A liberation movement is a type of social movement that seeks territorial independence or enhanced political or cultural autonomy (or rights of various types) within an existing nation-state for a particular national, ethnic, or racial group. The term has also been extended to or adopted by other types of groups (e.g., women and gays and lesbians) that seek to free themselves from various forms of domination and discrimination. National liberation movements have been an especially important force in the modern world, and scholars have been interested in explaining their origins, strategies, and impacts. The division of the globe into nation-states, many of the wars among these states, and the hundreds of historical and contemporary conflicts among states and ethnic groups—in short, fundamental aspects of the modern world—cannot be understood without also understanding liberation movements.
Some national liberation movements are based on identification with and loyalty to a population and “its” state (or prospective state), regardless of the ethnic or racial composition of this population. The national feeling and identity underlying such movements is sometimes called “civic nationalism.” For example, the leading liberation organization in South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC), has long advocated a policy of “nonracialism” (in effect, multiracialism), maintaining that South Africa belongs to all people who live there, whatever their race or tribe. Nationalism in the United States is also generally understood as civic in nature, although ethnic and especially racial nationalism (white and black) has often competed with this understanding.
In fact many liberation movements are based on identification with and loyalty to a specific ethnic or racial group that may or may not live within the jurisdiction of a single state. In fact bringing all co-ethnics within a single nation-state, through territorial expansion if need be, has been the aim of a number of nationalist movements. This type of national identity is often called “ethnic nationalism.” For example, the Zionist movement that founded the state of Israel may be understood as a type of ethnic (specifically, Jewish) nationalism. Similarly the Palestinian liberation movement, which has long been at odds with Zionism, is also mainly an ethnonationalist liberation movement—although a very small number of Israelis and Palestinians support the creation of a single “binational” state for both Jews and Palestinians that would incorporate Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza (i.e., historical Palestine).
The word liberation, originally meaning “setting free or releasing from,” first entered the English language in the fifteenth century. The term was not widely used in a political sense until the mid-nineteenth century and especially the mid-twentieth century. National liberation movements can, however, be traced back to the late eighteenth century. The temporal and geographic span of such movements—ranging from the North and South American wars of independence in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to the related (but distinct) European nation-building processes of the mid- and late nineteenth century and continuing through the decolonization struggles in Asia and Africa in the mid-twentieth century and beyond—raises the question of just how similar these movements actually are. Yet despite the wide variation among national liberation movements in terms of historical context, social base, strategies, and specific aims, a common thread uniting them all has been the need to contend, whether as friend or foe, with the nation-building projects that have been so central to the modern world.
The modern nation-state, along with the movements seeking to bring this form of political and social life into existence—whether through intellectual argument, cultural imagining, or force of arms—has been a contradictory social phenomenon. Objectively the political form of the nation-state is thoroughly modern, having come into wide existence only within the last 200 years or so, as well as highly contingent, with the ability of any given national liberation movement to achieve its objective of nationhood dependent upon a host of historical variables. Yet subjectively the nation or “the people,” despite (or perhaps because of) its existence as what Benedict Anderson (1991) calls an “imagined community,” is necessarily understood as natural, eternal, and as unchanging as the sun. The two core elements of national liberation movements—the political task of obtaining state power (whether through seizure or creation) and the cultural process of constructing a “nation”—have therefore frequently coexisted uneasily. The efforts of artists, intellectuals, and political leaders in the vanguard of national liberation struggles—along with the mass movements they have sought (with varying success) to inspire—have been aimed at the creation of a nation-state that, by definition, did not yet exist; yet this struggle has been represented as the natural unfolding of an inevitable, historically preordained process.
The concept of democracy, the idea (and ideal) that the state should represent the interests of the nation or the people, has provided an important ideological justification for attempts to bring together the cultural and political dimensions of the nation-state form. Yet the inclusive, revolutionary-democratic equation of state, nation, and people, ushered into the modern era most powerfully by the French Revolution, has existed alongside the exclusionary practices of modern bureaucratic states, including the “purification” and standardization of a single national language, mass education aimed at spreading this language and an attendant national feeling, and even occasionally the mass expulsion or genocidal elimination of those unfortunates who do not belong to the “right” national or ethnic (including religious or linguistic) group—all in the quest to create an ethnically homogenous nation. Many national liberation movements, moreover, have ignored or even actively suppressed social antagonisms based on class and gender, for example, that would allegedly weaken national identity. Thus the “liberation” these movements have sought has typically been partial at best.
The nation-state has existed throughout its relatively brief history in a complex relationship with another great force that has shaped the modern world—capitalism. Although nineteenth-century liberal economic doctrine extolled the benefits of free trade, the rise of industrial capitalism in Europe was closely linked to mercantilism and state-led “national economies,” a fact that “no economist of even the most extreme liberal persuasion could overlook,” as E. J. Hobsbawm (1992, p. 28) notes. Anderson’s (1991) argument that “print-capitalism” fueled the rise of the mass-circulating newspapers and books upon which the “imagined community” of the nation arose shows that the relationship between capitalism and the nation-state was cultural as well as economic. Furthermore the decolonization struggles of the post–World War II (1939–1945) era must of course be understood in relation to the dynamics of capitalist imperialism. Hobsbawm (1992) points out the close links forged in at least some anti-imperialist national liberation movements between the goals of political independence and social revolution. At the dawn of the twenty-first century—amid neoliberal celebrations of the weakening of state regulation of the economy (seen as the final unfettering of the free market), unprecedented worldwide flows of capital, people, and goods, and a resurgence of nationalist feeling—debate rages as to whether the nation-state form can survive capitalism’s global expansion. Many analysts, especially Marxists, have long predicted that global capitalism would undermine “parochial” nationalist sentiments—though this seems no closer to realization than it was at the beginning of the twentieth century.
What causes liberation movements? Why do they arise when and where they do? Clearly national or ethnic identity and solidarity alone do not automatically produce social movements, and to some extent national identity is itself a product of nationalist mobilization. Furthermore, while nationalism may help to facilitate capitalist economic activities—by encouraging a common language, for example, or by weakening potentially disruptive class identities—its functionality for capitalism does not explain the origins of national identity or nationalist movements in the first place.
Many scholars would argue that liberation movements arise for the same reasons any social movement emerges: widespread grievances, plus a preexisting collective identity (in this case, a widespread national or ethnic identity), plus some significant formal or informal organization or social ties among this self-identified population, plus a sense of political empowerment or efficacy, plus a political context that facilitates (or at least is not inimical to) collective action. As noted, however, national or ethnic identities may be more of an outcome than the initial cause of liberation movements. That is, liberation movements may initially focus on very specific grievances and only gradually address more general grievances and evolve into movements claiming to represent the aspirations of a national or ethnic group as such. During and after the transformation of such movements into national or ethnic movements, they typically help spread a sense of national or ethnic identity to growing numbers of people. Nationalist identities and movements, in short, typically evolve contemporaneously.
Some scholars have also proposed specific theories of nationalist or ethnic mobilization. These theories tend to focus on the political and social conditions that encourage specifically ethnic or national identities—as opposed especially to class identities—and that generate widespread grievances among ethnic and national groups. In one view, those socially and territorially segregated ethnic groups that come into economic or military competition with one another are especially likely to develop strong ethnic identities and to mobilize in collective self-defense. The wealthier and more powerful group may mobilize in reaction to a perceived threat, and the poorer and less powerful group may mobilize so as to improve its own collective interests. Paradoxically, competition may be especially fierce if the two communities are or become more nearly equal. This competition (and concomitant nationalist mobilization) may gradually erode to the extent that the two populations become socially integrated (through voluntary association, for example, or intermarriage), but it is likely to persist if the two groups remain “socially distant” from one another.
The political exclusion and domination of particular ethnic groups, on an explicitly ethnic basis, is also likely to encourage ethnonationalist identities and movements for political rights. Overseas imperialism in its colonial form strongly encouraged the formation of national identities and liberation movements even among groups that did not previously consider themselves members of the same group (the boundaries of colonies were typically established with little regard for the ethnic composition of the local populations). Identities such as “Indonesian” and “Mozambican”—let alone liberation movements based on these identities—did not exist prior to the creation of colonial states.
The strategies of liberation movements have generally been shaped by their organizational strength as well as by the responses of authorities (Irvin 1999). Some authorities have seen political advantages to extending rights to liberation movements or even granting territorial independence in colonial situations. Not surprisingly, authorities have been more accommodating to narrowly political movements, dominated by economic elites, that do not challenge the economic well-being of these authorities and their constituents. By contrast, authorities have strongly and usually violently resisted liberation movements that represent a threat to their economic interests, and such resistance has generally induced liberation movements to adopt more coercive strategies of their own, including forms of armed struggle such as guerrilla warfare and terrorism—the latter strategy especially common in colonies with large settler populations.
In an age of increasing globalization, some have suggested that the relative importance of nation-states is declining, as states find it increasingly difficult to control the movements of labor, commodities, and especially capital. In this view, the advantages of creating or controlling states (or subnational political units) are rapidly decreasing. And yet there are numerous instances of ongoing national liberation and ethnonational movements around the world. These movements have a range of goals—from national independence to regional autonomy—as well as varied social bases—from immiserated Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to wealthy elites in the Santa Cruz region of Bolivia. A short list of early twenty-first-century liberation struggles includes Irish nationalists in North Ireland, Tamils in Sri Lanka, Tibetans in China, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Kurds in Iraq and Turkey, Kashmiris in India, Muslims in southern Thailand, Chechens in Russia, Quebecois in Canada, Basques in Spain, Zapatistas and other indigenous groups in Mexico, Albanians in Yugoslavia (Kosovo), Acehnese in Indonesia, several ethnic groups in the northeastern states of India (including Nagaland and Tripura), and many others. Despite the enormous variety and complexity of such conflicts, their sheer number indicates that ethnonational and national liberation movements will remain extremely important for the foreseeable future.
SEE ALSO African National Congress; Anticolonial Movements; Capitalism; Ethnicity; Ethnocentrism; French Revolution; Globalization, Anthropological Aspects of; Globalization, Social and Economic Aspects of; Liberation; Nationalism and Nationality; Nation-State; Revolution; Social Movements; Zionism
Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. 2nd ed. New York: Verso.
Irvin, Cynthia L. 1999. Militant Nationalism: Between Movement and Party in Ireland and the Basque Country. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Miller, Norman, and Roderick Aya, eds. 1971. National Liberation: Revolution in the Third World. New York: Free Press.
Olzak, Susan. 2004. Ethnic and Nationalist Social Movements. In The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements, eds. David A. Snow, Sarah A. Soule, and Hanspeter Kriesi, 666–693. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Smith, Anthony D. 1991. National Identity. Reno: University of Nevada Press.
Younis, Mona N. 2000. Liberation and Democratization: The South African and Palestinian National Movements. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.