Nationalism explained including meaning

Nationalism - Toolshero

Nationalism: This article explains the concept of nationalism in a practical way. The article contains the meaning of nationalism, examples of nationalism in everyday life and the important differences between nationalism and patriotism. According to some experts, nationalism is on the rise because of economic instability, refugee crises and issues like pandemics.

What is Nationalism?

Nationalism is an ideology, movement, idea and conception that argues that politics within a country should arise from the nation as a historically developed unit in a social and cultural sense. This is often accompanied by an idea of exceptionalism, which concretely means that national identity must be clearly separated from other nations. Nationalist sentiments also contain an element of superiority.

As a national movement, nationalism mainly has the following goals:

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  1. To represent the interests of people in the nation
  2. To obtain and maintain self-government over the state

The movement is based in large part on the idea that every nation should be able to govern itself, free from outside interference. The nation itself is thus the only proper source of political power. It further aims to build and maintain a single national identity, based on things like:

  • Culture
  • Geographical location
  • Common language
  • Ethnicity
  • Religion
  • Traditions

The definition and meaning of nationalism

Nationalism is defined as a “political principle that implies that political and national unity should be congruent.” Britannica defines it as “an ideology based on the premise that the individual’s loyalty and devotion to the nation-state surpass other individual or group interests.”

The word nation can be given different meanings. The meaning of nationalism can therefore take different forms of nationalism. The main types are ethnic and civic/ economic nationalism. The differences are further explained in this article.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels declared in The Communist Manifesto that workers have no country of their own. Vladimir Lenin further supported the concept of self-determination. Stalin stated that a nation is not a tribe or a race, but a historically formed community of people. A nation is not a short-lived conglomerate, but a stable community of people.

In practice

People who adhere to nationalism are called nationalists. Nationalists like to be independent of other nations and aim to keep their nation’s sovereignty over its homeland to create a nation-state. They do not automatically join global organizations and do not always simply cooperate with other countries.

Many nationalists believe that their shared culture is superior to other cultures. This unites them. Intolerance can lead to a desire to rid the country of people who are different. In an extreme form this could grow into racial hatred and eventually genocide.

The meaning of Patriotism and patriotism vs nationalism

Nationalism is distinguished from patriotism by a sense of superiority that is present. Patriotism means being proud of the country where you were born and being prepared to defend that country. Although these are two very different terms, the two are often used interchangeably. In some cases, this can lead to a damaged reputation of individuals by being wrongly labeled as nationalists, when they are just proud of their country.

In addition to the glorification of their own linguistic cultural identity, nationalists often express obvious arrogance and military aggression. Many nationalists believe that they have the right to dominate other countries and cultures because they are superior.

Histories of Nationalism as a Movement

Modern nationalism as a movement gained traction in the late 18th century, especially through the American and French Revolutions and the spread of the idea and principle that the people should rule.

There are three possible motives for the origin and spread of the movement. The first of these is called primordialism, or perennialism. This argues that this ideology began and developed alongside the romantic era and that there have always been nations. This view was later rejected by scholars who argue that nations should be viewed as socially constructed and historically contingent, or coincidental.

The modernization theory states that this ideology arose as a result of modernization processes in the 20th century, such as industrialization. This theory is the most widely accepted theory when it comes to the origin of nationalism.

This constructivist approach argues that nationalism arose as a result of various modernization processes such as the urbanization of nations and the large-scale deployment and availability of education.

Proponents of the modernization theory describe nations as imagined communities and see nationalism as an invented tradition, in which sentiment and collective identity are key aspects in solidarity with political movements.

A third theory about the origin of nationalism is called ethno-symbolism. Here the ideology is described as a product of symbols, traditions and myths, as associated with the views of Anthony D. Smith.

Conservatism and Right-wing Populism

The moral values of this ideology and the relationship between nationalism and patriotism are the subject of debate for experts. The movement is often combined with various political goals and ideologies such as conservatism and populism. Socialism can also get involved. We then speak of left-wing nationalism.

In practice, nationalism is often judged as positive or negative, depending on the results of the ideology. It has been a hallmark of freedom and cultural revival movements. It also encourages pride in national achievement. On the other hand, it has also been used to legitimize racial, religious and ethnic divisions and undermine democratic traditions.

An extreme example is the radical nationalism seen at the time of World War II, marked by racial hatred during the Holocaust.

Economic Nationalism

Economic nationalism is a take on nationalism that prioritizes domestic businesses. Governments are doing everything they can to defend these companies against multinationals that have profited from their global successes. An example of this is, for example, President Donald Trump, who announced tariffs on steel from China.

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Now it’s your turn

What do you think? Do you recognize the explanation about nationalism? Do you see this ideology around you in society? Do you see similarities with other ideologies? How do you think this ideology will develop in the future? Do you have tips or comments? Or would you like to learn something about a related subject? Let us know in the comments or send an email.

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. Bonikowski, B. (2016). Nationalism in settled times. Annual Review of Sociology, 42(1), 427-449.
  2. Breuilly, J. (1993). Nationalism and the State. Manchester University Press.
  3. Brown, D. (2003). Contemporary nationalism. Routledge.
  4. Calhoun, C. (1993). Nationalism and ethnicity. Annual review of sociology, 211-239.
  5. Hutchinson, J., & Smith, A. D. (Eds.). (1994). Nationalism. Oxford readers.

How to cite this article:
Janse, B. (2023). Nationalism. Retrieved [insert date] from Toolshero:

Original publication date: 01/08/2023 | Last update: 05/22/2024

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Ben Janse
Article by:

Ben Janse

Ben Janse is a young professional working at ToolsHero as Content Manager. He is also an International Business student at Rotterdam Business School where he focusses on analyzing and developing management models. Thanks to his theoretical and practical knowledge, he knows how to distinguish main- and side issues and to make the essence of each article clearly visible.


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