Nationalism is an ideology which encompasses a very wide range of streams. Indeed, at times it appears it would be more appropriate to talk of different nationalisms rather than treat nationalism as one coordinated tradition. To some extent such an argument could be put forward in almost every political ideology. However, there is something quite unique about the extent and variety of the political points of view which have been associated with nationalism over the years. Indeed, at different times nationalism has encompassed innovative and reactionary ideas, and democratic and authoritarian, liberal and repressive, left wing and right wing ideas. This lack of consistency stems in part from the fact that nationalism has developed in different places under very different historic and cultural conditions. However, it also reflects the fact that nationalism is an ideology which, over the years, has been combined with a series of other important ideologies – especially liberalism, conservatism and socialism – and has absorbed some of their key concepts and values. This has given rise to a series of quite different nationalistic traditions.

  • Liberal Nationalism

    A tradition which combines nationalistic ideas being combined with liberal ones developed during the years following the French Revolution in 1789. Indeed, during the 19th century a very close relationship was seen to develop between these two traditions across different parts of Europe. The series of revolutions seen across the Continent in 1848 was characterised by arguments which combined the call for national self-government and the call for more constitutional and accountable systems of government. The arguments of the nationalist movement in Italy, and in particular those of one of its leaders, Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872), were an obvious example of this tendency. Similar principles were held also by Simon Bolivar (1783-1830), and by the leaders of the independence movement in South America which had the aim of bringing to an end the imperialist rule of Spain over the lives of the people of that continent. In addition, the influence of liberal nationalism is seen in the famous ‘Fourteen Points’ drawn up by the American president Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) as the basis for the Treaty of Versailles – the peace agreement drawn up at the end of the First World War and which led to substantial political and territorial reorganisation of parts of central and eastern Europe.

    Two important aspects can be mentioned which tend to characterise the ideas of liberal nationalists – the one being a nationalistic aspect and the other a liberal aspect:

    • National self-determination: In the first place, the nationalistic aspect is highlighted by the fact that liberal nationalists believe the world is divided into a series of different nations, each with its unique identity. In addition, it is assumed that each of these nations is equal in status and represents an appropriate unit for organising a political society. As a result, the aim of traditional liberal nationalism has been to try to create conditions where every nation has self-determination – that is, the political independence to form its own future on its own conditions. It used to be presumed that this was equal to possessing the right to establish an independent sovereign state. However, recently many liberal nationalists have argued that it is also possible to have self-determination by means of federal or co-federal arrangements where the nation favours far-reaching home rule, but as part of a larger state.
    • Sovereignty of the people: Secondly, the nationalistic emphasis on the status of national units is combined with the liberal emphasis on the consent or sovereignty of the people – that is, the belief that political power and authority should arise from the bottom, from among the ordinary people. In this case, of course, the relevant ‘people’ are members of the nation, and it is their consent which is needed when creating a political community and organising a system of government. This means, therefore, that liberal nationalists are not only concerned where exactly the boundaries of a specific political community would lie, but also what kind of political system would be created within those boundaries.

    This emphasis on national self-determination, along with the need for more accountable government arrangements, explains why liberal nationalism gained so much during the 19th century. This was a time when different nationalist groups called for freedom from the grip of the old European empires, for example, the Austrian Empire. But at the same time, since these empires were dictatorial, the campaigning also included a call for more accountable forms of government.

    Despite the popularity of liberal nationalism over the years, critics have drawn attention to a range of possible weaknesses. To begin with, some have accused liberal nationalists of being naive. On the other hand, they are very keen to emphasise the beneficial and innovative aspects of nationalism and have presented them as a reasonable, tolerant and enfranchised force, but on the other hand it is suggested that they are guilty of ignoring the way nationalism has also acted as a destructive force over the years. Secondly, and possibly more seriously, it has been said that the belief of liberal nationalists that all nations should be treated equally with an equal right to national self-determination is a totally unpractical point of view. The truth is that nations are uniform units which contain only one ethnic or cultural group. Very often these nations will encompass various different groups all with different ideas of how their political future should be organised. As a result, the critics of liberal nationalism have argued that its principles cannot offer a reliable guide for dealing with a world which is full of ethno-national differences and tensions.

    Despite such criticisms, the interest in liberal nationalism has not waned. To the contrary, during the past twenty years there has been a new wave of academics who have set about discussing the nature of the relationship between nationalist principles and liberal ones. As part of this movement, liberal academics such as Yael Tamir, David Miller and Will Kymlicka have argued that having a kind of national consciousness is vital to allow liberal-democratic societies to be able to work effectively. In addition, it was argued that having a general sense national identity is a means of ensuring that society possesses the kind of unity and trust which is essential in order to support healthy democratic establishments and a generous welfare state.

  • Giuseppe-Mazzini.jpg
    Giuseppe Mazzini
  • Conservative Nationalism

    While nationalism and liberalism developed a close relationship in the early 19th century, conservatives in that period tended to consider nationalism as a dangerous force with the potential to undermine social organisation and stability. However, later in the century conservatives were seen to develop a more favourable attitude towards nationalism, and as a result of that a kind of conservative nationalism developed.

    One factor which caused conservative nationalists of the time, e.g. Benjamin Disraeli in Britain, to give more attention to nationalist ideas was the belief that emphasising the existence of a national bond could contribute to uniting members of the nation. It was assumed that such ideas could be used to promote the efforts of conservatives to support social stability and protect traditional establishments. As a result, one of the most noticeable aspects of the conservative form of nationalism has been the emphasis on securing the unity and stability of the nation. There was an attempt to do this by promoting feelings of national duty and of national pride, with the intention of nurturing a sense of belonging and loyalty extending across different social classes. Indeed, based on their ability to urge members of the working class to feel part of the modern capitalist society, many conservatives in the 19th century came to interpret nationalist ideas as useful resources which could be harnessed in order to undermine the appeal of socialism, and in particular its more revolutionary Marxist stream.

    Similar tactics were also acknowledged by more contemporary conservatives. For example, there was an obvious nationalistic slant in the politics of Charles De Gaulle, the conservative president of France between 1959 and 1969. De Gaulle placed much emphasis on themes such as national duty and national pride as part of his attempt to rebuild the French state and society following the destruction of the Second World War and the decline of its empire. To a large extent the political agenda of Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom between 1979 and 1990, can be interpreted as one which also had a strong nationalist tendency. Whether in defending her stringent policies on public spending, her attempt to undermine the trades unions, or her belief in a strong defence policy, Thatcher constantly emphasised the idea of national duty. She argued in favour also of the need to raise the national esteem of the United Kingdom following the demise of its international status during the 1960 and the 1970s.

    Another important element which characterises conservative nationalism is the emphasis placed on tradition and history. To some extent the acknowledgement of the history of a nation is an element which characterises almost all kinds of nationalism. However, this is a theme which is very prominent in the arguments of conservative nationalists. This is a form of nationalism which is very keen to look back and elevate some (presumed) golden age from the past. This is obvious from the emphasis placed by conservative nationalists on things such as military successes from the past and the way they tend to be interpreted as absolutely crucial events in the development of the nation. It is seen also in the way an exalted symbolic status is attributed to some traditional establishments, particularly royal families.

    Considering the emphasis conservative nationalists tend to attach to national organisation, unity and stability, it is not surprising that this form of nationalism has tended to be expressed in a particularly explicit way at times when it is feared that the nation and its identity are under threat. For example, as part of their attempt to oppose the process of European integration, many right wing politicians from the Continent were seen to argue that the development of ‘supernational’ systems of government endangered the sovereignty of the nations and also undermined all kinds of traditional national establishments. Of course, this was seen most clearly in Britain among the Conservative Party and UKIP. However, it was a feature of the arguments of other conservative politicians also, for example, the National Front in France or Lega parties in Italy. The way the conservatives have expressed their doubts about international immigration has also been based on nationalist themes. Speaking generally, these arguments insist that too many cultural and religious differences are likely to undermine the feeling of general identity which binds society together and, as a result, this is likely to lead to conflict and instability.

    Considering the arguments above, it is not surprising that conservative nationalism has attracted considerable criticism. Possibly the main criticism of these is that which insists that conservative nationalism is a reactionary tradition by nature which gives rise to prejudiced and intolerant feelings. By placing so much emphasis on national unity, and as a result on the importance of traditional institutions and specific cultural practices, there is a danger that those who profess this point of view insist on interpreting the nation too narrowly and place too much emphasis on the difference between members of the nation and other people. Indeed, in its most extreme form this kind of nationalism can turn into racism or intolerant xenophobia. And yet, it is worth stating that all forms of nationalism – whether conservative, socialist or liberal in nature – are bound to include an element of differentiation and of trying to establish boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’. The truth is that defining any identity requires this. In order to know who or what we are, we must know who or what we are not. As the Welsh philosopher J.R. Jones argued: ‘we cannot know about belonging without feeling what it is not to belong.’

    Expansionist Nationalism

    There is a third form of nationalism which possesses an aggressive, belligerent and expansionist character. This is nationalism which is totally opposed to the more liberal form with its emphasis on equality and self-determination. Indeed, at times there has been a tendency for this more aggressive and expansionist form of nationalism to be very close to Fascist ideas.

    It was probably in the final decades of the 19th century – from the 1870s onwards – that this form of nationalism came to the fore, and in the context of the second great wave of colonising by European states. This is the period when the imperial colonies of the time – France, Germany and the United Kingdom – were competing for a hold over parts of the African continent. Of course, a desire to gain economic advantage was one important factor which contributed to driving these efforts. However, a desire to elevate the international status and esteem of the nation was also a prominent consideration, and to a much larger degree than during the earlier periods of colonialisation. Indeed, between 1870 and 1914 possessing an extensive empire came to be treated as an important sign of a nation’s prosperity, and as a result the colonising campaigns of the time attracted much public support. There is a tendency also to interpret the period which led to the World Wars as times when aggressive and expansionist nationalism was spreading. The First World War began in 1914 – partly as a result of the tensions which arose from the extended arms war between Germany and the United Kingdom – and despite the destruction and killing which happened in due course, the news was welcomed keenly in many capitals across Europe, since it was assumed that the fighting would be an opportunity to emphasise military might and esteem. Then in the case of the Second World War (1939-1945) the conflict arose to a large extent from the tensions caused by expansionist campaigns by fascist systems in Germany and Italy and Japan during the 1930s – campaigns which had a strong nationalist feel. More recently still we saw the destructive influence of expansionist nationalism at work as part of the bloody fighting which stemmed from splitting the state of Yugoslavia during the 1990s, and especially as part of the campaign by figures such as Slobadan Milošević to create one ‘Great Serbia’.

    One of the foremost characteristics of the expansionist form of nationalism is a strong chauvinistic attitude. Different from liberal nationalists, this rejects the assertion that all nations are equal, and as a result that they have an equal right to national self-determination. Rather, it is claimed that some nations possess characteristics or virtues that place them above others. Chauvinism of this kind was one obvious element in the ideas of the French nationalist Charles Maurras (1868-1952), who was leader of the right wing movement Action Françoise. Maurras described France as ‘an incomparable marvel’. Chauvinism was also a prominent characteristic of the nationalism which formed the basis of colonising campaigns by European countries during the final decades of the 19th century. These campaigns were driven partly by a sure belief in the cultural superiority of Europe. It was assumed that the ‘white’ peoples of Europe were far ahead, in education and morals, of the ‘black’, ‘brown’ and ‘yellow’ peoples who lived across Africa and Asia. As a result, colonies were introduced as a moral attempt to spread the ‘European civilisation’ to the ‘less sophisticated’ and ‘less developed’ peoples who lived in other parts of the world.

    Anti-colonial Nationality

    The experience of living under colonial rule encouraged a sense of nationhood, along with a desire for national freedom, among some of the peoples of Africa and Asia. As a result of this an alternative form of anticolonial nationality developed during the second half of the 20th century.

    The process of undoing colonialisation which developed during decades following the Second World War led to a change in the political geography of the world. The old European empires came to an end as the social, economic and political cost of the two world wars meant that states such as France and the United Kingdom no longer had the will or the resources to keep hold of their vast overseas territories. In some cases this happened in a fairy peaceful fashion, for instance, in India in 1947, Tunisia in 1956, and Malaysia and Ghana in 1957. But in many other cases it was only following a long period of armed revolt did the colonial relationships come to an end. For example, that was the case in Algeria (1954-62), Vietnam (1946-54) and Kenya (1952-59). However, what is significant in this context is the fact that the leaders of the anticolonial movements which arose across Africa and Asia during the 1950s and 1960s expressed their arguments in favour of breaking free of their western masters in nationalistic terms.

    Originally these arguments followed a similar path to that of some liberal nationalists in the 19th century, such as Mazzini, emphasising the need for systems of government which recognised the equal right of every nation to self-determination. However, the circumstances faced by these new nationalist movements were quite different from those faced by nationalists across Europe a century earlier. To the anticolonial nationalists, there was a very close connection between their call for political independence and an awareness of the lack of social and economic development which stemmed for years of oppression under the European states. As a result the nationalism of the anticolonial movement was to combine a focus on the political and constitutional dimension, stressing social and economic inequality. Considering this, it is not surprising that the anti-colonial form of nationalism had come to develop a close connection with socialist ideas. Indeed, by the 1960s and 1970s a wide range of anti-colonial movements had combined their arguments in favour of national self-government with elements of the revolutionary socialism professed by Marx and Lenin. One factor which contributed to this development was the presumption that Marxism offered a detailed analysis of the inequality and exploitation which were part of the colonialist experience. In addition, Lenin had argued that colonialisation should be interpreted as an extension of the class exploitation which happens invariably under capitalism – something which stems from the need of the large capitalist countries to find labour and raw resources in order to maintain their economic growth.

    It is worth stating that it is only in the context of twentieth century anti-colonialisation campaigns has there been an attempt to express nationalistic arguments in a way which closely touches upon ideas which are socialist in nature. Possibly as a result of the influence of the anti-colonialising movements discussed above, a left wing form of nationalism was expressed by many of the sub-state nationalistic movements seen to gain momentum across parts of Western Europe and North America from the 1960s. The nationalist movement in Wales was one example of this tendency, and many influential voices in the ranks of Plaid Cymru and Cymdeithas yr Iaith (Welsh Language Society) argued that an agenda should be adopted which argued for self-determination, and the importance of the Welsh language in socialist terms which emphasised the influence of economic factors. Similar tendencies were also seen in relation to nationalistic movements in countries such as the Basque country and Quebec. However, we should avoid coming to the conclusion that all nationalist movements in contemporary sub-states tend to the left, because there are many examples of those who have taken a more right wing path.