What Is Nationalism? A Short Guide


Nationalism is an ideology that gives a nation a sense of unity by imposing on them the same set of identities (for instance linguistic, historical, cultural). Especially peculiar to nationalism is defining the nation against an Other inside or outside of the state borders.


The short definition on the right by no means exhausts all the complexities of nationalism. So much so that some post-modern scholars insist on using the plural “nationalisms” to do justice to the whole spectrum of experiences. It matters, for instance, whether we are talking about a nationalism in 19th-century Europe or a nationalism in post-World War I India.

Nationalism has a subjective dimension to it. Members of a nation usually feel a sense of unity that in certain circumstances may go beyond class inequalities; it is particularly the case when the nation has a common enemy, be it a colonizer, or be it a specific minority group. In nationalist rhetoric the nation is frequently conceptualized as a fraternity that somehow holds a privileged position in the world.

But what is “nation”? Benedict Anderson came up with perhaps the most famous definition; he sees it as an imagined community, because the overwhelming majority of its members never personally met each other. This community is envisioned as both limited (by its borders) and sovereign (it has the ability to self-govern). Border control is one mechanism of maintaining national identity by “protecting” the nation from dissolution in other cultures. In many cases immigrants are seen as an Other, against which the nation defines itself.


How Do Nations Come About

Many nationalists lay claims to a particular ethnic heritage. For instance, some Indonesians think that an Indonesian essence has existed from the dawn of times and has been impervious to historical earthquakes such as local rivalries between sultanates and Dutch colonial rule. According to them, in the post-colonial period this essence was simply liberated in the form of a nation state.

But no respected historian today supports what is called a primoridalist theory of the nation; a belief that nations evolve from particular ethnic groups in a linear manner. This claim to ethnic heritage is usually made by nationalists post-factum and is never consistent throughout history. In fact, Indonesians themselves vary between their concepts of national identity to the point that the disagreements erupted in internal violence in the mid-1960s and in the early 21st century. Too often we see discontinuity in the historical development of a nation. What is more, many ethnic and linguistic groups haven’t formed a nation with state structures; on the other hand many multi-ethnic states were erected. The majority of the Middle East and Central Asia regions were divided in states by colonial powers; as a result the national borders don’t coincide with ethnic identities.

So how, in fact, are nations created? What are the indispensable conditions for nation-building? Juan R. I. Cole and Deniz Kandiyoti believe that it is the state (or at least some power structures) that creates the nation, and not that the state is a natural result of nation-evolution. The state, or at least some state-like structures, imposes a universal identity through state education, in which a linguistic unity, a sense of shared history and culture are effectively created.

Nation-building involves also a degree of violence. One example of it is army conscription, which is achieved partly by coercion and partly by instilling the ideology of patriotism. In largely agrarian societies, the nationalistic enterprise oftentimes involves subduing the peasantry by the big landowners. Such attempts have frequently erupted in violence between the two groups before a national consciousness could be created.


Dangers of Nationalism

Here you can find out more about why nationalism can be a dangerous ideology

Nationalism in Post-Imperial Britain

Paul Gilroy discusses how the language of nation and race played a significant part in re-invigorating the Conservative party’s political discourse when Britain lost its colonial power. The British nation was described afresh in opposition to immigrants, especially black settlers. Newcomers were then construed as an Other, as a negative backdrop against which British national consciousness could thrive; migrants were degraded so that British greatness could shine. They were also represented as a threat, immigration often being described as an “invasion”. Border control proves to be key in sustaining national identity. But not only outer border control, further borders are drawn within the country, as “true” Brits deny the immigrants full participation in national life.

Surprisingly, even children of legal immigrants born in Britain are sometimes denied full national membership. Despite being citizens in the eyes of the law, it was felt by many (and voiced by Enoch Powell) that they lacked the mystical ties of language, culture, and history that other “true” Brits had. We are left to conclude that truly British children inherit the full cultural, linguistic and historical package from their parents; as opposed to acquiring these identities through social interaction. Some nationalists think that the allegiance of immigrants’ children lay elsewhere, maybe in Africa, despite the fact that they’ve never been there.

All of which begs the question: how long is enough to become a real part of the nation? Two generations? Three generations? Ten generations? All the way to the Norman conquest, or maybe even further, to Celtic cultures? If so, how many people in Britain could claim rights to national membership? If someone were to dig deep enough into Britain’s history would there remain even one descendant of a true Brit? Isn’t it rather that today’s stock of British genes is the result of years of conquests and big migrations?

Identity is seen by nationalists as being allotted to people once and for all on the basis of descent and perceived cultural allegiances, instead of being a complex interplay of individual, social and historical circumstances. But many immigrants and their children cannot be so easily sorted out to different cultural bags; their unique situation allows them to cross national and cultural borders with sometimes unexpected results. At any rate, national culture, although being represented by nationalists as stable and permanent, isn’t in fact immune from historical, cultural and political forces.

White nationalism in Britain had its counterpart in black nationalism. In 1983 the Association of Black Social Workers and Allied Professionals in a move strangely reminiscent of apartheid decided that only black people could adopt black children. They argued that a black child placed in a white family is a replication of the slave system, whereby the child satisfies the emotional needs of the family. They chose blackness as the most important marker of children’s identity ignoring such factors as gender, class, their emotional needs. This attempt at racial segregation also aimed at preserving symbols such as family in its “pure” form, that is as not to give the child away to the influences of a foreign culture.


Nationalism in a Colonial Context

Nationalism in a colonial context is a different phenomenon with its own peculiarities. As Juan R. I. Cole and Deniz Kandiyoti noted, in colonized countries nationalism tended to emerge from the model of agrarian capitalism; large-scale crop production, mainly for export. A landed elite that supervised the peasantry harnessed them to the national enterprise in order to drive out the colonizer and regain control over production.

Frantz Fanon complements this picture with a cultural component of the struggle and tensions between the native people and imperial power. He proposes an action-reaction model; as the colonizer denigrates the colonized people, the people, or more specifically, intellectuals create a glorified and idealized vision of a past civilization. In this way the intellectual harnesses the people’s imagination in the pursuance of the national enterprise of creating an independent state.

In short, an independent nation in a colonial context comes about by virtue of a convergence of these facts: colonial power exploiting and denigrating the people, a reaction by the landed elite to oppression, mobilization of the peasantry by both violent and cultural means (creating a national identity).


Benedict Anderson, ‘Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism’

Frantz Fanon, ‘The wretched of the Earth (On National Culture)’

Paul Gilroy, ‘There ain’t no Black in the Union Jack’

Juan R. I. Cole and Deniz Kandiyoti ‘Nationalism and the Colonial Legacy in the Middle East and Central Asia: Introduction’

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