Nationalism for dummies

Nationalism is a hot topic. Nationalists throughout Europe win elections. Analysists try to understand the phenomena and make mistakes. These mistakes is caused by ignorance on what nationalism really is. With this blog, I wish to give an overview on the available theory of nationalism.


The inspiration of this blog emerged from an essay by sociologist Frank Furedi in Spiked. He tries to connect the radical left-wing identity politics with 19th century nationalism. A dubious claim, as besides the word "identity" and scepticism of Enlightenment universalism, they have nothing in common. In Darwinist terms: they both seem to have originated independently (convergent evolution like sharks and dolphins) and any similarities are purely functional rather than ontological.

It is not that Furedi is alone. Even nationalists themselves can get this wrong. So did a member of the leftwing Flemish-nationalist VLinks movement who equated the identity politics of the current left with the identity politics of populist right. You would presume a nationalist knows better.

Why could they both get things so wrong? I think because they don't really know what nationalism truly means. This blog attempts to correct this knowledge gap.

It is important that I define nationalism. I adopt the definition of John Breuilly's book Nationalism and the State:
  • There exists a nation with an explicit and peculiar character.
  • The interests and values of this nation take priority over all other interests and values.
  • The nation must be as independent as possible. This usually requires at least the attainment of political sovereignty. [In the words of Ernest Gellner (p. 1), the nation and the state should be congruent.]
This is a minimalist definition i.e. it takes no presumption on what the nation is. However, there are several aspects of nationalism that are not covered by this minimalist definition. These are: the sociology of nations, the teleology of nations, the ontology of nations, the normative theory of nations and what the interests of nations are. I will go through all of these step-by-step. Finally, I will discuss the difference with left-wing identity politics.


The first question you could ask: what constitutes a nation? What is the sociology of nations?

The right-wing form of nationalism is ethnic nationalism. Membership of the nation is inherited,  based on cultural and blood relations (jus sanguinis) and emotional attachment. The highest value of ethnic nationalism is tribal fraternity and unity by ascription. In extreme cases (Nazism), the dominant ethnic group determines the nation, immigration is prohibited and minorities are subjugated as second-class citizens or expelled. In "moderate" form (neofascism), ethnic nationalists are ethnopluralists who separates citizens according to ethnic groups and gives each ethnic group various degree of autonomy within the state. Ethnopluralist thinking reminiscences the "separate but equal" policies of  America before the civil rights movements. In ethnic nations, the nation forms the individual.

The left-wing form of nationalism is civic nationalism. Membership of the nation is chosen, based on law and territoriality (jus soli) and rational attachment. The highest value of civic nationalists is liberty and unity by consent, participation in the polity is a must. Civic nations are a result of a daily plebiscite (Ernest Renan) in which civilians chose to stay part of a (multicultural) pluralist democracy. It is not uncommon for civic nationalists to adopt some kind of civic religion, civic virtues and/or constitutional patriotism (an idea of Eric Hobsbawn). In civic nations, the nation is created by the individuals. A special subtype of civic nationalism is territorial nationalism. While civic nationalism presumes allegiance to the polity you're part of, territorial nationalists presume allegiance to the territory which you were born into or adopted you. In the case if the territory and state are congruent, territorial and civic nationalism is exactly the same. But if the territory is claimed by another state, some territorial nationalists could transfer into expansionists.

In between those two extremes is cultural nationalism. Membership of the nation is educated, based on law and culture (could be both jus soli and jus sanguinis) and emotional attachment. The highest value is community and unity by internalization. Cultural nations are not exclusive of immigrants but expect newcomers to adopt the language, norms and values. Minority cultures are tolerated but there is a dominant Leitkultur. The dilemma of cultural nationalists whether people can consciously became a co-national by simply learning a culture (and if that's even possible at all) or that you need to be raised inside a culture and fully incorporated that culture in order to be a co-national. Religious nationalism is a subtype of cultural nationalism, in which the culture is a religion. Depending on the religion, this can lead to a theocracy where non-believers are treated as second-class citizens unless they convert. Then religious nationalism moves towards the far-right.

There are two odd forms of nationalism. The first one is romantic nationalism, a radical right-wing form of nationalism. It goes beyond mere ethnic nationalism and overemphasises sentimentalism, myths, folklore, symbolism, Volksgeist, glorious pasts and the Heimat. It is more about belonging in the greater sense (i.e. destined to being part of) rather than belonging in the smaller sense (i.e. purely sharing commonalities as civility, culture or ethnicity). It was very popular at the beginning of the 18th century, it is hardly present these days but often, extreme ethnic nationalists automatically include romantic nationalism.

Out of the romantic nationalism, the what I would call "environmental nationalism" emerged. German romantics didn't reduce the nation to the social environment, but also included the natural environment. They viewed natural and/or cultural landscapes as part of German culture, folklore, Heimat and heritage, especially "Der Deuthscher Wald" or the German forest that it is the stage of several German folktales. Romanticism was a direct response to modernity's industrial and urban transformation of the landscape, which was perceived as threatening and destructive. According to the German romantics, the landscape was in need of protection. Those German romantics were the first environmentalists. Today the so called "bioregionalism" echoes these sentiments by applying ecocentric thoughts with nationalist thought. According to the bioregionalists "a bioregion’s environmental components (geography, climate, plant life, animal life, etc.) directly influence ways for human communities to act and interact with each other which are, in turn, optimal for those communities to thrive in their environment.". Simply put: "place shapes identity". I think these bioregionalists have an important point that is often overlooked by regular nationalists. As bioregions are physically limited, this means it cannot be expansionist and as long you're open to the nature of the bioregion, anyone can become a co-national. Environmental nationalism is thus a centrist position like cultural nationalism. However, the same dilemma of cultural nationalism applies to environmental nationalism: can one fully become a part of such nationhood if one isn't raised in this bioregion, if someone isn't emotionally attached to this Heimat?

The second odd one is postnationalism, which is a radical-left form of nationalism that characterizes itself by having a weak or absent sense of national identity. National identity is seen as outdated and obsolete due to globalisation, multiculturalism and digitisation. Postnationalists don't even believe a national identity is required for social cohesion at all. The national identity (if any) is based on universal values rather than particular values (and thus contains nothing that separates itself from other nations). I suspect postnationalism is merely an intermediate for the end goal - a world nation where cosmopolitan travellers feel at home.

In general, when moving from postnationalism towards romantic nationalism, the nationalism becomes more deterministic and more exclusive, i.e. there is limited room for choice and immigration. Membership of the nation is both in ethnic and romantic nationalism "born this way", while civic and postnationalism are "acquired this way". Cultural and environmental nationalism is something in between, depending how optimistic/pessimistic the cultural nationalist in the capacity of immigrants to integrate in their new homeland.

From civic nationalism onward till ethnic nationalism, there is a clear build-up. So cultural nationalism has as presumption that nation members are citizens. Romantic nationalism has as presumption that nation members have the same culture. Ethnic nationalism automatically includes the Volksgeist of romantic nationalism and the culture of cultural nationalism.

Cultural, civic and postnationalism (although the latter is often not explicitly stated, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau excluded) are the most popular forms of nationalism today. However, the fringe ethnic nationalism still determines the public image of nationalism, mostly because of Nazism. This makes it hard for a cultural nationalist for instance to sell its ideology, as it needs to explain it's not racist again and again.

In this typology, I've taken what Ernest Gellner in his seminal book Nations and Nationalism explains on p. 6-7 as the "cultural" approach of nations (I would generalise it to categorical): two people are of the same nation if they share categorical attributes, either ethnicity, citizenship, culture, romantic sentimentalism, natural environment or universal values. This is the positive formulation, but often nations are negatively formulated: as the attributes which they do NOT share with other nations. A second approach is voluntaristic: two people are of the same nation if they recognise each other as belonging to the same nation, and not because of shared categorical attributes. Both approaches have merit and have difficulties. The categorical approach is difficult because defining the category is difficult, let along assessing if an individual fits in that category. The voluntaristic approach is difficult because recognition is often implicit and subjective.

To summarise: from radical-right to radical-left, you have romantic, ethnc, cultural/environmental, civic and postnationalism.


The second question you could ask: what is the goal of nationalism? What is the teleology of nationalism? The quick answer would be to acquire political sovereignty. The long answer is best given by Michael Hechter:
"If nationalism is collective action designed to render the boundaries of the nation congruent with those of its governance unit, then a simple analytic typology of nationalism flows directly out of this definition. Further, this typology helps account for the normative differences between types of nationalism.

State-building nationalism is the nationalism that is embodied in the attempt to assimilate or incorporate culturally distinctive territories in a given state. It is the result of the conscious efforts of central rulers to make a multicultural population culturally homogeneous. Thus, beginning in the sixteenth century and continuing into the twentieth, the rulers of England and France attempted fitfully perhaps, and with more or less success-to foster homogeneity in their realms by inducing culturally distinctive populations in each country's Celtic regions to assimilate to their own [respectively English and French] culture. Since the rationale for state-building nationalism is often geopolitical - to secure borders from real or potential rivals - this kind of nationalism tends to be culturally inclusive. However, much less liberal means of skinning a culturally homogeneous cat have been resorted to in history, as well. Central rulers of a given culture also can unify their country by expelling culturally alien populations (as in the Spanish Reconquista), or by exterminating them (often the fate of the indigenous peoples of North America).

Peripheral nationalism occurs when a culturally distinctive territory resists incorporation into an expanding state, or attempts to secede and set up its own government (as in Quebec, Scotland and Catalonia). Often this type of nationalism is spurred by the the very efforts of state-building nationalism described above.

Irredentist nationalism occurs with the attempt to extend the existing boundaries of a state by incorporating territories of an adjacent state occupied principally by co-nationals (as in the case of the Sudeten Germans).

Finally, unification nationalism involves the merger of a politically divided but culturally homogeneous territory into one state, as famously occurred in nineteenth-century Germany and Italy. In this case, the effort to render cultural and governance boundaries congruent requires the establishment of a new state encompassing the members of the nation. Whereas state-building nationalism tends to be culturally inclusive, unification nationalism is often culturally exclusive."
I found the terminology of Hechter rather confusing so let me explain it with a recent example: Catalonia. As the reader probably knows (or can look it up): Catalonia and Spain are politically and legally wrestling with each other. But what is really happening is a fight between two nationalisms: Spanish and Catalan nationalism.

But how can two nationalisms exist in the same territory? This is because state nationalism starts from a pre-existing state (often dominated by one culture or ethnic group), which then project a nation top-down onto the populace through cultural forced assimilation (e.g. making it monolingual Spanish like under Franco). Less statist forms of state nationalism rather chooses to integrate different cultures or ethnic groups and even recognise its diversity as being the core of the nation (the UK has formally recognised England, Scotland and Wales as countries). This is what Hechter confusingly called "state-building nationalism" (while it is more correct to describe it as nation-building nationalism).

Popular nationalism reverses the thinking: they start from a pre-existing nation and build bottom-up a state (or attempt to) from the civil society and regional governments. Popular nationalism is, unlike state nationalism, more liberal and revolutionary in nature, seeking autonomy, secession and the right of self-determination (like the Catalan nationalism). In a sense, it is what Hechter calls "peripheral nationalism" (because popular nationalists tend to externalise their nation from the state) but I rather prefer to use state-building nationalism.

It stands in contrast with regionalism, which is often confused with popular nationalism. Regionalists do not consider themselves a separate nation but merely a subdivision of the existing nation. In a sense, regionalism is in the centre of state and popular nationalism, seeing validity in both positions.

Supranationalism on the other hand is the emergence of a supranational union between nation-states which has its own sovereignty within matters assigned by its constituent nation-states. De facto, this creates a multinational state. As of today, the European Union is the only supranational union. (Pan-)Europeanism is the ideological foundation of European supranationalism, stressing the shared culture, values and history of Europe as well as fostering a pan-European identity. The Pan-European Union is the oldest and most important advocate of European supranationalism. This European supranationalism collides with the traditional state (and sometimes popular) nationalists due to disputes over political sovereignty within an ever-closing union and due to lack of democratic legitimacy. As of today, there is a pan-European identity among Europeans, but not strong enough for the total dissolution of the European nation-states into a United States of Europe advocated by some federalist (Pan-)Europeanists. In a sense, supranationalists merely elevate the state vs. popular nationalism distinction to a higher scale, making them the state nationalists and previously state nationalists popular nationalists.

Three things happen when state and popular nationalism collide. First, they both reinforce each other. The feeding ground for popular nationalists are grievances and injustices committed by the state: suppression of their language, autonomy and culture, taxation without representation, economic transfers, the use of violence,... State nationalists on the other react as stung by a bee by popular nationalists; rebellion, civil disobedience, separatism,... State nationalists will always try to smash-down those insurgents and the harder they smash, the harder popular nationalists strike back. If left unchecked, this can easily spiral down into a cycle of violence, terror and oppression.

Secondly, state nationalists are often not recognised to be nationalists. Many readers might even found my analysis incorrect: isn't it simply a conflict between the Spanish government and Catalan nationalists? The phenomenon is called depoliticisation: because the Spanish nation-state exists for so long, we see it as the norm (Overton window is policy) and the Catalan nationalists as deviant, rather than seeing the discourse of the Spanish government as equally ideologically nationalist as well. People who carelessly side with the Spanish government, validate the state nationalistic ideology and adopt a state nationalist approach to this issue. That's how such conflict works: it forces everyone to (consciously or subconsciously) take a nationalist stand. There is no non-nationalistic position!

Thirdly, if popular nationalism is victorious and a new state is founded, then you get a switch: the popular nationalism becomes state nationalism.

To complete my story: irredentist nationalism typically happens when a state nationalist determines his state should include previously lost territories. In the case of Spanish state nationalism, this would be previous colonies like the Western Sahara. Irridentist nationalism is almost always expansionist in nature, questioning the territorial integrity of other states. Unification nationalism would be the merge of two culturally homogeneous territories into one new state, in the case of Catalan popular nationalism this would be the merge of the Catalan region of Spain with La Franja in the Aragon region. Unification nationalism is almost always more radical than popular nationalism because it questions at least two nation-states (and in the case of Kurdish unification nationalism, it is four).

To summarise. Teleologically, you have two opposites: state nationalism on the left and popular nationalism on the right (if you take the statism-liberalism dichotomy as axis) or popular nationalism on the left and state nationalism on the right (if you take the progressive-conservative dichotomy as axis) . The more extreme form of popular nationalism is unification nationalism and the more extreme form of state nationalism is irridentist nationalism. Regionalism is in the centre of the axis. Supranationalism is also a centrist position as it goes beyond the state/popular nationalist divide.


The third question you could ask: how did nations emerge? What is the ontology (development) of nations? Different lines of thinking exist. Anthony D. Smith laid it out perfectly:
"For nationalists [primordialist] themselves, the role of the past is clear and unproblematic. The nation was always there, indeed it is part of the natural order, even when it was submerged in the hearts of its members. The task of the nationalist [primordialist] is simply to remind his or her compatriots of their glorious past, so that they can recreate and relive those glories.

For perennialists, too, the nation is immemorial. National forms may change and particular nations may dissolve, but the identity of a nation is unchanging. Yet the nation is not part of any natural order, so one can choose one's nation, and later generations can build something new on their ancient ethnic foundations. The task of nationalism is to rediscover and appropriate a submerged past in order the better to build on it.

For the modernist, in contrast, the past is largely irrelevant. The nation is a modern phenomenon, the product of nationalist ideologies, which themselves are the expression of modern, industrial society. The nationalist is free to use ethnic heritages, but nation-building can proceed without the aid of an ethnic past. Hence, nations are phenomena of a particular stage of history, and embedded in purely modern conditions.

For the post-modernist, the past is more problematic. Though nations are modern and the product of modern cultural conditions, nationalists who want to disseminate the concept of the nation will make liberal use of elements from the ethnic past, where they appear to answer to present needs and preoccupations. The present creates the past in its own image. So modem nationalist intellectuals will freely select, invent and mix traditions in their quest for the imagined political community."
Primordialism and perennialism are often considered together to be the essentialist school of thought because they both emphasise on the ethnic, eternal and organic character of nations. Modernism and postmodernism are considered together to be the constructivist school of thought because they both emphasise on the social, inventive and conscious character of nations.

Essentialists presume that the nation was always there, that it is part of human biology and that it simply requires rediscovering. Constructivists presume that before the Industrial Revolution, nations did not exist. Essentialists don't need to argument how nations came into being, constructivists do. Constructivists believe that nations were created to supplement political strategies of power, money and territorial expansion (the instumentalist approach) - nationalism made the nation. In this line of thinking, you recognise the postmodern neo-Marxist hermeneutics, which reduces every social interaction into a power play. The socialist George Orwell expressed this thinking nicely when he stated: "Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality."

Anthony D. Smith himself positioned a third school of thought: ethnosymbolism. It is an intermediate between essentialism and constructivism. He recognisess like the essentialists that the nation was always part of humankind and that it emerged out of pre-existing "ethnie" (rejecting the modernist irrelevance of the past) but also recognises like the modernists that nations are created by social interactions and not static in content (rejecting the essentialist view of eternity). Smith also build up his theory on the work of John A. Armstrong, who applied the longue durée vision of historians to nations and included the role of symbolism, myths and tradition to the formation of nations. Later students of Smith expanded this concept.

The three main ontological positions (essentialism, ethnosymbolism and constructivism) correspond nicely with the three main sociological positions (ethnic, cultural and civic nationalism). This is no coincidence, the sociological positions are dependent on the ontological positions.

To summarise: you can place the five ontological positions from left (postmodernism, modernism) to right (perennialism, primordialism), with in the centre ethnosymbolism.


So far as nationalist you've chosen the definition of your nation (ethnic, cultural, civic or other), you've determined how your nation came into being (essentialist, constructivist or ethnosymbolist) and you've assessed what your relation is between your nation and existing states (state or popular). You can ask a fourth question: is nationalism simply a means to an end or an end to itself? Ergo, what is the normative theory of nationalism? Alan Patten gives in an article in Nations and Nationalism the implicit answer (p. 1):
"A distinction can be drawn between two different varieties of nationalism which are important in both theory and practice. Political nationalism can be defined as the doctrine that nations should be self-governing. On the strongest version of this view, each nation should have its own state; on weaker versions, each nation should enjoy a significant degree of political autonomy within a multinational state. Cultural nationalism, by contrast, I shall take to be the doctrine that an important responsibility of the state is to preserve and promote some national culture that is contained within its borders. Political nationalism is a doctrine about how politically meaningful boundaries ought to be drawn. Cultural nationalism, on the other hand, is a doctrine about how the state, in the context of a given set of boundaries, ought to exercise its power and authority."
Political nationalism sees the raison d'être of nationalism is its democratic legitimacy. From the "No taxation without representation!" creed of American revolutionaries till today's Catalan independence movement, the cry for legitimacy and democracy is universal and not even uniquely nationalist, but still a core normative value of every nationalist. In already formed nation-states, such sentiments is referred to as "souverainism" (from the French word for sovereignty) and directed towards supranational unions like the EU. Even more, I would say democracy presupposes nationhood and you cannot separate one from the other. Political nationalism and democratic nationalism are synonymous.

Thus, for political/democratic nationalists, the end of nationalism is the nation-state, while the nation-state is only a means to an end for "cultural nationalists", namely the preservation of the nation. To avoid confusion with the cultural nationalism as previously defined, I would call it "conservative nationalism" as in nationalism with strong conservative (and somewhat social authoritarian) reflexes  (=/= national conservatism).

As Patten notes, both varieties can exist at the same time, as conservative nationalism requires political nationalism first, but don't have to (p. 2). I'm rather sceptical about that, as a conservative nationalist policy without political/democratic nationalism, will run into legitimacy issues and probably a backlash (which I discussed in detail in the teleology section).

Patten's article is mainly about to reconcile nationalism and liberalism. First of all, he distinguishes between "strong" and "weak" conservative nationalism (p. 2-3):
"[Conservative] nationalism comes in stronger and weaker forms, depending on how important the responsibility to preserve and promote the national culture in question is taken to be. In an extreme form of [conservative] nationalism, this responsibility is taken to be very urgent indeed - so urgent that it can justify suspending the basic rights and liberties of some members of the community (be they members or non-members of the culture in question). Virtually all liberals, I take it, would unite against [conservative] nationalism in this extreme form. A defining characteristic of liberalism is the priority it attaches to the protection of basic rights and liberties in anything but the most dire of circumstances. The more difficult question is whether liberalism can be reconciled with [conservative] nationalism in its weaker forms. [Conservative] nationalism takes a 'weaker form', as I shall view it, when it attaches sufficient importance to preserving and promoting some national culture so as to justify imposing certain costs and burdens on members of the community but not so much importance that it justifies the suspension of any basic rights and liberties. Thus, a 'weaker form" of [conservative] nationalism might, for example, call for minor restrictions on commercial activity and educational choice, or it might require subsidies for the arts and entertainment of a particular national culture paid for out of a general taxation revenues, but it would not involve suspending anyone's right of free speech or free association."
Patten discusses at length how even the weaker form of conservative nationalism might collide with liberalism's commitment to state neutrality (p. 3-4). Patten cites various authors which he summarises:
"The argument I have in mind seeks to show that the liberal ideal of an autonomous individual chooser presupposes a rich and healthy national culture which provides, and gives meaning to, the options which an individual faces. Liberals cannot be indifferent to the survival of national cultures, so the argument goes, because they are not indifferent to ensuring conditions for autonomous individual choice. For the sake of convenience, and at the risk of being misleading, I will call this argument simply the liberal nationalist argument."
If you combine the weaker form of conservative nationalism with the liberal argument, you get the emergence of a third variety, liberal nationalism, which can coincide with civic nationalism but can also be applied to cultural nationalism (if the culture allows individual autonomy). Patten voices four objections to liberal nationalism (p. 6 and further pages) (which I will not discuss further but if you're interested you can read it).

I would like to add a fourth, and often overlooked, normative theory of nationalism and which I will refer to as "social nationalism". Social nationalism is the presumption that any policy of social justice and redistribution is only possible within the confines of a nation, as the nation (1) fosters a sense of egalitarianism and horizontal comradeship among its members, (2) is a Schicksalsgemeinschaft or a community of destiny i.e. the well-being of one national is also of interest for the other and (3) creates out of (1) and (2) group cohesion and a sentiment of solidarity.

Sociologist Durkheim has studied solidarity and came up with two ideal types:
"Mechanical solidarity is the social integration of members of a society who have common values and beliefs. These common values and beliefs constitute a “collective conscience” that works internally in individual members to cause them to cooperate. Because, in Durkheim’s view, the forces causing members of society to cooperate were much like the internal energies causing the molecules to cohere in a solid, he drew upon the terminology of physical science in coining the term mechanical solidarity.
In contrast to mechanical solidarity, organic solidarity is social integration that arises out of the need of individuals for one another’s services. In a society characterized by organic solidarity, there is relatively greater division of labour, with individuals functioning much like the interdependent but differentiated organs of a living body. Society relies less on imposing uniform rules on everyone and more on regulating the relations between different groups and persons, often through the greater use of contracts and laws."
This distinction corresponds with respectively the ethnic/cultural and civic nationalist conceptions of nationhood (although the terms "organic" and "mechanical" are ill-chosen, as one can argue that the mechanical solidarity corresponds with the organic notions of the ethnic nationalist, which sees the nation as an organism with each member as a cell, while the organic solidarity corresponds with the mechanical nations of the civic nationalist, which sees the nation as a machine with each member as a cog).

As with conservative nationalism, social nationalism requires political/democratic nationalism for legitimacy. Solidarity was, before it was hijacked by the left, exclusively intranational. "International solidarity" is for social nationalists a contradictio in terminis. "International solidarity" is for social nationalists simply economic transfers, which cannot have the same automatism of intranational solidarity and lack democratic legitimacy. The left cannot understand the viewpoint of social nationalists and rather brush them aside as selfish or cold.

Social nationalism is increasingly becoming relevant in discussions regarding immigration. Open borders and a generous welfare state are not a sustainable combination, solidarity cannot be limitless. What the solution to this conundrum is, is up-to-heavy debate almost everywhere.

To summarise: the normative theory of nationalism has two phases. Initiatialy, there is a political/democratic nationalism. This can be coupled to one or more other normative theories: conservative, liberal and/or social nationalism.

What about patriotism?

Patriotism is a very much related  concept to nationalism. A good definition of patriotism is given by George Orwell:
"By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally."
I put in bold the keywords of Orwell's definition. The definition doesn't make it clear how patriotism can be separated from nationalism. The patriot must direct its devotion - I think it is a too strongly formulated, attachment would be more suitable - towards something that can only be defined in nationalistic terms. I have three solutions for this conundrum:
  1. Patriotism and nationalism are two sides of the same coin. Patriotism is the sentimental part, nationalism is the political part. This means that the two can exist but not fully independently. Patriotism accepts implicitly nationalistic presuppositions such as what the fatherland is, who his compatriots are, etc. Patriotism is thus nationalist sentimentalism.
  2. Patriotism is the fully depoliticised form of nationalism. As discussed with state nationalism, often a nation-state existed for so long that its nationalistic roots are not recognised anymore. The ideology might be gone but its sentiments (the need for protection and solidarity) remain. Patriotism is thus the remnant of by-gone nationalism.
  3. Patriotism is the romanticisation of the existing ideology of loyalism (i.e. allegiance or duty of fidelity said to be owed, or freely committed, by the people, subjects or citizens towards an established government or sovereign, especially in times of need). Romantic concepts like fatherland merely obscures the foundation of loyalist attitudes. Patriotism is thus closet-loyalism.
All three explanations have their merit and some patriots will recognise themselves in more than one of the explanations. But maybe I make this all too complicating: patriotism and nationalism are the same sentiments but only differ in magnitude. The dichotomy between nationalism and patriotism is artificial at best, totally fake at worst. Patriots are nationalists who fear their own shadow.

How are two other frequently heard concept, chauvinism and supremacism, related to patriotism and nationalism? Chauvinism is commonly seen as a form of excessive patriotism, the kind of patriotism that blinds the patriot for seeing the shortcomings of its fatherland. It's named after a peculiarly blinded French soldier, Nicolas Chauvin, who stayed devoted to Napoleon even after his downfall.
Supremacism is the view that one's identity group (it could be the nation but also race, sex, religion,...) is superior to another and that superiority excuses the dominion of that identity group over so called inferior identity groups. Supremacism always excuses forms of bigotry, discrimination, racism or sexism. The term male chauvinism is often referred to sex-related bigotry, while male supremacism would be more correct to describe such attitudes.

As the definition of Orwell states, patriotism is by nature a defensive, non-coercive position. On the other hand, we know from the definition of nationalism by John Breuilly that nationalists put the interests and values of the nation above all else. This can take various forms.

The most familiar form is economic nationalism. Alexander Hamilton and Friedrich List have contributed mostly to this thinking, criticising the folly of Smithian cosmopolitan economics and developing the alternative economic theory of national economics. They believed nation-states should have an economic policy that focused on self-preservation rather than free trade, putting the interest of the nation above the interests of individuals and when necessary, protect own enterprises from foreign competition. Although, current majority consensus of economists is that national economics is wrong. Still, the intuitive ideas of List and Hamilton live on in some governments.

Another form is nativism or "welfare nationalism", the preferential treatment of citizens compared to non-citizens (newcomers and immigrants) in terms of social welfare or other civil rights and privileges. One author suggests nativism is simply based on xenophobia, bigotry, anti-immigration sentiments and ignorance but insufficiently arguments why that is necessarily the case. It is not unreasonable from an economic viewpoint that a newcomer can't have the same advantages (social security, social housing, etc.) as a citizen, without attracting welfare profiteers and the collapse of the whole system.

A growing body of nation-states have adopted a form called "resource nationalism", which as two sides: the producer side and the consumer side. On the producer side, governments exert great control over natural resources (oil & gas) for maximum benefit for the nation (such as in Russia and Venezuela). Benefit is not only monetary but also ideological and diplomatic, Saudi Arabia's uses their petrodollars to spread Wahhabism and at the same time avoid criticism from the oil-dependent West on their human rights violations. On the consumer side, governments try to control over natural resources in order to secure supply for their citizens, if necessarily even interfere in other countries. The Iraq war is suggested to be driven by consumer resource nationalism. A prototype of consumer resource nationalism is found in the "Lebensraum" territorial expansionist policy of the Nazi's, based on Friedrich Ratzel's metaphoric concept of society as an organism — which grows and shrinks in logical relation to its Lebensraum (habitat). In a moderate form, resource nationalism is also associated with a greater need for autarky, becoming less dependent on foreign sources (also called eco-nationalism).

To summarise: while patriotism (and derivations chauvinism and supremacism) is the more sentimental side of nationalist thought,, more calculated and blunt self-interested forms of nationalism also exist (economic, welfare and resource nationalism).

Identity politics vs. nationalism

I'd like to return to the initial inspiration of this blog and answer the million dollar question: what are the main differences between right-wing identity politics and left-wing identity politics?

First of all, identity politics (or identitarianism) in general is a form of particularism. Particularism values group rights over individual rights. Identitarianism is thus by definition illiberal. However there are big differences between the two.

Left-wing identity politics is horizontal: societies get fragmented into various competing groups. Groups can be based on gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual proclivity and much more. Nationalist sentiments play only a minor role, such as in civc or postnationalism. Nation-states are considered to be a thing of the past, hampering the preferred cosmopolitan utopia. Leftists believe all identities are constructed, not only from a social perspective (groups create their identities through power relationships) but also from an individual point-of-view (individuals chose their identity on a self-referential, subjective base). Thus, identities are self-made and can be socially engineered. Individuals are composed out of various equivalent intersecting sub-identities, which can be classified into majority (privileged) and minority (oppressed), which can cause quite some confusion and chaos. Leftists have a dual relationship with the state: on the one hand it should have a hands-off approach towards minorities, respecting and cultivating their peculiarities (going so far to allow Muslims their own Sharia courts such as the UK, something neofascist ethnopluralists could have invented), on the other hand it should strictly regulate majorities, levelling the playing field by abolishing majority privileges through redistribution, reforming oppressive institutions and ending all discrimination. Overall, leftists see every aspect of identity as public matter and will not hesitate to regulate every aspect of social life (until the point that one should by law formally consent in order to have non-rapist sex such as in social-democratic Sweden). Their end game is an absolute egalitarian society.

Right-wing identity politics on the other hand is vertical: societies exist out of hierarchical cooperative groups (families --> municipalities --> regions --> nations). These groups are organically grown due to territorial, historical and cultural realities. Although right-wingers recognise there is such thing as gender and so on, they see it as properties of an individual rather than separate identities and believe they are largely politically irrelevant. The only relevant group is the nation and what defines that nation (ethnicity, culture or citizenship). Right-wingers tend to think nations are part of a natural order, that as group animals humans naturally form nations and need to have a national identity to have a meaningful life. They loathe cosmopolitanism and are sceptical about supranationalism (but open to it if it helps to further the nation, strength in numbers is their motto). Individuals are composed out of concentrically nested but socially uniform sub-identities, some which are subordinate to others, bringing structure and clarity. Right-wingers value conformity, they see little room for rational choice, your Heimat determines your natural allegiance. However, this is only for national identity (which they see as public), not for private identity (sexuality and such, depending on how conservative the right-winger is). Their end game is a socially stratified society and a sovereign nation-state.

These two distinctions are of course gross generalisations, and many nuances and intermediates exist. Most social justice activism can clearly be considered left-wing identity politics and most patriotic conservatives can clearly be considered right-wing identity politics, but this doesn't mean vice versa can't happen. Most left-wing nationalists can be more like right-wing identity politics, while certain white nationalists do more left-wing identity politics. One shouldn't take the epithets "left-wing" and "right-wing" used here too literal.

However, it is useful because both have such a radically different (and often conflicting) views of society. Hence, it is wrong to state that left-wing and right-wing identity politics are in any way similar or have common roots. As I detailed in this blog, I see postmodernism as modernism taken to its ultimate conclusion, while I see current conservatism as part of the evolutionist empiricist British Enlightenment with a Romantic nationalist flavor. As stated earlier, there is probably convergent evolution here.

I suggest in my two distinctions that nationalist and conservative thought goes hand in hand. Indeed, conservatism and nationalism are very compatible. However, that doesn't mean left-wing nationalism (i.e. socialist nationalism =/= national socialism) doesn't exist. There are even various left-wing nationalist movements (ERC in Catalonia, SNP in Scotland, PKK in Kurdistan, Plaid Cymru in Wales, Sinn Féin in Ireland). Left-wingers requires to take an extra hurdle, they (partially) need to let go internationalism and adopt a cultural or civic form of national identity.

You cannot separate left-wing nationalism from the broader political context. Every of these nationalist movement function in a country in which they are a democratic minority and do not feel represented on the state level. On top of that, they have a different social project in mind than the rest of the country, which erodes legitimacy. It is no coincidence that on the state level, right-wing conservative parties (PP in Spain, AKP in Turkey and the Tory party in the UK) are dominant. The ideological tension is part of the nationalist tension and often the nationalist tension creates ideological tension. The reverse happens to, in Belgium the Walloon Socialist Party is often viewed as having a clear left-wing mark on policy and provokes a conservative Flemish-nationalist counter-reaction.


This blog has one purpose: to introduce the ideology of nationalism. The take-home message is that it is a complex ideology with many aspects (the sociology of nations, the teleology of nations, the ontology of nations, the normative theory of nations and what the interests of nations are). It isn't nicely delineated as with other ideologies, nationalism is rather vague. Saying "I'm a nationalist" isn't very much informative as it encompasses a broad range of possible thinking regarding nations and nation-states.

Nationalism as such has only significance when it is in the context of an existing ideology. As mentioned in the normative section, you can have conservative nationalism, liberal nationalism and social nationalism. Often, everything else (sociology, teleology and ontology) is a result of that normative choice. That makes the chosen form nationalism coherent with the ideology. Nationalism allows for such flexibility.

Most importantly, nationalism is not something you can easily brush aside as outdated or bad. Nation-states are the main political unit on the planet. One way or the other, everyone is a nationalist, even if they don't know it. Implicitly, everyone is rooted in a nation which they feel belonging to. Everyone is citizen of a state, which premises they can accept or reject. By now, I hope that you, reader, are able to critically reflect on what kind of nationalist you are.

PS: in case you're wondering, I'm a Flemish popular cultural political-liberal-social nationalist.


Anoniem zei…
According to nationalists, I'm not a nationalist. I have 2 nationalities. Although I was born here, according to the "natives", I don't belong to their group, regardless of the country I'm in. I'm white, but I have been made clear on many occasions, I'm not part of their "group".

I noticed my class mates stopped pointing out I was different, when the first non-white pupil joined the class. Whereas they only had my name to differentiate me, they now had the visible clue to exclude someone else. As I wasn't picked on anymore, I didn't put up for my classmate and still feel a bit of a coward for it. History seems to repeat itself as my daughter goes to a Flemish school in Brussels, but she is the one of the few pupils in school who don't speak French at home.

This is not nationalism, but tribalism. Nationalism is just a form of tribalism, not the other way around. You can only feel part of a tribe if you can find a common denominator. I now realize I was taught to "hate" the Dutch, Germans and Walloons when being young. Nobody seemed to care about France, nor about the UK, probably because of an existing buffer.

The desire for Flemish independence also puzzles me. There is no appetite to become independent, not even in Flanders, let alone the entire country. Yet, a minority still tries to pursue this "solution" to all problems and this minority will not shut up about it. Let's assume it works, why would one stop with an independent Flanders? There are social and cultural differences within Flanders. If you look at the economic parameters, you would have to ask yourself why the port of Antwerp would need to pay taxes for people in Limburg. Then again, if Antwerp becomes independent, and the rest builds a wall around the harbour, the port of Antwerp will die.

Eventually you end up with your nation of one house with a fence and then you start building back a society where you decide which things you are going to do together. There is no point in splitting the country. Belgium, EU, Europe, UN, earth is what matters. On the local level you can focus on culture, identity and education. Infrastructure, health care and other things for which everyone has the same requirements, should be at the highest possible level.

Now, you may despise me as a potential intruder, but I can't go "belong" somewhere, as nobody will accept me. What boggles me about nationalists / conservatives is why they firmly believe in the recent history to form an hold on to their identity. The identity was never cast in stone and always evolved. The fact that people have been wandering all over the globe, has made you who you are. You are not who your ancestors were 100 years ago, nor will your offspring be like you 100 years from now. You should take a DNA analysis and see what your origins are. Then you should maybe ask yourself why you want to hold onto a past, which would have resulted in you not being the person you are now, if someone had managed to hold onto his "identity" centuries ago.

Forget about the past, go celebrate the future.