Nationalism Research Paper

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In its most familiar but basic nineteenth- and twentieth-century form, nationalism is the doctrine that each nation has a right to its own state, and that a state is legitimate only if it represents a nation. Four interrelated features of the modern world were conducive to the emergence of nationalism: politics, economies, dissemination of text-based culture, and racial, religious, and ethnic differences.

Until recently, conventional wisdom held that nationalism arrived on the world stage in western Europe around the end of the eighteenth century. Its birth was sometimes dated more precisely: 20 September 1792, when the French revolutionary troops who turned back the invading Prussian and Austrian coalition forces at Valmy did so with the cry “Vive la nation!” Whether or not the victory was the result of nationalist fervor or effective artillery is moot. But there is little doubt that the mass mobilization with which the French Revolution met its enemies, the administrative and cultural centralization begun by the republic and continued under the empire, and the belief in France’s destiny inspired by Napoleon prefigured many of the themes of later nationalism. So too did the response that France’s victories evoked. Resistance to French armies was carried out in the name of the nation, even when—as in the case of the patchwork of states, principalities, and imperial possessions which was to become Germany—no political entity corresponded to that name. Indeed, it was in the German language that the nation received its first explicit philosophical articulation, in the writings of Johann Gottfried von Herder and Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Once it found expression, the rhetoric of nationalism was taken up with great enthusiasm in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Wars were fought, dynasties overthrown, empires challenged, and borders redrawn in the name of national self-determination.

The conventional wisdom has been subject to criticism on many fronts. Some historians have argued that nationalism had very little presence in the consciousness of ordinary people until well into the nineteenth century and perhaps even later. Eugen Weber (1976) has shown that most French peasants in the late nineteenth century had little sense of being French. John Breuilly (1982) has argued that nationalism was initially a political project designed to further the interests of elites, and only engaged popular sentiment as a result of the administrative and educational policies of the state. If this line of criticism encourages us to think of nationalism as emerging rather later than the end of the eighteenth century, a second line of criticism locates nationalism earlier. Linda Colley’s (1992) account of eighteenth-century Great Britain tracks the development of a sense of British national identity over that period. Colley’s argument is not inconsistent with, and indeed it presupposes the existence of, an English and perhaps even a Scottish sense of national identity before that. Liah Greenfeld (1992) and Anthony W. Marx (2003) trace the emergence of nationalism back to the early sixteenth century, and Adrian Hastings (1997) has presented a strong case for a sense of English nationhood even prior to the Norman Conquest.

It is important to separate different questions here. One concerns the extent to which nationalism was a significant presence in the consciousness of those in whose name nationalist struggles were carried on. Another concerns the use of nationalist rhetoric by political leaders, intellectuals, and cultural figures. It may be that Breuilly is right about the relatively shallow roots of nationalism, even in the nineteenth century. But it may also be that Greenfeld and Marx are right in that nationalist rhetoric was making its appearance in political and cultural discourse at least four hundred years earlier. In other words, nationalism may have begun its career as an elite phenomenon, and only become a mass possession very much later.


In its most familiar nineteenth- and twentieth-century form, nationalism is the doctrine that each nation has a right to its own state, and that a state is legitimate only if it represents a nation. In more recent years, however, some nationalist movements—for example, the Welsh in the United Kingdom, the Kurds in Iraq— have been prepared to settle for something less than full political self-determination. Although these concessions may be born out of necessity, they suggest adopting a more moderate and inclusive conception of nationalism as the claim that a nation has a right to political recognition, perhaps a degree of autonomy within a federal structure, and that a state is legitimate to the extent that it provides that recognition.

But what is the nation? And what is it about the nation that justifies its claim to a privileged political status? There is a limit to the extent that we can provide general answers to these questions. But there are some general characteristics. Nationalism came on the scene with the idea that a group of people is constituted as a political community through a shared cultural identity, and (enough) people believe that this identity should take priority over others. There is an enormous variety in the constituents of this identity, not only between nations but within a nation at different times. Each nation does have its own story to tell, but the plot may change. Every nation does, however, appeal to a common history, a story of triumphs and disasters, of heroism and betrayal, through which the nation has come to be what it is. Every nation thinks of itself as having a homeland, which is described and celebrated in the nation’s art, literature, and music, and which provides the ground in a near literal sense of its national identity. Typically (though not universally), the national culture is based on a common written language, and members of the nation are able to communicate with each other through that language. The culture is also egalitarian: as Benedict Anderson (1991, 20) put it, the nation is “always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.” This is, of course, compatible with considerable inequality of wealth, power, and prestige. The nation is like the God of the great monotheistic religions: all are equal in the eyes of the nation, if in nothing else. However, insofar as the nation is conceived as the basis of legitimate political rule, nationalism is a populist doctrine: sovereignty is located in the people.

The Origins of Nationalism

Nationalism is the doctrine that a community, united by land, history, and language, has a claim to political recognition. The more visible nationalist movements of the nineteenth century—those of Germany, Italy, Greece, Poland, and many others—sought to remake political borders so that they would correspond to the aspirations of the nations they claimed to represent. It is possible, however, to recognize earlier, less strident versions. English borders were, more or less, secure by the sixteenth century; they were extended by the incorporation of Scotland in 1706. (The attempt to include Ireland was much less successful.) A conception of England, involving landscape (“this scepter’d isle”), religion (Protestantism), history, mythology (Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene was important), a cast of characters (the English yeoman, the squire), a literary tradition, even special modes of warfare (the long bow), had begun to play an important role in public discourse in the sixteenth century. When England and Scotland formed Great Britain it formed an unusual, but not unique, multinational nation (Canada and the old Soviet Union are other examples). While England and Scotland could continue to celebrate their distinct national identities—though a strong case has been made by Hugh Trevor-Roper (in Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983), that Scottish national identity was largely formed in the nineteenth century—they did so as parts of a larger nation, Britain. The monarchy, shared political institutions, and a common written language were important unifying factors. So too was Protestantism, and as this became less important in the nineteenth century, it was replaced by a shared imperial mission.

The story so far focuses on England and later Britain. Many scholars (Greenfeld 1992, Hastings 1997) have argued that England led the way into nationalism. And even Marx (2003), who places Spain first in the queue, with France and England close competitors, concedes that the nationalist project was more successful in early modern England than elsewhere. However, this leaves open the issue of whether there were even earlier forms of nationalism, perhaps elsewhere than in Europe. Hastings makes the interesting suggestion that Israel as depicted in the Old Testament served as a model for the early nationalist depictions of England. Certainly, the combination of culture, divine election, and political claims made on behalf of the Israelites has much in common with later nationalism. So too do the claims that Thucydides has Pericles make on behalf of Athens in his Funeral Oration after the first year of the Peloponnesian War. So we will need to look at the possibility of earlier—and perhaps non-European—forms of nationalism shortly.

Why Nationalism?

Whether or not there are premodern examples, there is little doubt that nationalism reached its zenith in the modern world. Why has the modern world been so hospitable to nationalism? There are four interrelated features of the modern world that were conducive to the emergence of nationalism: politics, economies, the dissemination of text-based culture, and religious, racial, and ethnic exclusions.


Nationalism is, as both Breuilly and Marx emphasize, a political project. This suggests that we need to examine the emergence of nationalism in the context of changes in the nature of state power. The most obvious of these is centralization: the attempts by the early modern state to establish its position as the sole source of power within an increasingly clearly defined territory. Of almost equal importance was the expansion of the role of the state in social life. It acquired a range of administrative, juridical, policing, infrastructural, and increasingly educational responsibilities. If state coercive power was centralized, its administrative power began to make itself felt in almost all aspects of social life.


The most important economic change was the spread of capitalist market relations. Ultimately this was to lead to industrialization, but that came much too late (in Britain, in the late eighteenth century; in Europe, North America, Japan in the eighteenth, and in other places even later) to explain the emergence of nationalism (as against Gellner 1983). As market relations spread, previously self-sufficient rural communities found themselves dependent on a wider network of production and distribution. The emergence of a labor market encouraged population movement. Transport, both of goods and of people, improved. If the market was always global in its reach, the most intensive development took place within the borders of well-established states, such as England and France. If the market was not a sufficient explanation of nationalism (as some Marxists may have believed), it defined the social space on which national identities were constructed.

Dissemination of Text-Based Culture

Perhaps the single most important development was what Anderson (1991, 37–46) called “print capitalism”—the explosion in the production and dissemination of texts, increasingly in vernacular languages. If religious texts (especially the Bible) were initially most important, other text-based cultural forms (political tracts, scandal sheets, magazines, plays, eventually novels) developed to take advantage of the new opportunities for influence and markets. The spread of literacy made these products available to a large audience. If market relations were eroding the diversity of cultural forms characteristic of peasant life, the development of print-based culture made more encompassing and richer forms of identity available.

Religious, Racial, and Ethnic Exclusions

Many historians of nationalism (e.g., Colley 1992, Marx 2003) emphasize the role of real or imaginary differences in the construction of nationhood. For Colley, the opposition to Catholic and absolutist France was crucial to the construction to British national identity in the eighteenth century. Marx makes a stronger case: for him, an essential component in the formation of national identities was the repudiation of some identifiable other. Early-sixteenth-century Spain selected the Jews, and most nations followed suit. For England, the exclusion of Catholics helped unify the otherwise heterogeneous Protestants. No doubt internal factors, such as those listed above, also played a role. It is plausible, however, to suggest that a contrast with what is “other” is necessary for a unified identity. All too often, the other is conceived of as a threat that must be repudiated. Religious, racial, and ethnic exclusions lurk uncomfortably close to the surface of the most civilized national cultures.

These four features do not provide a full explanation of the rise of nationalism. History is too full of contingencies for this to be possible. But they provided the environment within which the nationalist project became possible and, for many, inevitable.

Premodern Nationalisms?

Once we have a reasonably clear understanding of nationalism it becomes a broadly empirical question whether there were premodern nationalisms. There are, however, reasons to be skeptical. For much of world history, it would not have seemed plausible to accept the idea that the culture political elites shared with those over whom they ruled was the justification for their political rule. This does not mean that there were not latent cultural similarities between ruling elites and their subjects. Both John A. Armstrong (1982) and Anthony D. Smith (1986) have argued that the early nationalisms of western Europe were able to draw on the cultural resources these provided. (Both Armstrong and Smith conceive these similarities on ethnic lines. This is misleading. Religion and other cultural features were more important than descent.) But these cultural ties seem to have played relatively little political role and it would be a mistake to think of them as constituting nations in the modern sense. Perhaps something more akin to the nation came into existence when these communities were faced with a common enemy. It may be, for example, that a sense of French national identity emerged during the One Hundred Years War, and—even earlier—that Vietnamese, Burmese, and Korean national identities came into play as a response to the ongoing struggles with China. A different candidate for premodern nationhood were those small communities, such as ancient Israel and the Greek city-states (excluding the slaves), where there was not a large gap between rulers and citizens, and social life involved a number of common activities and rituals (military service, religion). In these cases, shared experience would have forged a common cultural identity. But this is a long way from the vast nation-states of the modern world.

The Spread of Nationalism

Whether or not there were premodern nationalisms, it was at best an intermittent occurrence. In the modern world, it has seemed inescapable. And it is easy to see why. Once the link between culture and state power had been established, political rule acquired a cultural dimension. This was recognized after the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and the nineteenth century was the period of “official nationalism” (the term is taken from Seton-Watson 1997). States strove to legitimize themselves in cultural terms. Public displays, rituals, and ceremonials were deployed, and even invented, as part of this nation-building exercise. By contrast, old polyglot empires on the Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman models faced increasing difficulties as their states responded to the challenge of the modern world. The relative success of the United Kingdom in forging an overarching national identity shows that these difficulties were not insuperable. As states expanded their territory and increased their presence in everyday life, minority cultures were faced with a choice, either to accommodate to the dominant culture or to resist. The former choice meant assimilation or marginalization; the latter was the path of national resistance, as the minority culture sought a political embodiment. It may be, as Breuilly argued (1982), that nationalism provided the rhetoric in which intellectuals and political leaders voiced their opposition to metropolitan centers of power well before it became a presence in the consciousness of the people in whose name nationalist struggles were fought. But the rhetoric was—and remains—an effective one.

The sources of nationalism are to be found in the enormous structural changes that were taking place in western Europe in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. But it was quickly appropriated in the non- Western world. This does not mean that European models were simply translated, though African and Asian leaders and intellectuals were undoubtedly influenced by what they learned from Europe. Perhaps most important was the experience of European imperialism. Borders were drawn according to the exigencies of colonial rule, and resistance to that rule itself formed the national identities in whose name resistance was carried out. While postcolonial nations were able to draw on local traditions and history, national identities often faced difficulties when the unity gained though struggle was overtaken by other competing loyalties.

Does Nationalism Have a Future?

For the past two or three hundred years, the nationstate has provided the organizing principle within which much economic, political, and cultural activity has taken place. There is some reason to suppose that this is no longer the case. Production, and not merely exchange, increasingly takes place on an international scale. Improvements in transport and, massively, in communication, have placed even ordinary people in contact with people across state borders. The imperative of economic growth has led most states to subordinate some of their power to supranational agencies and global market forces. National cultures have fragmented along lines that bear little relation to political boundaries. As Hobsbawm (1993, 163) remarked, nationalism “is no longer a major vector of historical development.” But we should be very wary of predicting the demise of nationalism. The explanatory story sketched in above leaves a good deal of room for historical contingency. Whatever its origins, nationalism has become a historical force in its own right, not merely as a medium for other projects. Nations have been able to appropriate and create impressive cultural resources. States retain a good deal of residual power and are well aware of the potency of nationalism to support it. Whether or not globalization will eventually deliver prosperity and security, the contemporary reality for many is poverty and uncertainty. In these circumstances, it is not surprising that nationalism continues to attract the allegiance of states, oppositional groups, and—not least—ordinary people.


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