests over individual rights. Liberalism's universalist outlook has always made the matter of national and other boundaries problematic: Liberals tend to either assume the nation-state exists as an arena for justice and democratic principles without properly theorizing it, or try to justify particular boundaries from universal premises. Thus, many liberals have long regarded nationalism as "irrational" and hence a subject unworthy of serious scholarly attention.

Nevertheless, liberal institutions and practices developed within the framework of the nation-state. Even during the early days of nationalism, liberal political thinkers advocated nationalist movements to achieve political unity in countries such as Germany and Italy, and invoked nationalist sentiments whenever they perceived that the interest of their country was at stake. In his Fourteen Points of 1918, submitted at the conclusion of World War I, U.S. President Woodrow S. Wilson (1856–1924) offered the principle of national self-determination as the liberal answer to the question of national sovereignty. This principle was further institutionalized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, formulated by the United Nations (UN) in 1948. It provided a standard for nation building after both world wars, as well as during the process of decolonization in the Third World. Although its language is somewhat abstract and ambiguous, the declaration's core meaning remains incontrovertible and simple to grasp: "the belief that each nation has a right to constitute an independent state and determine its own government." The liberal principle of national self-determination became one of the most influential ideas of the twenty-first century.

During much of the Cold War, nationalist movements were often overshadowed by the power struggles between the United States and the former Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War once again pushed the question of national sovereignty into the foreground of international politics. From 1991 to the end of 1992 three former communist multiethnic states—Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, and Czechoslovakia—disintegrated, producing more than twenty successor states. With communism no longer a viable political force across the globe, it appears that the entire postcommunist world is experiencing a revival of nationalist movements. Such movements in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa pose serious threats to regional stability and security. These developments challenge the notion that liberalism is the only game in town and have resulted in a burgeoning literature on "liberal nationalism."

Acknowledging that the nation-state is here to stay, liberal nationalists offer a variety of reasons why nation-states are the appropriate outgrowth of liberal political theory. They argue that the liberal state is, in fact, critically dependent for its unity and stability on civil bonds, which existed before political ties, that can only be provided through national attachments. When citizens assume a national identity, it serves to both legitimize the state's protection of citizens' rights and provide the cultural environment in which liberal rights might be exercised. In general, liberal nationalists advocate political and cultural tolerance. They oppose coercive means to promote a common national identity and are tolerant of political activities that might yield a different national character.

Liberal nationalism typically entails a more open definition of the nation, with the membership of the nation being more inclusive. Giving explicit recognition to the fact that the bonds between individuals are rooted in a social context, liberal nationalism has had significant implications for politics in contemporary multinational liberal states, as it provides justification for the rights of some groups and the preservation of minority cultures.

slobodan milosevic (b. 1941)

Slobodan Milosevic is the former president of Serbia as well as the former president of Yugoslavia. Both his parents committed suicide during his early years. Milosevic joined the Communist Party in 1959 and started his career as a banker. In 1987 he became the political leader of Serbia and was elected to the presidency by the country's National Assembly in 1989.

Milosevic is often described as a nationalist even though he opposed Serbian nationalism in favor of hard-line Marxism during his early years in power. A speech he made in Kosovo in 1989 is commonly regarded, however, as the opening of a Serbian nationalist campaign. Milosevic is probably best understood as an opportunist who took advantage of the wave of nationalism that surged throughout Yugoslavia following the collapse of Communist rule.

Milosevic's popularity rose after the NATO bombings of 1999, but he fell from power as a result of contesting election returns in 2001. The Serbian government arrested Milosevic on April 1, 2001, and handed him over to the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, which charged him with genocide and crimes against humanity. The trial was a landmark event because Milosevic is the first former head of state in history to stand trial for war crimes before an international court.

In broader theoretical and political terms, however, liberal nationalism provokes more questions than it answers. Although it accepts the notion that a person is part of a multiplicity of communities and collectives, liberal nationalism assumes that the same individual can always distance him or herself from any such label, and in that sense endorse or criticize it. This perception of an individual's sense of national identity as the outcome of rational and critical reflection clearly contradicts most nationalists' view of national identity as a product of cultural or historical factors. Moreover, for liberal nationalists, national identity is only one of an individual's overlapping identities, and not necessarily the most determining or the most prominent. But for nationalists, national identity is the most important facet of an individual's overall identity, and national solidarity is valued more highly than individual choice. Consequently, liberal nationalists have great difficulty understanding why national minorities are eager to form or maintain political units in which they are a majority and often tend to favor the status quo.

Most important, the literature on liberal nationalism is almost purely philosophical and normative, rather than based on empirical observations. Liberal nationalists often treat the existence of nation-states as a given while overlooking the fact that nation building is, in many instances, a contingent and ongoing process. In reality, nationalism often takes on virulent forms and produces political systems that do not even slightly resemble liberal nationalists' idealized vision. The twenty-first century manifestations of nationalist movements in the Middle East, such as the Palestine-Israeli conflict, and those in the post-Soviet states, such as the terrorism in Chechnya, have led to much violence and bloodshed.

The contemporary political world is divided by many boundaries, with nations featured prominently among them. For any given country, nationalism could play a state-building role as a cohesive force bringing together the state and society. It could also assume a state-destroying role as a separatist force fragmenting the society. It is impossible to generalize and conclude whether nationalist movements play a "positive" or "negative" role. Nevertheless, a common national identity does facilitate economic development and democracy building. Historically, nation building in the West often took many decades or even centuries. In the early twenty-first century many non-Western societies, especially those with colonial legacies, face the triple challenges of simultaneous economic development, democratization, and nation building. The competition for scarce political and economic resources only makes the creation of a common national identity a more difficult process, which in turn leads to political instability and economic stagnation. Although the West has not relented in its attempts to pressure such societies into upholding universal human rights, few signs exist that this trend is reversing in a fundamental way. It is thus likely nationalist movements will continue to play a significant role in world politics.

See also: Colonies and Colonialism; Democracy; Dictatorship; Ghandi, Mahatma; Hitler, Adolf; Oligarchy; Romania; Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


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Universal Declaration of Human Rights. <>

Cheng Chen

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Nationalist Movements

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Nationalist Movements