Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Nationalism as a political project

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Nationalism is one of those words deeply rooted in everyday lives and people’s minds- we all know what the word means and use it often but perhaps never really question its meaning. What, actually, is nationalism? How can we define it? In what way can it be seen as a political project? In this essay I will try to answer these questions.
 A political project is “the set of principles, ideas, objectives and ambitions that are designed in order to increase the well-being of the whole society” and “also includes the concrete steps that need to be taken in order to make the objectives come about.”[1] Before answering the questions on what nationalism is and in what way it can be seen as a political project, we have to ask: What is a nation? Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular state or territory”[2].
The term “nationalism” may be defined as “patriotic feeling, principles, or efforts; an extreme form of patriotism marked by a feeling of superiority over other countries; advocacy of political independence for a particular country”[3]. However, because the term itself is ambiguous with different layers of meaning, nationalism may be associated with different things and have both positive and negative connotations- positive like patriotism, anti-colonial nationalism, negative like chauvinism, racism, xenophobia, etc.
            As language is one of the basic features of and linked concepts with nationalism, the standardisation of a language is an example of nationalism as a political project. In France, for instance, French is the language used in daily life and in media, taught at school and required at work but the majority of people in Brittany speak Breton, a Celtic language unrelated to French. “Why do the survival and revival of the Breton language seem so important to many Bretons?” “Their language forms an important part of their cultural identity”, “since the French state chose the French language as the foremost symbol of its nationalism, the most efficient and visible kind of resistance against that nationalism may be a rejection of that language.”[4] Nationalism can be divided into two main kinds: ethnic nationalism (“a form of nationalism wherein the "nation" is defined in terms of ethnicity”[5]) and civic nationalism (which “defines the nation as an association of people who identify themselves as belonging to the nation, who have equal and shared political rights, and allegiance to similar political procedures”[6]). In this case, we can see that the standardisation of the French language is civic nationalism as a political project and the Bretons’ decision to keep their own language is ethnic nationalism.
            Nationalism can also be demonstrated in other aspects and policies. In history, nationalism was the main foundation of Fascism and Nazism and could be seen in the form of racial theory in education and propaganda, speeches and posters emphasising national pride, propaganda against the Jews and other ethnic groups and xenophobic/ racist policies, etc[7]. Today, the Chinese government intended to make Hong Kong school children to take Chinese patriotism classes, saying “the subject was important to foster a sense of national belonging and identity”[8], or more precisely, it was meant as a programme to teach Hong Kong children to feel that they are Chinese and belong to the People’s Republic of China. Or, Tibetan people have accused the Chinese government of the sinicisation of Tibet by means of cultural assimilation, opening of Chinese schools, closure of Tibetan monasteries, migration of Chinese people to Tibet, political reform, Patriotic Education, etc[9]. An instance of nationalism, as a political project, at an individual level may be Anders Behring Breivik’s bombing and shooting in the name of nationalism, stating that “the purpose of the attack was to save Norway and Western Europe from a Muslim takeover, and that the Labour Party had to pay the price for letting down Norway and the Norwegian people"[10]. All of these are different examples of nationalism as a political project.
            In some other cases, a sovereign state consists of different countries with different peoples, where, therefore, the sense of ethnic nationalism is stronger. One example is the United Kingdom, which consists of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Civic nationalism promotes Britishness as a collective national identity for English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh peoples and emphasises both the cohesion and diversity of the people of the UK[11]. The civic nationalists are also called unionists. However, there are people who wish for Irish or Scottish independence from the UK, who may be called separatists. The Irish separatists see Ireland as one nation of the Irish people and therefore wish Northern Ireland to leave the UK and be reunited with Southern Ireland. Similarly, ethnic nationalism in Scotland means as either the advocacy of Scottish home rule- greater autonomy within the UK, or as advocacy of Scottish independence- Scotland becoming a sovereign state again (supported by the Scottish National Party)[12].
            As these two kinds of nationalism have different ideas, principles and objectives, they are also different in terms of politics. “If one ethnic group controls the state, then its nationalism is expressed as official nationalism or patriotism. [...] But an ethnic group which does not control the state expresses its nationalism in opposition to the state”[13]. In the politics of nationalism we have ruling national parties, opposition nationalist parties, nationalist movements, national liberation armies, etc. “Nationalist movements took root everywhere, some directed towards national unification (Italy and Germany), some to throwing off the rule of multinational empires (Greece, Belgium, Poland, Hungary, Serbia), and some to breaking away from long-established kingdoms (Ireland, Norway).”[14] In fact, it is more common that nationalism leads to the break-up of existing states rather than the joining of several into one large state, because the basic features of a nation are language, history, culture, ethnicity..., the differences in culture, religion, traditions, language... between different ethnic groups are likely to cause conflicts and lead to the break-up of the union. There can be other factors such as economic discontent, regional uneven economic development and differences in economic structures. Some examples are Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, which show the triumph of ethnic nationalism over official or state nationalism, thanks to the activities of nationalist parties, ‘Popular Fronts’, writers’ and intellectual’s societies and elections and/or referendums. “A closed non-democratic system, on the other hand, or a democratic system based on majority rule which oppresses minority nations, will lead nationalism into underground and terrorist activities.”[15] In some cases, it may lead to a civil war, as in Ireland (1921) or Algeria (1962)[16].
            In conclusion, “nationalism can take psychological, cultural or political forms: usually all three. Nationalist ideology can be left-wing, right-wing, constructive of new states or destructive of existing states. It can protect or destroy freedom, establish peace or lead to war.”[17] Nationalism can mean different things in different situations, to different people and groups of people, can have both positive and negative connotations and be demonstrated differently in politics.

[4] Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Ethnicity and Nationalism (England: European Union, 2002), p.108, 109
[13] James G. Kellas, The Politics of Nationalism and Ethnicity (United States: St. Martin’s Press, Inc, 1998), p.69, 70
[14] Ibid, p.40
[15] James G. Kellas, The Politics of Nationalism and Ethnicity, p.74
[16] Ibid
[17] Ibid, p.41

”Anders Behring Breivik”. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia,
Blum, George P. The Rise of Fascism in Europe. United States of America: Greenwood Press, 1998.
”British Nationalism”. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia,
“Devolution in the United Kingdom”, Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia,
Eriksen, Thomas Hylland. Ethnicity and Nationalism. England: European Union, 2002.
“Ethnic Nationalism”. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia,
“Fascism”. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia,
“History of Tibet (1950- present)”. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia,  
“Ireland”. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia,
Kellas, James G. The Politics of Nationalism and Ethnicity. United States of America: St. Martin’s Press, Inc., 1998.
“Liberal Nationalism”. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia,
Liu, Juliana. “Hong Kong backs down over Chinese patriotism classes”, BBC News,
“Nationalism”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
“Nationalism”. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia,
“Nazism”. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia,
Oxford Readers. Nationalism, edited by John Hutchinson and Anthony D. Smith. England: Oxford University Press, 1994.
“Scottish Nationalism”. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia,
 “Sinicization of Tibet”. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia,
Wray, Michael. “Compulsory Chinese patriotism classes for Hong Kong school pupils ditched after wave of protest”, The Telegraph,

Written by me for course Exfac03 and finished in November 2012. 

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