Nationalism: Origins, Evolution and Future Essay

By | June 16, 2019


  • Nationalism, the salient feature of the modern world
  • The emergence of Nationalism in Germany
  • Different definitions of Nationalism
  • The emergence of new ideas from the concept of Nationalism
  • Nationalism, virtue or vice
  • Nationalism assuming the shape of a religion
  • Origin and evolution of Nationalism
  • Deutsch’s view
  • Smith traces the origins of nationalism in previous ethnic Identities
  • The cause of powerfulness of Nationalism
  • Smith’s four causes of this powerfulness
  • Future prospects of Nationalism, permanent phenomenon or a temporary sentiment
  • Arguments are given by the advocates of internationalism
  • Conclusion


Nationalism is the salient feature of the present day world. It emerged in Europe in the 17th Century and thereafter spread all over the world. It had reached to considerable maturity till the start of 20th century as it gulped Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa in addition to its basis in Western Europe. It has been an extremely elusive concept changing forms while it moved from Western Europe to rest of the world. On one side it was the tool for unification in Germany and · Italy while on the other it led the minorities to demand independence in Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman Empires. In addition, it culminated into evident fascism and Nazism in Italy and Germany respectively. Whether nationalism is good or bad, it is an extremely powerful phenomenon, which may challenge or shatter the foundation of any regional or international setup. Today, it is at the centre of worldwide debate where some question – its validity vis-a-vis the tremendous communicational advancements while others strongly defend it to be as relevant as ever.

Concept of Nationalism

Nationalism is the product of peculiar developments, which took place in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, but now it has become the most salient feature of the whole world. Nationalism, the term was apparently coined in Germany by the philosopher Herder and in French by Abbe Barruel just less than 200 years ago. This phenomenon refers to the state of mind in which the supreme loyalty of the individual is felt to be owed to the nation-state”. However, it is “multi-faceted, disheveled, murky, and irreducible to common denominators. It is an elusive concept which changes forms as the social, cultural and historical contexts change.” At best the idea of the nation has appeared sketchy and elusive, at worst absurd and contradictory. These are the factors, which have made it very difficult for the scholars and social scientists to define and theorize the concept in a comprehensive manner. Seton Watson realised its complexity and observed, “I am driven to the conclusion that no scientific definition of the nation can be devised, yet the phenomenon has existed and exists.” On the other hand Boy. Shafer emphasis on the subjective element of the concept and views that “nationalism is what the nationalists have made it; it not a neat, fixed concept but a varying combination of beliefs and conditions.[the_ad id=”17141”]

In spite of difficulties, a number of attempts have been made but no one explains the concept comprehensively as Craig Calhoun remarks, “all of the available essentials definitions are unstable and inherently contestable. A definition may be applicable to one cultural and social setting but would be unable to explain or grasp the phenomenon in another one. Anthony D. Smith defines nationalism as “an ideological movement for the attainment and maintenance of self-government and independence on behalf of a group, some of whose members conceive it to constitute an actual potential nation”. The Smith’s definition implies that a nation-state follows nationalism but it has been contradicted strongly by some scholars who view that “It is the modern state that defines nationhood, and pre-existing ethnic relations are revised either to coincide more or less with its boundaries or to constitute the basis of counter state movement for the formation of new states. Such movements are rooted in power relations, not ethnic solidarity and distinctions per se”.

Gelner also disagrees with Anthony D. Smith’s ethnic-based concept of nationhood. He contends that “nationalism is not the awakening of nation to self-consciousness; it invents nations where they do not exist but it does need some pre-existing differentiating marks to work on, even if, as indicated, these are purely negative…” Although he recognizes the importance of preexisting differentiating marks, yet “he marks it clear that nationalism is not strictly the result of prior ethnicity.”. Gelner analysis provides a clearer and a comprehensive picture of the phenomenon. He explains nationalism “as a cultural phenomenon dependent not only on state formation and industrial society, but also in certain transformations of culture, such as the creation of “high culture”.

Contrary to the above-mentioned scholars, Carleton Hayes makes a distinction between patriotism as a natural phenomenon in contrast to “the nationalism, which is, in his view, an artificial construct, an ideology…” He argues that the cultural basis of nationality is common language and common historical traditions. When these, by some process of education, become the objects of popular patriotism, the result is nationalism”. Hans Kuhn, on the other hand defines “a state of mind, permeating the large majority of a people and claiming to permeate all its members; it recognises the nation-state as the ideal form of political organization and nationality as the source of creative energy and economic well being”. He distinguishes good political nationalism from bad political nationalism. “Good political nationalism such as the English, Dutch and French emphasized individual freedom and citizenship, rights and internationalism, while bad political nationalism, such as that of East European variety was narrow, collectivist and exclusive”.[the_ad id=”17142”]

The concept of nationalism, in consequence, gave birth to a number of new ideas, like; idea of national sovereignty, non-intervention in each other’s domestic affairs, national identity and national character etc. Some of these ideas have contributed positively in the smooth functioning of the international system while others caused wars and disasters. Moreover, the nations made a selective use of these ideas to promote their national interests. For example, the ideas of national sovereignty and non-intervention have, sometimes, contributed positively in maintaining peace and other while the adherence of the idea of national character caused disasters. “Nationalism was one of the more powerful forces which led the people of Europe into the abyss of World War I. And in its perverted form, unleashed by Hitler and the Nazi terror, it became the curse of the century”.

The critics argue that it has an inherent contempt and hatred for the others who do not belong to your nation. “It became a virtue to expand at the expense of those who were not under. our dominion. Then to obtain this end, it became permissible to distrust, deceive and offend strangers”. Some scholars consider nationalism a close ally of imperialism as Harold J. Laski views that “nationalism breeds imperialism each looking to its own interests…” Bertrand Russell denounces the concept and views that “nationalism is in our day the chief obstacle to the extension of social cohesion beyond national boundaries”. Toynbee, E. H. Carr and Carleton Hayes also “note the negative consequences of nationalism for international relations, inevitably leading to hatred for other”.

There are also scholars who consider nationalism as a positive phenomenon. The most prominent and foremost among them is Hans Kohn who considered “nationalism as a positive force which would bring grater participation of the people and would eventually lead to a new kind of integration of the world primarily based on the liberal values of the west”. K. W. Deutsch defends the concept on the ground that “modernization and nationalism go hand in hand…” Smith draws a sharp distinction between nationalism and other “isms” like fascism, populism, imperialism and racism. “Fascism is different because it has different objectives and different social base. Imperialism, racism and populism and derogation, even a contradiction of the main tenets of nationalism”. Tahir Amin contradicts with Smith’s point of view and argues, “His sharp distinction between nationalism, fascism and imperialism is not only unconvincing but also historical”.[the_ad id=”17150”]

Most of the scholars belonging to the other two traditions Islam and Marxism also view nationalism as a negative force. Lenin was convinced that “Marxism could not be reconciled with nationalism, be it even the most just, “purist” and most refined, because Marxism advanced internationalism, the amalgamation of nations in the higher unity”. Marxist tradition, in its essence, is internationalist and views “nationalism as the ideology of the capitalist class, part of the superstructure”. Islamic tradition is also internationalist in its character and the concept of nationalism is absolutely alien to it. Localism and patriotism, to a certain extent, is considered justified because these emotions are natural, while nationalism is viewed not only as unnatural but also contradictory to the Islamic principles. Initially some traditional Muslim scholars made an effort to synthesis Islam with nationalism but the experience did not prove successful. Most of the postmodern scholars like Maududi, Khomeini and Qutab has a great contempt for nationalism. Syed Qutab remarks “there is no nationality for a Muslim except his creed which makes him a member of the Islamic Ummah in the abode of Islam”. Similarly Khomeini observes that nationalism “is contrary to the Noble Quran and the orders of the most Noble Messenger. Nationalism that results in the creation of enmity between Muslims and splits the ranks of the believers is against Islam and the interests of the Muslims”.

In fact, nationalism has assumed the shape of a religion, which cannot co-exist with the other divine religions. Nationalism, in fact, has replaced religion in the West as Shafer remarks, “subjects lost their religious attachment to monarchs as they became citizens and believed that they, not the kind, were supreme. And as the kind lost his divinity, the nation acquired it”. The Nation has developed its own morality with rewards and punishments, virtues and sins, rituals and outward signs and missionary zeal. [the_ad id=”17144″]

Origins and Evolution of Nationalism

The origins of nationalism, though in its incipient stage, can be traced back to the 16/17th Century Europe. Initially, the Renaissance and then the Reformation triggered a series of changes in the social, political, economic and psychological spheres of life and consequently created an environment, which later proved conducive for the emergence of nationalism. Scholars have identified a number of causes, which were responsible for the rise of the phenomenon, but the opinions differ significantly. It is because of two reasons. It has not followed a single pattern of growth in different parts of the world. It is very difficult to prove whether a particular condition was the cause or a result of nationalism. However, it is asserted that not a singular condition can be attributed as the sole cause of the rise of the phenomenon. In fact, it was the result of the interplay of a number of forces, which were operating in Europe at that time. Some of the factors involved were as follows:

  1. The French historians of nationalism wrote, “The cause of statues is not the marble but the artist. In the case of nationality, it is primarily the dynast”. The stronger noble families created large monarchies and then built personal governmental agencies, executive, legislative, judicial and administrative institutions”. These were the agencies, which played an important role in creating homogeneity and consequently laid down the basis of nationhood.
  2. Martin Luther highlighted the corruption and mal-administration of Roman Catholic Church and challenged the so-called basis of its legitimacy on religious grounds. He emphasised that every individual can have direct contact or access to God and therefore there is no need to use an intermediate channel like a priest or bishop. Consequently, the Protestant Reformation diminished the role of the Church and the Pope. Scholars refer to the establishment of National Church in England in 1530 by Henry VIII, though because of personal reasons but definitely encouraged by the Protestant Reformation and argue, “England was now independent of any foreign control. Another stone had been laid on the foundation of the English nation-state”. However, it was the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which made the monarchical states all-powerful and absolutely sovereign. It was provided in the Treaty that “no supranational authority, such as the Pope or the Holy Roman Emperor, had any legal jurisdiction within the realms of the dynasty”. [the_ad id=”17151”]
  3. The decline of Catholic Church resulted in decline of Latin language, which previously was the language of the Church hierarchy throughout Europe. This factor had given the Christian world the cosmopolitan outlook. Moreover Erasmus and Luther translated Old and New Testaments in the vernaculars, which encouraged the growth of local languages. The print media also played a great role in fostering the growth of vernacular’ languages. “By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the vernacular tongues had won a clear victory” and it “provided one more basis for national unity and consciousness”.
  4. Another contributory factor to the rise of the phenomenon was the gradual development of the belief that the inhabitants of a country should pursue a common economic policy. As a result of certain improvements in navigation techniques and new discoveries, a merchant middle class had emerged in the cities, which had corporate interests in a uniform economic policy. So, mercantilism was adopted as the national economic policy of some monarchical states in Europe. The British parliament passed Navigation Laws in the 17th Century to achieve this end. Such common economic policies not only promoted national interests but also helped in the growth of national consciousness.
  5. The changes in economic, political and religious spheres encouraged the growth of common group cultures. In Middle and Eastern Europe, Germany and Italy in particular, the emergence of national cultures preceded actual political unity to a greater degree than was true in Western Europe.

There are certain scholars who have tried to conceptualize the formation of nations and the rise of nationalism. According to Deutsch, “nations and nationalities are formed through the twin process of cultural assimilation and social mobilization”. By cultural assimilation he means that “smaller subordinate communities or nationalities are absorbed in the information and communication net-works of the larger, dominant nations as the British tended to be absorbed into France and Welsh in England, Europeans into American culture. On the other hand, he defines social mobilisation as “the process by which men and women are uprooted from their traditional, agrarian setting as a result of social, economic, and more intensive communication”. Anthony D. Smith contradicts and argues that Deutsch’s approach is not universally applicable because it draws examples from the European experience. Moreover it ignores the fact that even the European nation-states are facing the problem of small nationalities, which have not been completely assimilated. Walker Connor also disagrees with Deutsch’s theory and argues, “ethnic consciousness has been definitely increasing, not decreasing in recent years”.[the_ad id=”17141″]

Smith traces the origins of nationalism in previous ethnic identities. He identifies two routes for the formation of a nation state. Lateral ethnic and bureaucratic incorporation and the vertical ethnic and vernacular mobilisation route. Smith cites the examples of France, Spain, Sweden and England where the dominant lateral ethnic, who formed the state ethnic core, was gradually able to incorporate middle strata and outlying regions into the dominant ethnic culture. The primary agency of such incorporation was the new bureaucratic state. The second route of forming nations was on the basis of demotic ethnic, which were not directly influenced by the bureaucratic state. The bond which cemented the membership of these vertical communities was organised religion and its sacred scriptures, liturgy, rituals and clergy that acted as the chief mechanism of ethnic persistence among vertical communities.

The first route leads to the civic and territorial (Western) model while the second one to the ethnic and genealogical model. Smith makes a distinction between the two by identifying their peculiar characteristics. Historic territory, legal-political community, legal-political equality of members and common civic culture and ideology; these are the components of the standard of western model of the nation. Whereas ethnic conception of a nation is characterized by genealogy and presumed descent ties, popular mobilization, vernacular languages, customs and traditions. Carleton Hayes emphasis on the role of socializing agencies, in addition to the “religions void” and “socio-economic changes”, which propagated nationalism as a scientific and natural phenomenon. In nutshell, it is argued that either all the factors mentioned above or some of them contributed to the emergence and growth of nationalism, though in varying degree, in different settings.

Although some characteristics of Nationalism can be traced back to the 16th and 17th Centuries, not until the later part of the 18th Century, nation and nationality became of supreme importance for most of Western Europeans. It was in the late 18th Century that people began identifying themselves with their nations and took pride in their specific nationality. Now the national idea and the nation-state became the instruments through which men could obtain liberty and pursue happiness. However, it was in the century that nationalism as an ideology held sway over the world. [the_ad id=”17142″]

Why Nationalism has been so powerful?

It is interesting to observe that nationalism has been a very powerful phenomenon in the last few centuries and particularly in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. It was nationalism which had made the French so strong, powerful and zealous that they captured almost whole of Europe. During the period of their occupation, they spread the ideas of nationalism to the other parts of the continent. Nationalism was the motivating sentiment behind the German and Itàlian unification while in the case of Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empire; it acted as a disintegrating force. It acquired an anti-colonial outlook when it moved to the Asian, African and Latin American countries. The anti-colonial nationalist movements became so strong that they threw their European masters out within few decades. The strength of the phenomenon is evident from the fact that the number of states has increased threefold in the twentieth century, while a number of other nationalities are on a march to become independent nation-states. The optimism of E.H. Carr and some other scholars about the prospects of internationalism failed to realise.

The scholars who.conceive it as a positive force view that it is a natural phenomenon, more akin to human nature and therefore has remained so powerful. While others point out the negative aspects and identify certain other factors, which has been and still are responsible for its continuing growth and power. It is asserted that the phenomenon has become self-perpetuating as it is noted that nationalism of a particular ethnic/regional group forces many others to become nationalist. Nationalist Movement of the Young Turks in 1908 compelled the Kurds and encouraged the Arabs to strive for the recognition of their nationalistic identities. Shafer observes that, “people who were not national minded were forced in their own self-defense to become so, and those already so found it expedient and helpful to become still more so… Tom Nairm explains the continuous prevalence of the phenomenon in terms of a center-periphery relationship. He notes that “real uneven development has invariably generated imperialism of the center over the periphery; one after another, these peripheral areas have been forced into a profoundly ambivalent reaction against this dominance emphasizing nationality as the basis”.[the_ad id=”17150″]

On the other hand Smith enumerates four causes to explain why nationalism has been so powerful. These are:

  1. The failure of modern state to contain and minimise ethnic revival
  2. The counterproductive pressures of the world state system on the state elite to homogenise and integrate
  3. The continuing effects of nationalist ideals and movement
  4. The revolt by the intelligentsia from peripheral areas against the un-equitable system

Some scholars consider the role of national media, textbooks and socializing agencies of paramount importance. In the West, education was nationalized and secularised just to carve out system and syllabi in resonance with national aspirations and objectives. Now every newly born, child is socialised, trained, and educated in an environment where nationalism reigns supreme. He is influenced by the socializing agencies consciously as well as unconsciously whereby it becomes impossible for him to understand other perspective.

Future Prospects

Nationalism has been a subject of debate and controversy. Some scholars characterized it as a permanent phenomenon while the others a temporary sentiment. The internationalists predicted the decline of nationalism. E. H. Carr predicated the decline of nationalism on two grounds:

  1. The horrors of two world wars
  2. The multinational character of the super power USA. Their optimum has not been realised as yet

The twentieth century and particularly its second half is marked with opposite trends indicating to different directions. The internationalists argue that the world is becoming increasingly interdependent in the wake of technological breakthrough in communication and increasing transnational cooperation. The international system is now inhabited by a variety of actors, in addition to nation-states, such as a multinational corporation (MNC) and non-governmental organizations (NGO’s). Their argument is that the increasing role of these non-actors is eroding the sovereignty of the nation-state. Holsti has identified several roles, which non-state actors can play in international politics:

  1. Introduce an issue in the international diplomatic agenda
  2. Publicise and raise citizen consciousness regarding certain global or regional problems
  3. Lobby national government and international organizations to make decisions favourable to their cause
  4. Eek an outcome through direct action, sometimes (though rarely) involving the threat or use of force

[the_ad id=”17144″]In the defenders’ view, the nation-state still remains the critical actor of international politics because

  1. Only it commands the allegiance of peoples occupying a defined territory
  2. Only it possesses the capabilities to employ the ultimate threat
  3. Government, unlike most transnational organizations, are concerned with the full range of welfare and security of populations
  4. Only governments enjoy sovereignty

All other types of actors exist and operate only with the consent of governments. Do the states really enjoy sovereignty, in real sense of the term, in the present day world scenario? Can the states really control transitional movements? A close analysis of these questions suggests that both the sovereignty and control of states over transnational activities has weakened if not fully eroded. People adhering to the cause of human rights, environment and democratic ideals often owe their allegiance to their cause and ideals rather than to their states. Sometimes they seem to be working against the so-called perceived national interests of their own respective states. States are no longer able to control transnational movements and influences from abroad…. Loyalties to the state, even when surrounded by iron curtains can no longer be assumed.

Carleton J. Hayes considers the nationalism as “the most powerful political sentiment of the contemporary world… It still excels other appeals to human emotions-social or religious appeals by its impact on masses and individual alike”. He does not share the optimism of the internationalists and argues that the objective can be achieved only through conscious efforts, which are lacking at the moment. In Anthony be smith’s opinion, “cosmopolitan hope for an early withering away of nationalism are doomed to disappointment, as these are based on a failure to grasp the importance today of the conjuncture of ethnic sentiments, secular ideals and the changing elements of modernization and the social concomitant of modernization”. Benedict also points out to the growth of “sub-nationalism” even in the consolidated nation-states of Western Europe and views that “the end of the era of nationalism, so long prophesied, is not remotely in sight.” [the_ad id=”17144″]

The advocates of internationalism consider formation of the economic block, such as NAFTA, ASEAN and EU, a step forward towards the growth of internationalism. The critics however reject the proposition on the basis that states are still sovereign and that these alliances are primarily the collection of sovereign states. Even if their analysis is true, this tregd, at best, indicates to the “communitarian internationalism” rather than the internationalism in the true sense. The practical significance of these alliances lies in the phenomenon of interdependence. Shafer foresees the possibility of the erosion of nationalism “through the destructive conquests by superpower or class warfare”. It is asserted that such an attempt would fail as it has already been established that, in view of historical experience, a system imposed would remain unstable and fragile. Perhaps the best possible way is to attempt to reach consensus on certain rules and values, which are shared by different cultures, and then to shape world order accordingly. The consensus on the shared values can be achieved through cross-cultural dialogue.


Although nationalism was a product of the specific conditions, which developed in Western Europe, it moved to other parts of the world irrespective of the fact whether such conditions existed there or not. It changed in forms, contents, and implications as the political, social and cultural setting changed in the course of its growth. These factors contributed to the difficulty, which the scholars later faced in defining and conceptualizing the phenomenon. However, the phenomenon generally refers to the supreme loyalty, which each and every individual owes to its nation. A nation is formed on the basis of a common culture, language, and historical tradition and shared values. Smith has highlighted the pertinence of dominant ethnic groups, which assimilated the small nationalities and hence formed a homogeneous nation. While the other highlight the state as the major agent of nation formation. Deutsch conceptualizes the phenomenon in terms of social mobilization and cultural assimilation. However, it is asserted that no one explanation among these is universally applicable.

Nationalism has been a subject of great controversy. Some identified it with modernity while for the others it was a close ally of imperialism and an obstacle to the growth of internationalism. The internationalists in the liberal tradition and the Marxists predicted its decline on the basis of increasing interdependence and the horrors of the world wars. However, their optimism has not appeared true. The example of Bosnia, Chechnya, Ireland and Kashmir are enough to prove that nationalism is still a powerful about the prospects of internationalism yet it is possible to argue that the role of the MNCs, NGOs and other transnational actors is increasing day-by-day. Perhaps the future lies, in the words of Ernest Gelner, “between the less virulent forms of nationalism and an internationalism based on shared necessities”.

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