Nation and nationalism

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S039-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 22, 2024, from

2. The evolution of nationalism

Nationalism is primarily a phenomenon of nineteenth- and twentieth-century political thought. Its constituent ideas, however, stretch back much further in time. Among the Jews of the Old Testament and among the ancient Greeks we find the sense of belonging to a distinct people marked off from the rest of the world by special characteristics - an embryonic sense of national superiority (Kohn 1944, ch. 1). In the classical period, moreover, patriotism was regarded as a leading virtue. Patriotism is not the same as nationalism: it means a love of one’s native country and a willingness to sacrifice oneself to defend it, but it need not invoke the idea of a self-conscious nation discussed in §1, nor need it imply that the country in question should enjoy political self-determination. Like nationalism, however, patriotism involves the idea that one owes special obligations to one’s compatriots, that one should be willing to protect and defend them at the expense of outsiders - an ethical stance that many philosophers have found difficult to accept.

Nationalism proper began to emerge in the second half of the eighteenth century, when to the ideas of distinct nationhood and patriotic loyalties were added the idea that nations are the source of legitimate political authority. There is a close link here between nationalism and the doctrine of popular sovereignty, which replaced the older belief that political authority flowed downwards from the king or the emperor (Kamenka 1976). Rousseau (§3) provides a striking illustration of this link, holding on the one hand that the general will of the people was the only legitimate source of legislative authority, and on the other that every citizen must be taught to love their native country before all else: ‘That love makes up his entire existence: he has eyes only for the fatherland, lives only for his fatherland;... the moment he has no fatherland, he is no more’ (Rousseau 1770–1: 19).

In these words, Rousseau anticipates the more extreme forms of nineteenth-century nationalism. The contribution of the early nineteenth century was the Romantic belief that each nation formed an organic unity, with its own soul and its own special destiny. Of particular importance was Herder (§§2, 6), whose expressive theory of language underpinned his idea that each nation was the bearer of a unique culture, immersion in which was the only path to human self-fulfilment. Herder’s nationalism was primarily cultural rather than political; he wanted to see each national culture thriving in peaceful coexistence with its neighbours, and he had no sympathy with the aggressive militarism of the Prussian state. None the less he continued to link nationality and popular self-government: ‘The roses for the wreath of each nation’s liberty must be picked with its own hands, and must grow happily out of its own wants, joys, and love’ (Kohn 1944: 431). This message found a ready response among those cultural minorities of Europe struggling for political independence from long-established empires.

Cultural nationalism and political self-assertion coalesced in the later thought of Fichte (§7). Fichte combined three doctrines: the idea that nations were organic wholes, each with its own language and culture; that each person owed supreme loyalty to their own nation - that indeed freedom consisted of identifying oneself with the higher cause represented by the nation; and that each nation had its own peculiar mission. Fichte also attenuated the link between nationalism and popular self-government: national leaders might be justified in using coercive methods of education in order to create strong and united peoples. Here we see the foreshadowing of an authoritarian form of nationalism which is willing to override liberties domestically in the name of national unity, and which may justify acts of aggression against neighbouring states in the name of national destiny.

The same period also witnessed the growth of a liberal form of nationalism, according to which the cause of national independence and the cause of political liberty go hand in hand. This was the view of Mazzini, the father of Italian nationalism, and it was echoed by J.S. Mill, who in Considerations on Representative Government (1861) emphasized the role played by national sympathies in checking the power of government and making free institutions workable. Liberal nationalism treats all nations as having equally good claims to self-determination, resists ideas of ‘national destiny’ and argues that national cultures will flourish best when freedom of expression and other liberties are secure.

The subsequent history of nationalism can be seen as a struggle between authoritarian and liberal forms of nationalism. The latter can be seen at work in the doctrine of national self-determination promulgated by Woodrow Wilson at the end of the Second World War and embodied in the League of Nations; the former found its final expression in the fascist movements of the inter-war years (see Fascism). Thus nationalism continues to present us with two very different faces. On the one hand it stands for a people’s right to protect and develop their inherited cultures and to be politically independent in association with those they regard as their compatriots. On the other hand it stands for forcible indoctrination in the national culture and the promotion of national interests abroad at the expense of other peoples. Once again we see why philosophers have very often reacted ambivalently to nationalist ideas.

Citing this article:
Miller, David. The evolution of nationalism. Nation and nationalism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S039-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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