Nationalism is the belief that the nation should be the central unit of political organisation, as the nation is the only community which is of significance. There are many different forms of nationalism and it is not one cohesive ideology.

Core ideas and principles

Nations: A nation is a group of people. It can be defined as a group of people who share particular characteristics, such as language, history, culture, religion, and so on. It can be difficult to define a nation, as factors such as language and history may be more or less important to different groups of people. Therefore, if people identify themselves as being part of a nation, this is the key categorisation of a nation.

Different nations have different characteristics and beliefs about what is important. The French consider language and cuisine to be important, and religion not important. Belgium, on the other hand, has more than one language, and Italy places emphasis on the Catholic religion. The USA does not have a particularly long history and is made up of many different ethnic backgrounds, so instead, commonality is seen through ideas such as the ‘American Dream’- the idea that anyone can succeed if they work hard enough.

Self-determination: This refers to the ability to decide how one is governed, or a nation ruling itself. This is based on the idea that, as the nation is the central form of political organisation, it is only right that the members of that nation are allowed to govern themselves, as they will know what is in their best interest.

Different types of nationalists have different views on self-determination. Some believe that the key to a stable world is one made up of independent nation-states, whereas others believe only their nation has the right to self-determination, at the expense of others. Conflicts throughout history have been fought on the principle of self-determination, such as the Balkans war of 1990, where different ethnic groups fought for the right of self-rule following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Nation-state: A state is a geographical area with clear boundaries, therefore the nation-state is one in which a group of people regarding themselves as a nation rule themselves in their own sovereign territory. This is closely related to the concept of self-determination, and usually today the nation-state is the way a country is organised. This has not always been the case, for example, the nation of Germany was divided into two nation-states for much of the 20th century.

Liberal nationalists aim to create a world composed of nation-states. Other forms of nationalism, for example, chauvinistic nationalism, suggest only some nations benefit from ‘nation-statehood’, whereas others should accept that they are better off as colonies of these ‘stronger’ nations.

Colonialism (also known as imperialism) was the accepted practice of many countries in history. It involves one country controlling another, by invasion, settlement or economic domination. Great Britain had the largest empire in history, made up of many African and Asian countries, now known as the ‘commonwealth’. Pursuing an Empire was seen as a good way of displaying power and ensuring prestige. As a consequence, there were fewer nation-states the further back in history one goes.

Culturalism: This argues that people have a deep, emotional tie to their nation. This is in contrast with civic nationalism (of which liberal nationalism is an example), which is based on a more rational or reason-based approach, suggesting there are rights and responsibilities which are agreed on and accepted by each member of the nation.

Culturalism suggests that each nation has an ‘essence’, referred to by Herder as the volksgeist (‘spirit’ of a nation). This is revealed through art, history, culture and shared stories or folktales. Herder’s ideas have been used to support expansionist nationalism, the idea that, as a nation’s spirit can be argued to be stronger than other nations’, colonial domination can be justified (Herder himself rejected this idea).

Nationalism, figure 1

Civic nationalism suggests that one can join a nation instantaneously, whereas culturalism suggests that membership of a nation takes time to develop. Being German does not, therefore, mean living in Germany and being able to speak German, but having spent years living as a German, becoming absorbed in Germany’s culture and lifestyle. Culturalism links with patriotism- the belief of pride in one’s nation and having a strong emotional connection to it.

Culturalism does not have to necessarily lead to a desire for statehood. In Wales, for example, the Welsh language is preserved, as well as particular ways of life, but this has not translated into a popular desire for Wales to become a separate country (like many in Scotland wish).

Racialism: This is the belief that a person’s race (their biological background), is a significant aspect of their character, and that racial divisions are politically significant. Different races, therefore, have distinct qualities, and this may lead to a belief in the inherent superiority or inferiority of certain races. This leads to the idea of a racial hierarchy, and support for policies which ensure the separation of different races, in order to preserve their distinct characteristics.

Race can be distinguished from ethnicity, as ethnicity not only considers biological background but also a person’s culture, the culture of their parents or upbringing, their language, religion, and other factors.

Internationalism: This is the belief that people should look beyond traditional national boundaries, in order to make a better world and work in the interests of more people than just the citizens of one nation.

There are two main types:

  1. Liberal internationalism: individual nations have the right to self-determination (like individuals have the right to autonomy and freedom). These independent nation-states will naturally seek to co-operate with each other, by exchanging goods and services. This will lead to an interdependent network of states, which is inherently peaceful- as the costs of conflict would be too high. To help resolve disputes, supranational institutions (such as the EU) can play a part.
  2. Socialist internationalism:__ __concerned with extending principles of harmony, cooperation and community across all of humanity, believing that nations are an artificial way of dividing people. Nationalism and patriotism are ways by which false consciousness are maintained amongst workers, to prevent them from realising the fact of their exploitation. Marx suggested ‘the working man has no country’. Lenin suggested that one reason why capitalism has survived was the exploitation of workers in various countries, which allowed for improved wages and conditions in the ‘host’ country. This type of internationalism rejects nationalist thinking.

Nationalist views on:

  1. Human nature: there is a range of views in how nationalists view human nature. A common one is that human nature is reflected as a natural instinct and humans naturally wish to be united around common themes. Liberal nationalists see humans as rational individuals who will make choices out of free will. Conservative nationalists see humans as drawn to the familiar and known, which means nationalism unites a people with common traits.
  2. State: again, there is a range of views. Liberal nationalists view the state as a body which nations aspire to and the ideal preference is a world of nation-states. Conservative nationalists use the state as a device to unite a country and place it as a focal point of unity and trust, promoting the values of patriotism for the state. Expansionist nationalists use and view the state as a means of dominance, over both the indigenous inhabitants and as a means of challenging other states. In extremes, loyalty to the state is demanded from all citizens.
  3. Society: nationalists share a common view of society, in that it is defined in terms of ethnic or cultural traits. Society to that extent is a series of mono-cultural segments. Society is held together and identified by widely held ideas and beliefs - there is no division. Nationalists would see a multicultural society as unstable and not able to unify and work together for any common goal.
  4. Economy: nationalism is a cross-cutting doctrine, in that it can attach to views across the political spectrum, so there is no distinct or single economic view which emerges from nationalism. Nationalists on the extreme have willingly used economic planning to command the economy in terms of production. Conservative nationalists have been sceptical of large organisations with an international character taking ownership of a country’s economic capital.