How Important has Nationalism been in Shaping the modern world? Essay

How important has nationalism been in shaping our modern world? Do you believe that the appeal of nationalism will diminish in the future? Nationalism has been extremely important and influential in shaping the modern world we see today, causing revolutions, rebellions and the constant reshaping of world maps continuing even today. Its appeal is something that I don’t believe will diminish in the future. Many theologians and political commentators alike agree that Nationalism has perhaps been one of the most prominent political ideologies of the modern world “No single political doctrine has played a more prominent role in shaping the face of the modern world than nationalism” 1, and doesn’t look like ceasing to be as influential anytime soon. Nationalist political parties, organisations and armed movements all over the world all demonstrate different kinds of nationalism, although they are all alike in one way or another. Although not always successful, nationalist movements can be found worldwide, either by way of conflict or political dialogue many have failed and many have succeeded. In this essay I will look at two main perspectives of nationalism, as well as some approaches and ideas used by these perspectives of nationalism and the ways in which they have shaped the modern world we live in today. These being primordialism and modernism, the technique of ethno-symbolism, I will also examine some new approaches to nationalism in today’s modern world. Primordialsim is an approach to nationalism, and should not be confused as a separate nationalist ideology. It is based on the belief in the naturalness and purity of a nation, with common language, religious beliefs, culture and most importantly ethnicity2. Primordialists believe that nations have been around for time immemorial, and the strength and legitimacy of such nations are proven by ethnic and cultural connections. Although there are less extreme forms of primordialism all categories are essentially linked by the main view that nations are a natural part of humanity, something which is inherited and past down from generation to generation.

Edward shills explains this view in a 1957 article where he compares primordialism to a relationship between members of a family “a certain ineffable significance . . . attributed to the tie of blood” 3. In many cases throughout history primordial nationalism has made its mark, drawing upon common characteristics to bring one ethnic group together, usually to face their “historical enemy”, as seen in Serbian nationalism during the 1990’s with their campaign against the Muslims of Kosovo. Another example of primordial nationalism is Nazi Germany, although incorporated with Fascism; the Nazi belief in the purity of the Aryan people is a prime example of linking nationalism with the primordial belief of an historical and everlasting nation. Primordialism has been responsible for a number of genocides around the world throughout history, from Rwanda to the Balkans, showing that the role it has played in shaping the modern world has inherently been a negative one, resulting in war, mass murder, the breakdown of societies and the creation of deep running hatreds between specific ethnic groups. The power of Primordialism to unite people of the same nation cannot be underestimated, and I believe if used correctly it could be used to unite a nation to strive for a greater good, although history tells us that this has rarely been the case. Modernism is a form of nationalism which was first seen in the wake of the French revolution, however in recent history it has predominately been seen in nations around the world which were colonised by foreign powers. Modernism is a direct contributor to the decolonisation of many of those nations. Modernists believe that the nation is a relatively new idea, and that the pillars of a nation is not the cultural or ethnic ties of its people, but is instead held together and unified through a strong society which is self sustainable through a strong economy along with solid and moral patriotic values. Modernism has its roots in the French revolution, but did not become a fully developed approach to nationalism until the industrial revolution with the development of the modern day class system. Modernist philosophers agree that modernism is only possible in a developed industrial society, where a strong economy provides a strong backbone for the nation’s development, there is a presence of a centralized authority and the nation is connected through a single common language in which everyone can communicate with each other4. Although not known as a nationalist, the father of communism Karl Marx described nationalism has being the transformation from feudalism to capitalism, and saw nationalism as nothing more than a trend which would soon pass5.

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However this was not the case, the industrial revolution stirred up patriotic sentiments throughout Europe, especially Germany, France and Great Britain, which lead to an arms race powered by industry, this played a major role in the lead up into WWI. Modernism continues to shape the modern world even today, a form of modernism much like the one seen during the industrial revolution can be seen in places such as India and China, who are currently experiencing their own version of the industrial revolution. It can also be seen in the middle east where political movements such as the Muslim brotherhood have stepped into power in places such as Egypt after a revolt against the former dictator President Mubarak in 2011, which occurred after a wave of pro-democratic nationalism swept the region in what became known as the Arab spring. Ethno-symbolism is an aspect of nationalism, which although similar to primordialism, is also distinctly different, and should not necessarily be viewed as a separate nationalist ideal or approach but more as an aspect of nationalism which has been present in many nationalist movements throughout history. Ethno-symbolism defines a nation as a sacred entity which is formed over centuries by ethnic and cultural ties, claiming that no nation or state can exist without some form of pre existing bonds of kinship and cultural heritage. The pro nationalist theologian Conversi defines ethno-symbolism as “an approach which rejects the axiom that nations may be invented”, claiming that “they rely on myths, memories, values and symbols and which, by doing so, tries to transcend the polarisation between primordialism and instrumentalism”6. Ethno-symbolists believe that ethnic ties and sentiments are visible even today in the most modern of nations, claiming that a nation cannot escape from these ties and that a multicultural nation can never be truly unified, and indeed throughout history this belief has been accepted at different times by numerous nations, such as Nazi Germany and Serbia. Anthony D. Smith is one of the leading scholars on Nationalism, with his studies on ethno-symbolism being considered to be world leading. Smith argues that modern nations cannot exist without some form of pre existing ethnic ties, stating that ethnicity is a key component in developing modern nations7, “usually there has been some ethnic basis for the construction of modern nations, be it only dim memories and elements of culture and alleged ancestry, which it is hoped to revive”8. In many cases Nationalists movements have invented myths and symbols in order to create some form of ethnic and cultural sentiments to unite the public and present a particular national identity; however it is difficult to measure the success of Nationalists in relying on using these myths and symbols to promote the Nationalist cause9. Many nationalist movements have succeeded throughout history although they did not have a particularly rich ethnic or cultural history; their success was partly due to ethno-symbolism and the creation of myths and legends, where they were often seen as being able to answer the national question of identity10.

Scholars who sympathize with nationalism acknowledge the incorporation of made up mythology into ethno-symbolism but argue that although invented these myths often evolve into truth, “Myths which are believed tend to become true, because they set up a type or persona, which the average person will do his best to resemble”11. Ethno-symbolism tends to base its myths on some form of pre-existing truth or feeling, such as seen in myths of racial hatred, which may originally come from some preconceived lie invented by idle xenophobic sentiments amongst the population; however once incorporated into the political realm the myth snowballs and becomes a very dangerous force12.Ethno-symbolism is perhaps the most powerful weapon in a nationalist’s arsenal; it uses a mixture of patriotic emotions, myths and symbols whilst portraying the idea of belonging to those who may have felt out casted by society beforehand. Its ability to unite and divide nations and states has been seen throughout history, with both positive and negative impacts, has seen in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990’s. Nationalism is an ever developing and flexible ideology which has been moulded into different forms all over the world by nationalist movements with different agendas. Perhaps one of the more modern developments in nationalism in the world today is the role played by woman. Nationalism had traditionally been thought of as a male dominated ideology, where woman were expected to stay at home and look after the family, something which was seen as being their duty to the nation. However in modern nationalist movements there are even female leaders and advocates, such as Marine Le pen of France’s National front, or even Pauline Hanson the former leader of Australia’s One Nation party13. The introduction of females into the front lines of nationalism could be seen as nationalism evolving with modern times, and perhaps distancing itself away from the stereotypical view of nationalists as being hardline conservative males, instead presenting a new form of nationalism, although in reality the aims of many nationalist organisations have in the most part remained relatively unchanged. In today’s world of globalisation and multiculturalism it is becoming increasingly harder for nationalists to hold sway over a large amount of the population, especially in western countries where the question over national identity is perhaps not as clear as it used to be, this de-centring of identity is a consequence of the relativisation of the Western world – of the discovery of other worlds, other peoples, other cultures and other languages14. Although traditional nationalists causes are still being fought for in places such as Aceh and South Ossetia, the more main stream western forms of nationalism has turned its head to a more anti-Islamic and anti-immigration approach of politics, with mixed success.

Parties such as the National Front in France is a good example of this, in the 2012 election it was the third most popular party in the country, collecting 17.9% of the vote (6.4 million votes)15. In this essay I have presented nationalism as not only a single political ideology or doctrine, but rather as a dynamic ideology, made up of different perspectives and ideas, such as primordialsim and modernism. I also explained how nationalists have used ethno-symbolism in the past to unite and divide, before I went on to discussing some new and developing components in modern nationalism and its effects on today’s world. Even in today’s modern world I believe nationalism still has a certain appeal to many, with its different approaches and interpretations of what it means to be a nationalist. Nationalism is a political ideology which is forever evolving, many nationalists now realise that the traditional nationalist idea of a homogeneous society is no longer a realistic one in today’s modern world. However I believe anti-immigration and economic nationalism will become a more prominent force in politics in places such as Europe, where Immigration and the euro zone economic crisis are some of the main issues faced by the region. Throughout history the world has been scarred by nationalist conflicts, ethnic cleansing and fundamentalist ideologies; however it has also freed people from oppression and inspired huge advancements in society and technology. Nationalism doesn’t look like disappearing anytime soon, and yet still the debate on nationalism rages on.


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