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A history of nationalism

By John Breuilly


In 1904 Józef Pilsudski and Roman Dmowski, rival Polish nationalist leaders, were both in Tokyo, just after Japan had defeated Russia, one of their major enemies. Japan now served as a model for other nationalists. Pilsudski was to become head of state in post-1918 independent Poland. Dmowski expressed admiration for Japanese nationalism well into the 1930s. This episode illustrates two points neglected in the history of nationalism. First, nationalism is global; nationalists are influenced by a wide range of models. Second, it calls into question the widespread assumption that if nationalism does spread, this is from  “west to east”. The lines of direction have to be understood more in terms of degrees of success. Asian nationalism beyond Japan modelled itself on Japanese nationalism; African nationalism after 1947 in part was modelled on Indian success.

To explore this history calls for a range and depth of knowledge beyond the expertise of any individual. It means challenging the practice of writing the history of nationalism as one aspect of national history. General studies of nationalism are mainly theoretical and/or contemporary, dominated by disciplines such as political science, sociology, and psychology. The major exception is the history of ideas. However, the interest in nationalism is less as interesting idea and more as significant politics. In 1800 only a small part of the world political map consisted of nation-states. Nationalism as organised politics seeking such states did not exist. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union — the world’s last officially multi-national state — only a handful of states might not be categorised as nation-states. Even the Sultanate of Brunei calls itself `Nation of Brunei, Abode of Peace’. There are today 193 members of the United Nations, whose very name equates nation with state.

How to write a history of nationalism as a distinct political ideology and movement, rising from the margins to the centre of modern political history, global in scope and distanced from national historiography?

We can focus on ideas, for example by exploring how European thinkers first formulated the nationalist doctrine or how that was taken in different directions beyond Europe. Perspective is gained by considering rival ideas like international socialism, pan-nationalism, transnational religious movements, and globalisation. We can show how poets, philologists, composers, artists, and others “reawakened” interest in national cultures or how national sentiments become part of “everyday life”. In a world of nation-states we can investigate how nationalism has shaped international relations or intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign nation-states, or is used to justify claims by “nations without states”.

However, the biggest challenge is to show how political nationalism develops, first seeking political autonomy for the nation and, after nation-states have been formed, shaping subsequent politics. One promising approach is to do this regional, not national frames. One cannot predict how nationalism will shape a region’s political geography. Ho-Chi Minh was a founder of the Indochinese Communist Party, seeking an Indochina free of French rule; he ended as leader of North Vietnam pursuing a unified Vietnam against the USA. By contrast, Javanese nationalists were marginalised or shifted towards the broader objective of Indonesian independence. Yet few in 1945, though anticipating the end of European colonial rule, would have predicted four separate nation-states in French Indochina but just one successor state in the Dutch East Indies.

Historical perspective makes the world map of nation-states we take for granted puzzling. Most people regard national identity as “natural”  and nationalism as expressing such identity. Yet history shows one cannot align nationalism with any fixed or agreed national identity. Nationalists disagree over aims and methods, as with Pilsudski and Dmowski. Many nationalists neither anticipate nor welcome “their” new nation state, as with Garibaldi and Mazzini. Many nationalists “learn” and practice their nationalism beyond their own nation. Mazzini spent years in London cooperating with non-Italian radical exiles. Sun Yat-Sen was educated in Hawaii, converted to Christianity, spent years in Hong Kong, London and Japan, and hardly knew China beyond Canton and Shanghai.

Nationalists continue quarrelling after nation-state formation. Scottish and Catalan, Flemish, and Kurdish nationalists insist that “their” nation is distinct from that of the existing state. Kurdish nationalism varies between Turkey and Syria, Iraq and Iran, and is internally fragmented within each of those states.  Nationalists accuse democratically elected national governments of betraying the nation, whether from the right, like the Front Nationale and UKIP, or the Greek radical left SYRIZA. Whenever there is a debate about national identity, no consensus can be found. Calling for such debate itself indicates disagreement and uncertainty.

Nationalism has concealed its transnational, diverse, changing and quarrelsome qualities with the widespread assumption that it is the handmaiden of nations, each with its unique and clear-cut identity, each seeking its distinct place in the world. It is vital to challenge that assumption.

John Breuilly is Professor of Nationalism and Ethnicity at the London School of Economics. His main interests are in the history and theory of nationalism and in modern European, especially German history. He is the editor of The Oxford Handbook of the History of Nationalism (OUP, 2013).

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