Nationalism: A Definition

In 1991, Schmitter and Karl wrote an article for the Journal of Democracy entitled: “What Democracy Is…. and Is Not.”  Anderson, Posner and Snyder do not explore democracy, rather, nationalism.  This brief post will explain what nationalism is… and is not.

Anderson did not see nationalism as a departing value, rather, a “universally legitimate value in the political life of our time” (3). Nationalism has been a thorn to many philosophers’ conceptions; such as Marx, because nationalism has been so prominent as an ideology to the State’s denizens.  Nationalism is illusory. Anderson found that, “Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist” (6, italics in original).  Nationalism has not produced any great philosophers, yet it has produced three great paradoxes.  They are: (A) The objective historian’s eye vs. subjective antiquity eyes of nationalists; (B) everyone has a nation—nationality vs. nationality’s concrete manifestations; (C) the political power of nationalisms vs. “philosophical poverty and even incoherence” (5).[1]

Snyder defined nationalism as “the doctrine that a people who see themselves as distinct in their culture, history, institutions, or principle rule themselves in a political system that expresses and protects those distinctive characteristics” (23).  Nationalism is not the majority will or culture of an ethnic group.  As Snyder states, “not all ethnic groups are nations; nor are all nations ethnic groups” (23).  However, according to Snyder, nationalism once was described as “the doctrine that each cultural group should have its own state,” but modern globalization brought the end of local hegemony—the end of history (19).  Nationalism is not always a noble character in the daily exercise of society.  Often nationalism created “ethnic riots, aggressive foreign policies of fascist states…” (21-22).  On the other hand, this same nationalism also created “patriotism in democracies, and the peaceful seeking of special rights for cultural groups” (21-22).[2]

Posner studied the differences between the Chewas and Tumbukas. Tellingly, ethnic conflict was much more prevalent in Malawi, but this was not due to nationalism, per se.  Posner wrote, “cultural cleavage between Chewas and Tumbukas is highly politically salient in Malawi, it has almost no political salience in Zambia” (1).  In fact, Chewas and Tumbukas in Zambian communities agreed that, “We are the same” (1).  Here, nationalism in Zambia is not predicated on ethnicity, and is in agreement with Anderson and Snyder’s definition of nationalism.  Nationalism in Malawi is illusory and negative, and also in agreement with Anderson and Snyder’s definition. [3]

Together, this definition of nationalism enables a nuanced understanding of what nationalism is…and is not.

[1] Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Chapter 1 “Introduction” Imagined Communities.New York: New Left Books.

[2] Snyder, Jack. 2000. From Voting to Violence: Democratization and Nationalist Conflict. Norton.Ch 1 &Ch. 6.

[3] Posner, Daniel N. 2004. “The political salience of cultural difference: Why Chewas and Tumbukas are allies in Zambia and adversaries in Malawi.” American Political Science Review 98 (4):529-45.


One thought on “Nationalism: A Definition

  1. the quotation “Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist” is not from Anderson, but from Gellner, quoted in Anderson…

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