Survey of the main ideas of nationalism

Television news often uses the terms 'nation' and 'state' interchangeably. The Six Nations Championship is a rugby competition with teams from England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, and Wales. The United Nations (UN) is an international organization made up of 193 member states with territorially sovereign status. Despite this, the interchangeability of 'nation' and 'state' is seen in the name of the organization. Historians, social scientists, and international lawyers see distinctions between the two as crucial. The idea of a nation encompasses shared culture and history, shaped by various factors. Nations are seen as cultural communities, rooted in the 18th century romanticism that emphasizes distinctive traditions and memories. Scholars like Anthony Smith have discussed the organic continuity of nations over time. The development of nationalism is viewed by some as part of the modernization and state-building process. The modern concept of a nation emphasizes political allegiance, democracy, and civic loyalties. Nationalism can serve as a form of bourgeois ideology. Some nations, like the United States, have a multicultural and multi-ethnic character, reflecting voluntary shared values rather than a pre-existing cultural identity.

Nationalism is an ideology that has at its core the belief that nations are the only genuine community in society. Because of this view, nationalists tend to see the world from the perspective of the nation.

There can be no doubt as to the significance of nationalism as an idea that motivates people to act, and that has the capacity to realign geopolitics. Across the globe, whether over the last decade, century or even millennium, world history and geography have been shaped by nationalist ideas.

However, nationalism is not one cohesive ideology. Different types of nationalism can be so widely defined so as to have no clear meaning. Trumpism, Brexit, the annexation of Crimea, Scottish independence and conflict in the Middle East are all recent examples caused by different interpretations of nationhood and sovereignty. Nationalism was the driving force in  the war in the Balkans, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the troubles in N Ireland and decolonisation. Most of the world's conflicts, including the two World Wars, are linked to the ideas of nationalism . 

The Nation

Nationalism is a broad term that views the nation as the natural basis for community organization. Various descriptions exist for what a nation entails. Nations are essentially cultural constructs where groups of individuals are united by a shared sense of identity, values, and traditions. Common cultural attributes include language, religion, history, and geographical location. While nations can be objectively defined based on cultural criteria, the concept becomes complex when considering the varying significance placed on these criteria. Additionally, a nation's cultural definition differs from a legalistic one, where membership is determined by qualifying factors such as citizenship. In essence, a nation is a group of individuals who self-identify as such, uniting through shared characteristics.

Anthony Smith (1986) highlighted the impor­tance of primordialism by stressing the continuity between modern nations and pre-modern ethnic communities, which he called 'ethnies'.Smith argues that nationalism draws on the pre-existing history of the "group", an attempt to fashion this history into a sense of common identity and shared history. That is not to say that this history should be academically valid or accurate, but Smith asserts that many nationalisms are based on historically flawed interpretations of past events and tend to mythologise small, inaccurate parts of their history. Moreover, Smith reasons that nationalistic interpretations of the past are frequently fabricated to justify modern political and ethnic positions. Tales of historic self sacrifice, victories or defeats are invoked to justify political decisions. The 'spirit of the blitz' is referred to when politicians wish to assert that we should feel that we are all in this together.

Ernest Gellner (1983)  emphasised the degree to which nationalism is linked to modernisation, and in particular to the process of industrialisation. He stressed that, while pre-modern ' societies were structured by a network of feudal bonds and loyalties, emerging industrial societies promoted social mobility, self-striving and competition, and so required a new source of cul­tural cohesion. This was provided by nationalism. Although Gellner's theory suggests that nations coalesced in response to particular social conditions and circumstances, but it also implies that the national community is deep-rooted and enduring, as a return to pre-modern loyalties and identities is unthinkable. 

Ben­edict Anderson (1983) also portrayed modern nations as a product of socio­economic change, in his case stressing the combined impact of the emergence of capitalism and the advent of modern mass communications, which he dubbed 'print-capitalism'. In his view, the nation is an 'imagined community', in that, within nations, individuals only ever meet a tiny proportion of those with whom they supposedly share a national identity. In this sense national identity is in a constant state of change and renegotiation. 

The idea that nations are 'imagined', not organic, communities has nevertheless been seized on by critics of nationalism. Constructivist approaches to nationalism regard national identity as very largely an ideological construct, usually serving the interests of powerful groups. The Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm (1983), highlighted the extent to which nations are based on 'invented traditions'. Hobsbawm argued that a belief in historical continuity and cultural purity is invariably a myth, and, what is more, a myth created by nationalism itself.

 Constructivism suggests that nationalism creates nations, not the other way round. In the case of Marxism, nationalism has been viewed as a device through which the ruling class counters the threat of social revolution by ensur­ing that national loyalty is stronger than class solidarity, thereby binding the working class to the existing power structure.

Confusion arises in part because different nations have different characteristics. So, the British may consider themselves a nation, but many Scots identify instead with the Scottish nation. People from most of Spain may identify with Spanish nationhood, while those from Barcelona may see themselves as Catalonian. The Swiss do not share a common language while the geographical boundaries of Poland are quite flexible. The French consider their language to be a key part of their nationhood, and it might be argued that the love of food is an important part of national identity, while religion is categorically not a part of France's nationhood (unlike, for example, Italy).Islam has been a major factor in forming national consciousness in much of North Africa and the Middle East. On the other hand, religious beliefs do not always coincide with a sense of nationhood. Divisions between Catholics and Protestants in mainland UK do not inspire rival nationalisms, nor has the remarkable religious diversity found in the USA threatened to divide the country into a collection of distinct nations. 

Nations have also been based on a sense of ethnic or, in certain circumstances, racial unity. This was particularly evident in Germany during the Nazi period. However, nationalism usually has a cultural rather than a biological basis; it reflects an ethnic unity that may be based on race, but more usually draws on shared values and common cultural beliefs. Nations usually share a common history and traditions and is reinforced by recalling past glories, national independence, the birthdays of national leaders or important military victories. The USA celebrates Independence Day and Thanksgiving; Bastille Day is commemorated in France; in the UK, ceremonies continue to mark Armistice Day. However, nationalist feelings may be based more on future expectations than on shared memories. American nationhood has been forged on the idea of the 'American dream, which is the view that anyone, no matter what their background, can be successful if they work hard enough. The American nation is sometimes seen as a 'melting pot, where immigrants from other countries and other cultures came to America, and different cultures have merged to form a new culture. This is the opposite of the multiculturalist 'mosaic' or 'salad bowl' approach, which encourages different cultures to hold on to their unique cultures, but live alongside each other peacefully in one nation. In France it is illegal to gather data on ethic diversity since it is assumed everyone is French.


Self-determination can be defined as nations being able to decide how they are governed. Applied to individuals, this could be called autonomy or independence. The belief in self-determination is based on the view that nations are a genuine political association and that only they know what is In their own national interest.

Self-determination sounds relatively uncontroversial, yet different forms of nationalism have very different views about its benefits and desirability for other nations. Some nationalists rest on the belief that international order can only exist when all nations have the right of self-determination; others believe that only they, and no other nation, have the right to self-determination. 

Many conflicts throughout history have existed because of self-determination or 'independence'. The Balkans war in the 1990s came after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the Serbs, Croats, Slovenians and Bosnians - each of whom identified themselves as individual nations - fought to win self-determination.

Rousseau argued that government should be based not on the absolute power of a monarch, but on the indivisible collective will of the entire community. During the French Revolution, these beliefs were reflected in the assertion that the French people were ‘citizens’ possessed of inalienable rights and duties, no longer merely ‘subjects’ of the crown. Sovereign power thus resided with the ‘French nation’. The form of nationalism that emerged from the French Revolution was therefore based on the vision of a people or nation governing itself. In other words, the nation is not merely a natural community: it is a natural political community. In this tradition of nationalism, nationhood and statehood are intrinsically linked. The litmus test of national identity is the desire to attain or maintain political independence, usually expressed in the principle of national self-determination.  National self determination or national soveriengny has become a key ideal for western democracies and is a factor which motivated the move towards Brexit in the UK.


If a 'nation' is a group of people who identify themselves as such, a 'state' simply refers to a geographical area with clear boundaries, and political integrity, boarders, laws, government - so the term 'nation-state' can be defined as a nation of people who rule themselves in their own sovereign territory. The key ideal is 'rule themselves' so the  nation-state comes about through national self-determination, and the two concepts are closely related. In today's world - particularly in Europe - the nation-state is the usual organisation of a country. France is ruled by the French in their own geographical territory, Denmark is ruled by the Danes in their own geographical territory, and so on.

However, this has not always been the case. As recently as the 1970s, the nation of Germany was divided into two states, and Yugoslavia - which has now disintegrated, with its component states becoming nations in their own right - was one country

It has been the aim of mainly liberal nationalists to create a world of nation-states and the right of self determination has dominated international law during the 20th Century. However, other forms of nationalism, specifically , Chauvinistic nationalism rejected this idea, believing that only some nations can benefit from nation-statehood, while other nations should accept their position as colonies of the 'stronger' nations. 

Chauvinistic nationalism a form of nationalism that believes one nation is superior to others, regarding them as a threat to survival.

Self-determination versus colonialism

The further you go back in history, the fewer nation-states you will find. It used to be a sign of power and prestige for larger countries to rule other countries - known as imperialism or colonialism (although these two terms mean slightly different things).

Having an empire was the key aim of monarchs and countries throughout history. Citizens of European countries will be familiar with stories of historical figures finding 'new' countries and bringing back delights from far-flung shores, such as Sir Francis Drake bringing potatoes from South America back to England for Queen Elizabeth I. The 'newly discovered' countries actually already existed, with indigenous populations who had their own governments, cultures and economies

Liberal nationalism vs conservative nationalism

In January 2022, liberal nationalist French President Emmanuel Macron decided to fly the EU flag under the Arc de Triomphe to celebrate the French presidency of the Council of the EU. This led to a furious reaction from leading French Conservative nationalists, in particular Marine Le Pen,  who argued that ‘replacing’ the French flag was an attack on the country’s national identity.

Countries coloured red where flag desecration (burning insulting) is illegal

Texas vs Johnston (1989) 


Culturalism is a way of understanding nationhood which emphasises shared history, traditions literature and rituals. These are seen to represent not only the nation but what is best about the nation.  It is the view that people have an emotional connection with their country that draws them together. Whereas civic nationalism, like liberal nationalism, are based on a rational approach to nationhood, culturalism argues that people have a deeper, emotional tie to their country. It can also suggest that some national cultures are superior or civilised.

Advocates of culturalism believe that each nation has an essence that is tied up in its music, art, folklore and language. German intellectual Johann Gottfried von Herder wrote about culturalism in the 18th century, claiming that each nation has its own unique volksgeist - folk spirit, a culmination of its own unique experiences, history and culture. For Herder, no nation could be the same as any other, and each nation's culture was as valuable as any other's.


The Oxford English Dictionary defines racialism (or racism) as 'the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, so as to especially distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races',                                                                                                                          

Racist ideas are rooted in the belief that humanity is not one single human race, but can be meaningfully divided into separate races. This view states that the differences between can the races are biological and fixed. See the link below for an explanation of why race is just made up.  Racialist theories usually ascribe different traits to different races, with certain races being naturally 'good' or 'bad' at different things, which leads to a racial hierarchy. Racialist theories then usually advocate racial segregation, to avoid 'polluting' the bloodstock of the races.

Why race is a myth- there's no such thing! 

Case Study: Hitler's racialist theories

Race versus ethnicity

The word ethnicity has largely replaced the word race in everyday usage, but the two terms do not mean the same thing. Race concerns a person's biological make-up. Ethnicity refers to a variety of attributes about an individual: the culture they associate with, the culture their parents were brought up in (their ancestry), the language they speak, the history of the region they were brought up in and, in some cases, their religion.


Generally, internationalism is the belief that the peoples of the world should unite and connect across national boundaries, looking beyond what is best  for individual nations to see what is best for the world. Its aim is to secure a peaceful world. It may seem odd to see a discussion of internationalism in a chapter on nationalism, but some types of nationalism also have an internationalist perspective. This section will look at two main types of internationalism.

Liberal nationalism

 Liberal nationalism dates back to the French Revolution and embodies many of its values. Its ideas spread quickly through much of Europe and were expressed most clearly by Giuseppe Mazzini . They also influenced the remarkable exploits of Simon Bolivar, who led the Latin American independence movement in the early nineteenth century and expelled the Spanish from much of Hispanic America. US President Woodrow Wilson’s ‘Fourteen Points’, proposed as the basis for the reconstruction of Europe after World War I, were also based on liberal nationalist principles. Moreover, many twentieth-century anti-colonial leaders were inspired by liberal ideas, as in the case of Sun Yat-Sen (1866–1925), one of the leaders of China’s 1911 Revolution, and Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964), the first prime minister of India. The ideas of liberal nationalism were clearly shaped by Rousseau’s defence of popular sovereignty, expressed in particular in the notion of the ‘general will’. 

As the nineteenth century progressed, the aspiration for popular self-government was fused progressively with liberal principles. This fusion was brought about by the fact that the multinational empires against which nationalists fought were also autocratic and oppressive. Mazzini, for example, wished the Italian states to unite, but this also entailed throwing off the influence of autocratic Austria. For many European revolutionaries in the mid-nineteenth century, liberalism and nationalism were virtually indistinguishable.

 Liberal Nationalism  applies the core principles of liberal individualism to the nation. Nations have the right to self-determination as much as individuals have the right to individual autonomy and freedom. The liberal nationalist aim, therefore, is a world of independent nation-states. In this aspiration they overlap with Culturalists like Herder who saw individuals as freedom to follow their own national culture as an essential expression of human freedom. Liberal nationalists also assume that independent nation-states will seek to co-operate with each other as and when they need to - economically, educationally and culturally. This will create interdependence as they trade goods and services, share ideas and exchange cultures.

The key aim of this co-operation and interdependency is to secure an internationally stable and without resorting to violence. This led liberals to put their faith in supranational institutions - that exist above national institutions such as the EU or the UN, to help resolve conflicts between nations. Just as sovereign individuals need to be kept in check by a state, so sovereign nation -states need to be kept in check by supranational institutions.

Socialist internationalism

The other well known and more typical form of internationalism is Socialist Internationalism which is largely incompatible with nationalism. Socialist Internationalism is concerned with extending the idea of co-operation, community and humanity across the world believing that humans are not naturally divided into nations and are instead connected to the whole of humanity 'whatever country they happen to be living in.

It was Karl Marx who said, 'The working man has no country'. Marx and Engels believed that nationalism was a 'false consciousness'   Socialism is an internationalist ideology and rejects the concept of nationalism. The point of 'false consciousness' was to stop the international proletariat from uniting and rising up against their (minority) bourgeoisie bosses.

Later, Lenin re-visited nationalism in his writings on imperialism. In his 1917 booklet imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin's premise was that capitalism had avoided collapse (as predicted by Marx) by 'buying off' its indigenous population with proceeds made by exploiting the proletariats in its colonies. This gave the country's own workers improved wages and working conditions while ruthlessly exploiting workers in other countries it controlled. In this way Lenin extended Marx and Engels' analysis of nationalism as being a tool used by capitalism to prevent a proletarian revolution 

Nationalism Poster.pdf