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nationalism, political or social philosophy in which the welfare of the nation-state as an entity is considered paramount. Nationalism is basically a collective state of mind or consciousness in which people believe their primary duty and loyalty is to the nation-state. Often nationalism implies national superiority and glorifies various national virtues. Thus love of nation may be overemphasized; concern with national self-interest to the exclusion of the rights of other nations may lead to international conflict.

Nationalism is a comparatively recent phenomenon, probably born with the French Revolution, but despite its short history, it has been extremely important in forming the bonds that hold modern nations together. Today it operates alongside the legal structure and supplements the formal institutions of society in providing much of the cohesiveness and order necessary for the existence of the modern nation-state.

Necessary Conditions for Its Development

For people to express nationalism it is first necessary for them to identify themselves as belonging to a nation, that is, a large group of people who have something in common. The rise of centralized monarchies, which placed people under one rule and eliminated feudalism, made this possible. The realization that they might possess a common history, religion, language, or race also aided people in forming a national identity. When both a common identity and a formal authority structure over a large territory (i.e., the state) exist, then nationalism becomes possible.

In its first powerful manifestation in the French Revolution, nationalism carried with it the notion of popular sovereignty, from which some have inferred that nationalism can occur only in democratic nations. However, this thesis is belied by the intense nationalism that characterized the German Empire and later Nazi Germany. Where nationalism arises, its specific form is the product of each particular nation's history.


Early Developments

Although nationalism is unique to the modern world, some of its elements can be traced throughout history. The first roots of nationalism are probably to be found in the ancient Hebrews, who conceived of themselves as both a chosen people, that is, a people as a whole superior to all other peoples, and a people with a common cultural history. The ancient Greeks also felt superior to all other peoples and moreover felt a sense of great loyalty to the political community. These feelings of cultural superiority (ethnocentrism), which are similar to nationalism, gave way to much more universal identifications under the Roman Empire and with the Christian Church through its teaching of the oneness of humanity.

As strong centralized monarchies were built from petty feudal states, as regional languages and art forms were evolved, and as local economies widened, popular identification with these developments became increasingly strong. In areas such as Italy, which were not yet single nations, recurring invasions led such thinkers as Niccolò Machiavelli to advocate national political federation. The religious wars of the Reformation set nation against nation, though the strongest loyalty continued to adhere to the sovereign. In the 16th and 17th cent. the nationalistic economic doctrine of mercantilism appeared.

The growth of the middle classes, their desire for political power, and the consequent development of democratic political theory were closely connected with the emergence of modern nationalism. The theorists of the French Revolution held that people should establish governments of equality and liberty for everyone. To them the nation was inseparable from the people, and for the first time in history a people could create a government in accordance with the nation's general will. Although their aims were universal, they glorified the nation that would establish their aims, and nationalism found its first political expression.

The Nineteenth Century

It was in the 19th cent. that nationalism became a widespread and powerful force. During this time nationalism expressed itself in many areas as a drive for national unification or independence. The spirit of nationalism took an especially strong hold in Germany, where thinkers such as Johann Gottfried von Herder and Johann Gottlieb Fichte had developed the idea of Volk. However, the nationalism that inspired the German people to rise against the empire of Napoleon I was conservative, tradition-bound, and narrow rather than liberal, progressive, and universal. And when the fragmented Germany was finally unified as the German Empire in 1871, it was a highly authoritarian and militarist state. After many years of fighting, Italy also achieved national unification and freedom from foreign domination, but certain areas inhabited by Italians (e.g., Trieste) were not included in the new state, and this gave rise to the problem of irredentism. In the United States, where nationalism had evinced itself in the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, national unity was maintained at the cost of the Civil War.

In the latter half of the 19th cent., there were strong nationalist movements among the peoples subject to the supranational Austrian and Ottoman empires, as there were in Ireland under British rule, and in Poland under Russian rule. At the same time, however, with the emergence in Europe of strong, integrated nation-states, nationalism became increasingly a sentiment of conservatives. It was turned against such international movements as socialism, and it found outlet in pursuit of glory and empire (see imperialism). Nationalist conflicts had much to do with bringing on World War I.

Since World War I

The early 20th cent., with the breakup of Austria-Hungary and of the Ottoman Empire, saw the establishment of many independent nations, especially through the peace treaties ending World War I. The Paris Peace Conference established the principle of national self-determination, upheld by the League of Nations and later by the United Nations. While self-determination is a nationalist principle, it also recognizes the basic equality of all nations, large or small, and therefore transcends a narrow nationalism that claims superiority for itself.

It was exactly this latter type of nationalism, however, that arose in Nazi Germany, preaching the superiority of the so-called Aryan race and the need for the extermination of the Jews and the enslavement of Slavic peoples in their “living space” (see National Socialism). Italian fascism was in a similar manner based on extreme nationalist sentiments. At the same time, Asian and African colonial territories, seeking to cast off imperial bonds, were developing nationalist movements. Perhaps the most famous of these was the Indian National Congress, which struggled for Indian independence for over 60 years. After World War II nationalism in Asia and Africa spread at such a fast pace that dozens of new “nations” were created from former colonial territorial holdings.

Although interdependence and global communications interconnected all nations by the 1990s, nationalism appears to have grown more extreme with the breakup of the Soviet empire, the growth of Muslim fundamentalism, and the collapse of Yugoslavia. Xenophobic, separatist movements are not necessarily confined to newly independent states; they appear in many European nations and Canada, as well as India, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and many others. International organizations, such as the United Nations, the European Union, the Organization of American States, and the Organization for African Unity, represent attempts to curb extreme nationalism, stressing cooperation among nations.


See H. Kohn, The Idea of Nationalism (1944, repr. 1967) and Nationalism: Its Meaning and History (rev. ed. 1965); E. H. Carr, Nationalism and After (1945); L. L. Snyder, The Meaning of Nationalism (1954, repr. 1968); A. Smith, Theories of Nationalism (1971); A. D. Smith, Nationalism in the Twentieth Century (1979); B. Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (1983); E. A. Tiryakian and R. Rogowski, ed., New Nationalisms of the Developed West (1985); J. Breuilly, Nationalism and the State (1985); L. L. Snyder, Encyclopedia of Nationalism (1990).

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  1. the belief in, and feeling of belonging to, a people united by common historical, linguistic and perhaps ‘racial’ or religious ties, where this people is identified with a particular territory and either constitutes a NATION STATE or has aspirations to do so.
  2. Any related ideology which promotes the nation state as the most appropriate form for modern government.
Overwhelmingly, premodern states were not political communities in the sense of presenting themselves as based on a single people. Outside Europe and in Europe before the 16th-century, most states have not been nation states, but rather empires or relatively loosely consolidated territories.

Nationalism started life as a European phenomenon, an accompaniment especially of the reorganization and consolidation of modern Western European nation states in the 17th and 18th centuries. The nascent nation states of Western Europe invented nationalism, as a way of securing their political coherence and political autonomy in new political and economic conditions. In time, however, nationalism also came to represent the aspirations of peoples for self-determination.

It is undeniable that nationalism has bolstered existing nation states and created others by undermining earlier empires, but the expectation in sociology and social science generally has been that nationalism would prove a temporary phenomenon, to be replaced in the long run by internationalism (see MILITANT AND INDUSTRIAL SOCIETY) or by class interests (see MARXISM).

Two World Wars and the aftermath of these in which many more new nations have been created, have confirmed nationalism as a compelling force within the modern world. Once again – in Africa especially – new nation states were created as much by an invented nationalism as by any pre-existing ‘nation’. The outcome is a worldwide state system, in which the modern nation state is now the dominant political form and in which nationalism remains a potent force, strongly influencing the relations between states, while sometimes threatening their internal coherence as new demands for recognition of nationhood emerge.

Sociological explanations for such a powerful role for nationalism have concentrated on three areas:

  1. the felt need for collective social identity in large impersonal societies;
  2. the fact that, far from undermining the expression of economic interests, it may reflect these interests;
  3. what Nairn (1977) has called, the ‘janus-face’ of modern nationalism, i.e. its usefulness as a vehicle for liberalism and radical ideas as well as a justification for violence and intolerant values.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a bourgeois and petit bourgeois ideology and policy, as well as the outlook that raises the national question. Nationalism views the nation as a supreme nonhistorical and supraclass form of social unity and as a harmonious whole, all of whose social strata have identical fundamental interests. The aspirations of the class or social group that emerged under particular concrete-historical conditions as the bearer and champion of nationalist ideology and policy of the bourgeoisie or petite bourgeoisie are portrayed as the national interests. Characteristic of nationalism are ideas of national superiority and national exclusiveness, which are developed to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the historical situation and the relations of a particular nation with other nations.

The widespread development of nationalism has been associated with the origin and development of capitalism. The bourgeoisie uses nationalism as a tool for creating and conquering national markets, for establishing its rule within national boundaries in the struggle against feudal forces and an alien bourgeoisie, and for strengthening and expanding its rule by enslaving other nations. Nationalism is exploited by the bourgeoisie to achieve “class peace” in a nation, to distract the proletariat from its class goals, to foment discord between the working peoples of different nations, and to subvert the international unity of the revolutionary movement. The conditions of bourgeois society lead to the dissemination of nationalistic ideas among the backward strata of the working people, among whom nationalism is cultivated by the entire machinery of the bourgeois state and by its politics and propaganda.

Bourgeois philosophers and sociologists define the “national” primarily and almost exclusively as a spiritual phenomenon. They interpret nationalism as a self-governing, sovereign spiritual force to which mystical and sometimes even pathological properties are attributed. For example, the American professor B. Shafer defines nationalism (“group loyalty”) as “(1) the love of a common soil, race, language, or historical culture, (2) a desire for the political independence, security, and prestige of the nation, (3) a mystical devotion to a vague, sometimes even supernatural, social organism which, known as a nation or Volk, is more than the sum of its parts, (4) the dogma that the individual lives exclusively for the nation, with the corollary that the nation is an end in itself, or (5) the doctrine that the nation . . . is or should be dominant . . . among other nations and should take aggressive action to this end” (Nationalism: Myth and Reality, New York, 1955, p. 6).

The indeterminacy and breadth with which bourgeois theoreticians treat the concept of nationalism lay the foundation for subjectivity and arbitrariness in analyzing the concrete content of various types of nationalism and for concealing the class aspects of the problem. In general, bourgeois ideologists recognize only the different times at which nationalism has emerged and its different character in various countries. Works by mid-20th-century American scholars, such as H. Kohn, L. Snyder, F. Northrop, H. Morgenthau, and W. Ebenstein, extol the spirit of freedom, tolerance, and compromise that is supposedly characteristic of Anglo-Saxon or American nationalism. At the same time, many bourgeois sociologists attack the nationalism of colonial and dependent countries.

In a number of bourgeois theories nationalism is the basis for the analysis of the historical process. Mutual relations and the struggle between nations, or “clashes” of nationalisms, are seen primarily as a motive force of history counterbalancing the class struggle. For example, Kohn asserts that nationalism has been the “guiding star” of historical development in Europe since 1789 and throughout the world in the 20th century. He refers to the history of Europe after 1789 as the “age of nationalism” and to the modern era as the “age of pan-nationalism” (The Age of Nationalism, New York, 1962, p. xvi). Certain ideologists of the imperialist bourgeoisie have advanced chauvinist theses about the “special” historical role of “chosen” nations, supposedly called forth by their character and culture.

Marxism-Leninism has illustrated the economic and social roots of nationalism and its class essence. Viewing nationalism in a concrete-historical fashion, it defines nationalism’s objective social role as a function of the historical stage of development of capitalism, the social role of the bourgeoisie and the nature of its ties with the popular masses, and the position of a particular nation in the world. During the period of the formation of nations in Western Europe and the USA, for example, nationalism, with democratic slogans, was the ideological standard of the rising bourgeoisie in the struggle against feudalism and national oppression. Under this standard the popular masses were summoned to the struggle against feudalism. Thus, during this period, nationalism was somewhat progressive (Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 24, pp. 131–32).

With the advent of fully developed capitalist relations and the development of capitalism into imperialism, the character of nationalism in Western Europe and the USA changed. Monopoly capital emerged as the bearer of the crudest and cruelest national and colonial oppression. Aggressive, militant nationalism became a weapon of imperialist and colonial politics, closely allying itself with racism (for example, Hitlerism, with its barbarous race theory). Under the conditions created by the existence of the two world systems, the imperialist bourgeoisie strives to impart to nationalism a strongly anticommunist and anti-Soviet tendency. Imperialism is banking on the revival of nationalist tendencies in the socialist countries.

In the contemporary period nationalism has a different character in countries fighting for political and economic independence against imperialism. Nationalism in these countries expresses in a limited way the idea of national liberation and national independence and frequently serves as a standard for the national liberation movement. Under such circumstances nationalism reflects, to a certain degree, democratism and protest against the imperialist oppression of that part of the masses in which class consciousness has not yet been aroused. For considerable strata of the peasantry, nationalism is a rudimentary form of anti-imperialist consciousness. However, in addition to its progressive aspects, nationalism in the former colonial and dependent countries has reactionary features, which become stronger with the growth of narrow class tendencies in the policies of the bourgeoisie, with the unfolding of the struggle for social progress in liberated countries, and with the increasing right-wing orientation of certain petit bourgeois groups. In the context of the struggle over problems of orientation in the social development of the liberated countries, the idea of “supraclass” national unity is entering into sharper and sharper conflict with the needs of social progress and with the class interests of the working people. The ideas of nationalism are becoming tools in the hands of forces advocating capitalist development and striving to hinder the growth of political consciousness among the masses. Tendencies toward national egoism, national superiority, and national exclustveness are beginning to have a greater effect, both nationally and internationally.

This does not mean that nationalism in the former colonial and semicolonial world has already lost its progressive aspects and exhausted its anti-imperialist content, although the basic trend is in this direction. In the contemporary period nationalism is most characteristic of nations that continue to be oppressed and exploited in many ways, that have not achieved equality in their relations with the imperialist powers, and that have not completed their spiritual “decolonialization.” As a rule, these nations are still evolving during the anti-imperialist struggle and the struggle to overcome feudal and other precapitalist relations.

The proletarian, communist world view is incompatible with any nationalist ideology. “Bourgeois nationalism and proletarian internationalism—these are the two irreconcilably hostile slogans that correspond to the two great class camps throughout the capitalist world and express the two policies (nay, the two world outlooks) in the national question” (Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 24, p. 123). Nationalism hinders the development of the liberation struggle of the working class and of all the oppressed and exploited because the triumph of the liberation struggle depends on the international unification of the working peoples of all nations.

Communists approach nationalism from principled positions and evaluate it in a concrete-historical manner from the point of view of world socialism and the revolutionary struggle of the peoples against imperialism. They mercilessly expose and wage a relentless struggle against imperialist chauvinism and the nationalism of oppressor nations. The relationship of Communists toward the nationalism of oppressed nations is guided by the concept of Lenin (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 25, pp. 275–76), which is developed in the Program of the CPSU: “The nationalism of an oppressed nation has an overall democratic content directed against oppression, and Communists support it as historically justified at a given stage. It is expressed in the striving of oppressed peoples for liberation from imperialist oppression, for national independence, and national rebirth. At the same time, there is another side to the nationalism of an oppressed nation, which expresses the ideology and interests of the reactionary, exploitative ruling elite” (1973, p. 47).

Communists are particularly implacable in their attitude toward nationalist vacillations in their own midst, which are caused by pressure from bourgeois and petit bourgeois forces and by the activities of imperialist agents. These vacillations are manifested in national narrowness and egoism, in departures from principles of internationalism and class solidarity, and in the whipping up and exaggeration of national features of the class struggle and the construction of socialism in certain countries.

Socialism, which eradicates social and national antagonisms and establishes the conditions for national equality and the friendship of peoples, lays the foundation for overcoming nationalism. However, the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat does not immediately do away with manifestations of bourgeois and petit bourgeois nationalism. Fundamental change in the national question and the overcoming of nationalism are not achieved automatically but are the results of a complex, lengthy process —a tense, relentless struggle against national enmity, distrust, egoism, and narrowmindedness.

The realization of the possibilities for the elimination of nationalism, which are engendered by the downfall of capitalism, depends primarily on subjective factors such as the policies of the Communist Party, which provides social leadership. Nationalistic prejudices and exaggerated or distorted manifestations of national feelings are very vital phenomena tenaciously maintained in the psychology of people who are politically immature. Furthermore, nationalistic prejudices are revived and kindled in every possible way by the enemies of socialism. A number of factors ensure success in the struggle against the survivals of nationalism, including the practice of socialist and communist construction, the struggle against great-power and local nationalism, the strict observance of national equality, and the attainment of actual economic, political, and cultural equality. To achieve success in the struggle against the survivals of nationalism, attention must be paid to the culture, needs, and distinctive features of numerically small peoples, as well as to the international education of the working people.

History shows that in order to overcome nationalism and strengthen fraternal relations between peoples of the socialist countries, a consistent Marxist-Leninist policy is required of the Communist parties. Otherwise, as is evident from the example of China in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, it is possible for nationalism to be reborn, to grow stronger, and to be temporarily transformed into the basis for state policy. Nationalism found its most concentrated expression in the chauvinist, hegemonic Maoist line. The Maoists are attempting to divide the socialist community and replace the anti-imperialist solidarity of the peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America with a geographically, nationalistically, racially based isolation from the socialist community and the workers’ movements of the developed capitalist countries. Furthermore, they are trying to subvert the great union and solidarity of the national liberation movement with the international working class and the world socialist system, and they are belittling the leading role of proletarian forces in the world revolutionary process. The struggle to overcome nationalism in the communist movement is the most important task of Marxist-Leninists.


Marx, K., and F. Engels. O kolonial’noisisteme kapitalizma (collection). Moscow, 1959.
Lenin, V. I. O natsional’nom i natsional’no-kolonial’nom voprose(collection). Moscow, 1956.
Programma KPSS (Priniata XXII s”ezdom KPSS). Moscow, 1973.
Programmnye dokumenty bor’by za mir, demokratiiu i sotsialism. Moscow, 1961.
Mezhdunarodnoe soveshchanie kommunisticheskikh i rabochikh partii, Moskva 1969 g. Moscow, 1969. Materialy XXIV s’ezda KPSS. Moscow, 1971.
Brutents, K. N. Protiv ideologii sovremennogo kolonializma. Moscow, 1961. Chapters 2–3.
Shafer, B. C. Faces of Nationalism. New York, 1972.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


a sentiment based on common cultural characteristics that binds a population and often produces a policy of national independence or separatism
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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