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It is not easy to see how the more extreme forms of nationalism can long survive when men have seen the Earth in its true perspective as a single small globe against the stars.
Arthur C. Clarke
The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.
George Orwell[1]
Not to be confused with internationalism.Wikipedia's W.svg

Nationalism is a term used for any ideology or political cause based on "national consciousness" and a belief in the unity of one's own nation. The nation is, contrary to popular American usage, not necessarily defined by political geography of nation states, but refers to a group of people with certain shared characteristics, usually linguistics, history, religion, or common historical experience, each of which may also delineate an ethnicity.

Nationalism has traditionally been a powerful force in domestic politics and international relations. In its most destructive form, nationalism is known as jingoism (long live the Holy Fatherland!). In its most extreme form, nationalism is racism[2].

It's still too early to tell[edit]

At its simplest, nationalism is the belief that humanity is divided up into nations and that all nations have the right to self-government and to determine their own destiny.[3] Of all modern ideologies, nationalism is the most unequivocal product of the French Revolution. Feelings of national identity and national loyalty can be traced to as far back as the ancient world, and nation states existed for at least several hundred years before the French Revolution. However, it was the French Revolutionaries that invented what we now call nationalism by fusing together the older phenomena of national identity, national loyalty and nation states with a notion of "the people" as the ultimate source of legitimacy and authority. This was in contrast with traditional and religiously sanctioned notions of the dynastic claims of princes to sovereign rule over any territories which they inherited, irrespective of the wishes of the people who lived there. For example, in the three centuries prior to the French Revolution, what we now call Belgium was successively ruled by the Duke of Burgundy, the King of Spain and the Emperor of Austria, and nobody thought this was odd or illegitimate. Inspired by John Locke's ideas of natural rights, government by the consent of the governed, and the right of the people to overthrow a tyranny, and Rousseau's ideas of popular sovereignty and the General Will, the French Revolutionaries invented nationalism almost by accident. As Ian Adams describes it, "it was a by-product of their attempts to put their Enlightenment ideas into effect."[4]

When the French Revolutionaries tried to implement the Enlightenment concepts of popular sovereignty, social contract and individual rights, it was natural for them to assume "the people" were the French nation, which for centuries had been one of the most distinct and united peoples of Europe. It was the nation, not the king, that was sovereign, and it was the nation that was the politically significant unit, not the nobility. In the words of arguably the most important French theorist of nationalism during the Revolution, the cleric Abbey Sieyès (1748–1836), "The nation is prior to everything. Its will is always legal: indeed it is the law itself."[5] The nation is thus a person with a single will and a single common purpose that is the basis of all legitimate authority. And those who opposed the will of the people in some sense betrayed the nation and were outside it.

Sovereignty movements[edit]

Manifestations of nationalism may depend on context. One form of nationalism involves an ethnic group or region, not recognised as a free nation, asserting the right to nationhood and demanding sovereignty. Contemporary examples of this include Irish nationalism (in Northern Ireland), Basque nationalism, Kurdish nationalism and Tibetan nationalism. Some of the current states of the world, including Ireland, India, and the USA, owe their existence to the struggles of nationalists during colonial history, while others, such as Germany, Canada and Italy, formed by nationalist unifications of smaller existing states.

Since the concept of "nation" is so fluid, nationalist groups can flow and transform from one "nation" to another. For example, when Yugoslavia collapsed and split along ethnic lines, it was possible (and indeed, inevitable) for a former Yugoslav nationalist to transfer that feeling to his smaller ethnic group. Gamal Nasser of Egypt was important in a movement that worked to create a pan-Arab nationalism. He melded Egypt and Syria into a single Arab nation: the United Arab RepublicWikipedia's W.svg (1958-1961).

Not all nationalists are focused on achieving full sovereignty. Particularly with smaller minorities with less of a history of independence, the focus may be on language rights, cultural preservation, and greater autonomy short of full independence, as with Breton nationalism (in Brittany, France).[6]

Sense of superiority[edit]

Maybe if we felt any loss as keenly as we felt the death of one close to us, human history would be a lot less bloody.
—Commander Riker, Star Trek: The Next Generation

Other types of nationalism involve promoting the idea that one's own nation is inherently superior to other nations in its values, culture and other attributes. In modern times, this form of nationalism is most associated with fascism and Nazism, and played an important part in Italian, German and Japanese aggression before and during World War II. It is also strongly associated with racism, and the word "nationalist" continues to carry these connotations. In the English-speaking world, few people would describe themselves as a nationalist, and those few are usually also associated with racialism, whereas the word "patriot" or "patriotism" are more readily used in terms of positive sentiments about one's country.

Today, the phrase 'nationalism card' is sometimes used by the media to describe tactics used by some governments to maintain legitimacy (China shall not be mentioned to avoid putting it in bad light...), and they are not sensationally wrong. Examples include the use of national holidays, especially independence days with military parades (read show-offs), to divert public attention from the corruption and incompetence of the current government, and the act of raising tension with another country or territory (we gotta beat these barbarians, folks!). In general, expect a blatant amount of appeal to emotions and ego and perhaps even war (remember Falklands?). Because it makes the public more vulnerable to delusions of grandeur (we are proud to be your irony ruler(s)!), 'nationalism card' can be considered a form of propaganda.

Types of nationalism[edit]

Types of nationalism are often categorized depending on the basis for defining the proposed nation.

  • Racial nationalism, such as white nationalism or black nationalism, is based on the perception that a land belongs to a certain race, though it suffers from the problems of how to define race, deal with mixed race people, etc. It is often associated with the far right.
  • Ethnic nationalism is based on a specific ethnic group, often with a distinctive language, customs, religion, etc. It may overlap with racial nationalism, although ethnicity is potentially open to anybody of any race willing to learn the language, customs, etc. Those without the ethnic markers may find a problematic position as excluded from the new nation.[7] An example would be Hindutva or Hindu nationalism.
  • Linguistic nationalism is similar to ethnic nationalism, but is based specifically on a common language.
  • Civic nationalism (sometimes called liberal nationalism) is based on the idea that anybody within a certain area can be part of the nation. It believes that national identity is important for people, but seeks an inclusive identity not based on race, language, or ethnicity.[8] It is generally the position of liberal or center-left nationalist groups such as the Scottish National Party.

Schools of thought[edit]

Nationalism has paradoxically been seen as both universal and particular.[9] Amid constant debates, schools of thought have emerged that try to explain it. The following are some of the major ones.

  • Primordialism: An early strain of nationalism as a coherent academic thought, its followers argued that nations are timeless, biological phenomena. Though the school has it origins in Romanticism, it has since become discredited by most scholars especially after the Second World War.[note 1]
  • Perrenialism: A response to (and an off-shoot of) Primordialism, it instead posits that nations are not found in nature, but have changed in shape and kind over time. Similarly to the Primordialists however, it argues that countries have been around for a long time.[10]
  • Modernism: Coming into prominence in part as a rebuttal to Primordialism, Modernist scholars argue that nationalism is an entirely modern construct of relatively recent vintage, a product of modernity itself. Marxist critiques of nationalism tend to either fall here or in postmodern off-shoots. Benedict Anderson's idea of nations as "imagined communities" also largely stems from this tradition.[11]
  • Ethnosymbolism: A response to both Modernists and Perrenialists, Ethno-symbolists and similar offshoots seek to reconcile the two sides, stressing the importance of symbols, myths, values and traditions.[12] In this view, nations are both ancient and modern, invented even as they're rooted in history. The school in its current form was pioneered by scholars such as Anthony D. Smith.

Stuart J. Kaufman meanwhile describes seven core rhetorical tenets observed to be utilized by ethnic nationalist movements:

  1. If an area was ours for 500 years and yours for 50 years, it should belong to us – you are merely occupiers.
  2. If an area was yours for 500 years and ours for 50 years, it should belong to us – borders must not be changed.
  3. If an area belonged to us 500 years ago but never since then, it should belong to us – it is the cradle of our nation.
  4. If a majority of our people live there, it must belong to us – they must enjoy the right of self-determination.
  5. If a minority of our people live there, it must belong to us – they must be protected against your oppression.
  6. All of the above rules apply to us, but not to you.
  7. Our dream of greatness is historical necessity, yours is fascism.[13]

Political spectrum[edit]

Politically, nationalists tend to be rather conservative, as they seek to reconnect with the "old ways" of their people. Traced back to its outset, i.e. shortly after the French Revolution, nationalism had more of a natural affinity with Romantic thought than it did with Enlightenment thought. The Romanticism, which was an early form of conservatism, insisted on the uniqueness of every nation: its history, language and culture. However, there have been many liberal nationalists, who felt that their nation could only survive by making drastic changes in the social and political systems. Some, such as Mohammad MossadeghWikipedia's W.svg, were part of the anti-colonial movement. Furthermore, as pointed out above, nationalism was unequivocally a product of the French Revolution, which was, for the most part a "leftist" revolution. Moreover, nationalism has been observed on the left since the French Revolution, from the Russian Revolution to the Cuban Revolution. Nationalism is a very effective political tool, which is why it is never confined to one side of the political spectrum, left or right.

Today, there is a concentration of such nationalists in East Asia.[14] In the past, German nationalism was also a liberal idea, attempting to unite a Germany fractured into a slew of tiny states after the Napoleonic Wars; the Deutschlandlied, much later to become a favorite song of Nazis,[note 2] was initially written as a drinking song by a liberal professor who was rewarded for his pains by being fired from his job and hounded by the police. After Otto von Bismarck succeeded in uniting most of the German-speaking areas, and German Austria became independent of the non-German parts of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, the idea became a feature of the extreme right.

That said, due to the at times confusing dynamics between nationalism and patriotism, like populism it's hard to really pin down where it fits in the political spectrum when the term itself can have various (charged) meanings in different countries and covers various right-wing and left-wing strains.

During the Second World War, various propaganda films were created by the US and UK governments, which portrayed nationalism alongside left-wing ideas, in contrast to Nazism:

For this is Britain, where we believe in freedom. We also believe in peace. Peace to develop our inheritance. This was the Britain we inherited from the industrial revolution, and this is the sort of Britain we have been trying to build during the times of peace. ... A gigantic task we undertook to re-house the urban population into well-built, well-lighted, well-ventilated flats to replace the tumbled-down slums of the past. ... We had no use for war, we had no designs on others. Our only enemies were the common enemies of mankind: poverty, bad conditions, the rigours of the northern climate, disease. And we had them on the run. It seemed to be the beginning of a new age, and is it to stop because one man chooses to force his outworn ideas on Europe?
The Lion Has Wings, British documentary-style propaganda piece from 1940.[15]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. That this particular school became associated with Nazis, racists and the far-right in general doesn't help.
  2. That is, once they had eliminated the third verse, which contained too many references to freedom and justice for their liking, and the second verse, which contained too many references to distractions like wine, women, and song.


  1. According to the essay this came from, the phrase can also apply to anyone blindly following any belief or ideology.
  4. Adams, Ian (2001). Political Ideology Today (2nd ed.). Manchester University Press. ISBN 0 7190 6020 6
  5. Introduction — Territorial Governance: A New Take on Development by Jean-François Simard & Guy Chiasson (2008). Canadian Journal of Reigonal Science 31(3):471-485. Quote from page 478.
  6. See the Wikipedia article on Breton nationalism.
  7. See the Wikipedia article on Ethnic nationalism.
  8. See the Wikipedia article on Civic nationalism.
  9. Nationalism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  10. Smith, Anthony D. "Gastronomy or geology? The role of nationalism in the reconstruction of nations."
  11. Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities
  12. Ethnosymbolism
  13. The Seven Rules of Nationalism
  14. One current example of this could be Guo Quan, who is an extreme Chinese nationalist, but also a leading democracy advocate.
  15. "Lion Has Wings, The -- (1940) -- (Movie Clip) This Is Britain". Turner Classic Movies official website. Some, such as Peter Hitchens, even go so far as to say the film has a communistic bent.