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5 Nationalism as an ideology

Ideology: a contested concept

Propagators of ideologies use images and symbols to get people to believe and act in certain ways. Nationalism as a political ideology uses the idea of ‘nation’ to achieve political goals, and may be the most potent ideology in existence. It is worth reflecting for a moment on what kind of ideology it is. And it is worth reminding ourselves that ideology is a contested concept; a term that can mean different things. Marx and Engels subscribed to the notion of ideology as a set of ideas that induce false consciousness in workers under capitalism. A second sense of ideology is that set of left and right ideologies we hear about in day-to-day politics: communism, socialism, liberalism and conservatism, for example. Nationalism, we could say, represents a third type of ideology. It is not easy to locate on the left-right ‘ideological spectrum’, though today nationalist rhetoric, generally speaking, is something more often heard from the political right. It is concerned with creating or maintaining the very political unit that the left-right ideologies need to ply their trade in the first place. One could pursue socialist or conservative strategies without reference to national governments, but most often they are thought of, and pursued, in terms of government policies for nation-states. So, nationalism is a political ideology, but a distinctive one. In a sense, if a nationalist ideology is successful it makes possible the pursuit of other ideologies in the sense of ‘left’ and ‘right’ policy prescriptions.

According to Michael Freeden (1998, pp. 751–2), the five elements which constitute the core structure of nationalism are:

  1. ‘the prioritisation of a particular group – the nation – as a key constituting and identifying framework for human beings and their practices’
  2. ‘a positive valorisation is assigned to one’s own nation, granting it specific claims over the conduct of its members’
  3. ‘the desire to give politico-institutional expression to the first two core concepts’
  4. ‘space and time are considered to be crucial determinants of social identity’
  5. ‘a sense of belonging and membership in which sentiment and emotion play an important role’.

Freeden does not discuss explicitly issues of centre and periphery, but notice how the imagining, creation and institutionalising of centre-periphery relations is critical in this account. The second point puts forward one’s nation as a core of value; the third is about the creation of varied markers of centre and periphery; borders, government institutions and others that embody, and which make real, what the ideology has imagined.

Freeden rightly warns that this set of concepts cannot be used to explain a great deal in itself. It is necessarily a highly abstract set of elements, which need filling out with particularities of specific cases and elaboration using other concepts. Nevertheless it provides a useful frame for exploring the texture of nationalism as an ideology. We will consider four of these elements in turn (discussion of space and time, the fourth element, is implicitly covered in the discussion of the others).

‘The prioritisation of a particular group – the nation – as a key constituting and identifying framework for human beings and their practices’

No particular form of articulating the nation is required by the formulation of this first element; the nation might be ‘imagined’ or ‘constructed’ as homogenous or as pluralistic and diverse, for example. However nationhood is imagined, though, it will invariably involve some form of suppression of alternative ways of classifying peoples. Consider that for most of us there are linguistic, class, ethnic, location, gender, religious and other aspects to our identities. If nationalists want to subsume all these under nationality as the primary marker of identity, we might have grounds to suspect the move. Often, observers distinguish liberal nationalism from illiberal nationalism. The former embraces the plurality of the sources of identity, while the latter subsumes other aspects under nationality Consider briefly three alternative ways of constructing or classifying political ‘community’, which may either cut across or reinforce nationalist classifications:

  • (a) ‘Functional’ communities. People often identify with functional rather than territorial groups. Class solidarities, for example, which arise from people’s positions within the relations of production of a country (or a region, or indeed within the global economy), can and do cut across national and other territorially based solidarities. Marx, to cite the most prominent example, knew this well: ‘Workers of the world unite!’ was precisely a call for workers everywhere to unite against the exploitative conditions they shared, regardless of national or other attachments.
  • (b) Religious communities. Religion can operate like class in that it can establish and activate loyalties that owe little or nothing to territorial location or boundaries. Often a dimension of time and circumstance can transform religion, along with gender and class for example, from a subversive to a reinforcing element within nationalist discourses. In the Algerian war of independence from France in the late 1950s, for example, Islam was undoubtedly a reinforcing element within Algerian nationalism, albeit largely secondary to the secular and socialist character of the main liberation movement, the FLN. More recently, with the resurgence of a particular form of political Islam – another ideology, relatively recent on the global scene and powerfully important in the wake of ‘9–11’ – against the perceived corruptions of the governments of Algeria and a number of other Arab states, a particular interpretation of one religion has become a deeply subversive element.
  • (c) Regional and global community? It is a source of irony for some commentators that a resurgence of nationalism after the collapse of communism in Russia and in Eastern Europe has come at a time when the primacy of the nation-state in some key respects is being challenged by something called ‘globalisation’ (see Gieben and Lewis, 2005; Guibernau, 2005). According to some influential views, globalisation does involve large-scale trends which add up to a significant challenge to our dominant national conceptions of political community. David Held (2000) has recommended that we adapt democracy so that new ‘constituencies’ that cross national boundaries can be recognised and their members participate in decision making on cross-border issues. He and others have also advocated global government through a world parliament and other institutions. Such views see the community as made up of those affected by certain actions or phenomena, regardless of their territorial location and loyalties. It is people affected by, for example, AIDS, acid rain and global warming, who form a new sort of ‘constituency’ and a new type of collective interest. The concern here is about people in different countries, drawn together in new forms of ‘political community’ by having a stake in the outcome of pressing cross-border issues, and the need to downgrade more rigidly national-territorial (and to some degree also legal) definitions of political community.
Figure 5 Celebration of a nation: Bangladeshi women parade at a ceremony celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the declaration of independence from Pakistan, March 2001

‘A positive valorisation is assigned to one’s own nation, granting it specific claims over the conduct of its members’

Just how a nation is prioritised over other communities will have an important impact on how the terms of this second element are played out. A nation that sees itself in pluralistic or liberal terms for example – which may celebrate cultural diversity as part of its very sense of a collective identity – is, on the face of it, less likely to make particular demands or to institute extensive controls on the behaviour of its members. On the other hand, a nation that is imagined in terms of the more monolithic view of a more homogenous culture will be more likely to be directive in its treatment of its members. Apart from ‘loyalty demands’, valorisation may also encompass ‘superiority claims’ which hold that other peoples, ethnic groups or nations are inferior in some respect. There is no necessary connection between racism and nationalism. Nationalist trends in the older democracies of Europe – the success of Front Nationale leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in becoming one of the final two candidates in the run-off for the French presidency in 2002, and the rise in votes for the far right in Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, Belgium and The Netherlands – do hint at or openly articulate such claims. More progressive forms of nationalism, which were more common throughout the process of decolonisation in the twentieth century, generally did not do so.

‘The desire to give politico-institutional expression to the first two core concepts’

There is a strong case for regarding the third element in the ‘core structure’ of nationalism as the key one. Generally, as we have seen, nationalists want their nation to have a state, or statehood. But political self-determination might have other outlets.

From the comparatively ‘soft’ demands to harder and less compromising ones, the spectrum might consist of some form of:

  • recognition of the cultural distinctiveness of a ‘national’ minority community within a state, accompanied by institutions (cultural councils, a dedicated ministry, and so on) which sponsor the interests of that group (think of the ‘first nations’ in Canada)
  • cultural federalism, where specific functions such as education are handed over to recognised ‘national’ or cultural groups for them to run on a semi- autonomous basis within an existing state
  • regional federalism, where a territorial group has the right to run its own affairs substantially within a particular location within the state
  • embryonic and possibly transitory ‘statehood’ which might not be territorially continuous but may involve the promise of substantial degrees of autonomy (as with the Palestinian Authority)
  • embryonic statehood under temporary international (normally UN) tutelage and protection, as in East Timor and Kosovo after the violent conflicts in both places
  • full independent statehood and recognition as such from other states and international bodies.

Different demands for national self-determination could lead to any one of these, or a combination of them. Some commentators are wary that demands for strong forms of national self-determination might be met (by colonial powers for example) with co-optive strategies, offering a lesser degree of autonomy in the hope of buying off or defusing the autonomy demands. Avner De-Shalit, for example, makes the point that the demand for self-determination is a political and not a cultural demand. Discussing the case of Palestine, he makes the case that cultural autonomy would not be enough to satisfy Palestinian demands, in theory or in practice:

Autonomy may be the solution to something but not to the Palestinian demand for national self-determination. The demand is political, and it therefore requires free institutions and a grass-roots democracy with active and meaningful participation, enabling Palestinians to determine their own rules, form independent foreign relationships, do business using their own currency, and have their own history of independence. All this is lacking in the solution of autonomy.

(De-Shalit, 1996, p. 916)

The importance of ‘giving expression’ to the political aspirations of one’s own nation is clearly evident in how important the ‘trappings of statehood’ are – to aspiring states and existing ones. Consider, for example, disputes over the draft constitution of the EU in 2003 (the constitution was signed by European leaders in October 2004). The UK government was concerned about its sovereign statehood, and sought to expunge the word ‘federal’ from the draft, which included the statement that the EU ‘shall administer certain common competences on a federal basis’ (cited in Castle, 2003). Federalism does imply decentralisation, which is why many other countries in the EU don’t mind it. But it also implies that the EU would be a state-like entity, despite policy decentralisation. For the UK government it was a challenge to the notion of the EU as a union of states. Giving expression to one’s nation can stretch to retaining expression of those things that make it a nation-state. Prime Minister Tony Blair made this clear at the EU summit set up to finalise the new constitution when he said:

Of particular importance to us is the recognition – expressly – that what we want is a Europe of nations, not a federal superstate…. Taxation, foreign policy, defence policy and our own British borders will remain the prerogative of our national government and national Parliament. That is immensely important.

(Black and White, 2003)

To the Palestinians, for example, the trappings of statehood are vital from a quite different angle. Presenting the ‘halfway-house’ institutions of the Palestinian Authority as a sort of embryonic statehood has been important. As the post-Iraqi war context led to the US-sponsored ‘road map’ for Middle East peace, there was a sense that ‘Palestine’ both exists as a political entity – as a ‘state’, to be more precise – and that it did not. There is a ‘Palestinian Authority’ (though not called a ‘government’); and there is a ‘Palestinian Legislative Council’ (though it is often referred to as a ‘quasi-parliament’, implying that it is not a real parliament, i.e. part of a real government of a real state). The late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had the ‘chairmanship’ of the PA, but he was not a ‘president’. But the PA does have a ‘Prime Minister’ – a position which has been occupied by Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmed Qureia. Here we have a desire on the part of Palestinians and the other sponsors of the peace process to name and operate institutions and offices which look and sound state-like.

A sense of belonging and membership in which sentiment and emotion play an important role

Nationalism is about land or territory and what it means to people. Nationalists make claims to the centrality of certain tracts of land to them, to their people, to their collective history, traditions, cultures and sufferings:

When a hundred thousand nationalists march down Sherbrooke Street [in Montreal] chanting ‘Le Quebec aux Quebecois’, they are not just talking about the establishment of a public language or about the protection of Quebecois culture. They are talking about a whole relation between a people and a territory and the future.

(Walker, 1999, p. 155)

Emotional attachment to land takes on various shades in debates about nationality and community. As we have seen, it is material, economic and symbolic, all at once. It is about ownership and appropriation, inclusion of one’s own nation and exclusion of others. Naming is a critical part of this, a fact that is clear in the example of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict:

Some Arab villages in pre-1948 Palestine that were abandoned during the 1948 War were renamed with Hebrew equivalents leading to contestations over municipal rights; the Arab village of Ein Houd, for instance, was re-established in 1953 as the Israeli artists’ colony Ein Hod.

(Sucharov, 1999, p. 185)

Indeed, more generally, attachment to land, and imbuing of land with loaded symbolic meanings, is a core aspect of this conflict. Palestinians (and all Arabs), for example, call Jerusalem al-Qods, which translates as ‘the holy’, imbuing the city with special spiritual-political significance; a spiritual as well as a political and geographical centre of Palestine. Similarly,

To nurture their historic claim to Zion throughout the centuries, Jews have had to call up historical narratives and national symbols to strengthen the imagined link between the people and the land. Jews have historically sung folk songs about returning to Zion, and the Jewish liturgy contains references to the sanctity of Jerusalem and the land.

(Sucharov, 1999, p. 186)

Note too that borders and boundaries do not have to be understood as they normally are: fixed entities with clear meanings and consequences. Recent analyses, for example, have explored national boundaries as ‘complicated social processes and discourses rather than fixed lines’ (Paasi, 1999, p. 73). One can argue that boundaries do not persist by virtue of their being drawn on agreed maps, but primarily through daily practices which enact and reinforce them; from checkpoint controls to signs, for example. Further, our notion of what really constitutes ‘boundaries’ needs to be flexible to capture a raft of daily political realities, as the work of Huysmans (2005) with respect to asylum seeking testifies. In a similar vein, but in a very different context, consider what historian Rashid Khalidi calls ‘the quintessential Palestinian experience’, which ‘illustrates some of the most basic issues raised by Palestinian identity’ … [and which] takes place at a border, an airport, a checkpoint: in short, at any one of those many modern barriers where identities are checked and verified. What happens to Palestinians at these crossing points brings home to them how much they share in common as a people’ (Khalidi, 1997, p. 1).

A comic called "Road Map to Middle East Peace" showing multiple car accidents
Figure 6: Road map

In this section we have explored the different dimensions of nationalism as an ideology. We now turn to ways in which political theorists have tried to deal with the issue of principles for national self-determination and secession.


  • Nationalism is a particularly potent ideology, arguably different from other forms of ideology.
  • Freeden sets out various elements of the core structure of nationalism, which help to frame debates about and discussions of the idea and its practice.


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Nationalism, Self-determination and Secession by Geoff Andrews and Michael Saward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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