Author Archives: gililiah

10 Claims Regarding the Globalization of Nationalism

Liah Greenfeld

Keynote lecture at the First Plenary Session: New Nationalism in a Global Perspective, the International Political Science Association World Congress, July 11, 2021.

Nationalism is such an important phenomenon, that a 25-minutes-long speech can only whet our appetite for learning more about it.

Therefore, I shall basically state 10 related claims each of which deserves at least 25 minutes at the World Congress of the International Political Science Association focusing on the subject, and very briefly outline the empirical and logical foundation behind them. I hope we’ll be able to develop these claims during the discussion period of the session. And you can find them developed in my various publications over the last 30 years, in the course of which I have conducted comparative research on which they are based. These 3 decades of comparative research resulted in and then repeatedly confirmed the empirical, objective definition of nationalism as a specific form of consciousness, the way of envisioning and experiencing reality, at the core of which lies the image of the world as naturally divided into sovereign communities of fundamentally equal members, however the membership is defined, and inclusive identity, which are called nations. These principles of nationalism – popular sovereignty, fundamental equality of membership, and inclusive identity – are symbolized, among other things, in the motto of the French Revolution: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity – Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite. Nationalism emerged almost 3 centuries before the French Revolution and underlay all the revolutions and revolutionary movements in the past 550 years. The emergence of nationalism in the 16th century England was the most revolutionary event of the past millennium: it completely refashioned human existential experience.

Now, the claims:

Claim 1: Nationalism is the most important political phenomenon of our age. It lies behind all of modern politics, essentially defining modern political culture.

Claim 2: Specifically, nationalism lies behind modern democracy, liberal and authoritarian, the presumption that just societies should have governments of the people, for the people, and by the people, and the institutions in which this presumption is implemented. In fact, every nation is a democracy. The moment a society defines itself as a nation, in other words, it becomes a democracy.

Claim 3: All the modern political ideologies and platforms, left and right, all the varieties of socialism (including national socialism), communism, classical liberalism, populism, fascism, feminism, LGBT, C(ritical)R(ace)T(heory), are products of nationalism and inconceivable outside its framework. The very concepts of left and right have meaning only within the framework of nationalism.

Claim 4:  The mass appeal of nationalism, responsible for its evidently irresistible spread from one small country in Western Europe – England, where it emerged in the 16th century, over the entire world, in other words, responsible for the current globalization of nationalism, is due to the fact that national identity endows personal identities of the common people within nations with dignity.

Claim 5: Because personal dignity derives from the membership in the nation, national populations are naturally committed to the dignity of the nation as a whole. This makes nationalism inherently competitive. Nationalism is a competitive consciousness. The competition between nations is for international prestige, or dignity, and since prestige, or dignity, is a relative value, there are no permanent winners and the competition must be constant. All international conflicts are essentially over dignity.

Claim 6: Since competition between nations is essentially over dignity, and the prize can be (however temporarily) won in any arena, from the beauty of the women to military prowess, nations indeed compete in every arena. However, they prefer to compete in those arenas where they have the best chance to end on the top. Thus, Russia, for example, has always chosen to compete in high culture (science, literature, ballet) and in military strength, while disregarding economic competition.

Claim 7: Because of the individualistic nature of the original, that is, English, nationalism, England (and then Great Britain) chose the economy as an arena of competition for international prestige and respect. The centrality of the individual among national values made the activity of the vast majority of individuals a natural focus for national energies. Economic nationalism, therefore, emerged in England as early as nationalism; it was an obvious refraction of the national consciousness in the consciousness of the economically active masses. Economic nationalism—that is, the competition for international prestige on the economic arena—produced capitalism, the modern economy oriented to growth, in distinction to pre-modern, pre-national, economies, which were all, in accordance with the principle of economic rationality, oriented to subsistence.  

Claim 8: England – the first nation—was intensely competitive before it had any competitors. This, within a century raised it to the status of the world superpower. The example of England (later Britain) drew many, though certainly not all, other countries into economic competition and, as a result, made them into capitalist economies. Capitalism, specifically the economic competition, that is, the choice of the economy as the arena for the nationalist competition for prestige or dignity, in turn has proven to be instrumental in attracting previously uncommitted populations to nationalism. This feedback loop occurs only in collectivistic nationalisms. The two most important cases of nationalist mobilization of the population through capitalism are Germany in the middle of the 19th century and China in the late 20th century to the present day.

Claim 9:  Globalization, though usually seen as the opposite of nationalism, is, in fact, a product of nationalism and, to the extent that the world is becoming unified, it is becoming unified in the shared – national – consciousness. The driver behind globalization is, therefore, not economic (as is often believed to be), but cultural, or, to be more precise, mental: the shared national consciousness – shared vision of the world as naturally divided into sovereign communities of fundamentally equal members and inclusive identity, called nations – makes the communities sharing this vision wish to compete for international standing, dignity, prestige. The wider nationalism spreads, the more globalized, in other words, it becomes, the more nations are drawn into this competition, which, when its arena is the economy, is cut-throat, and when its arena is military, is warlike. The competition is likely to be most intense among the front-runners, such as the United States, Russia, and now China.

Claim 10: Nationalism brings us popular sovereignty, equality, inclusive society – that is, democracy. It brings us personal dignity. And it forever keeps us on the brink of a world war.

What are the empirical and logical foundations on which these claims rest?

Nationalism emerged as a result of a protracted series of civil wars in the second half of the 15th century in England, known as the Wars of the Roses. The source of the conflict was the rivalry between the York and Lancaster branches of the Plantagenet royal family, both of which lay claim to the English crown. The entire English feudal aristocracy was involved in the conflict on the one side or the other, sometimes consistently, sometimes changing sides, and by the end of the conflict in 1485, it was almost entirely physically destroyed. This was an historical contingency which set in motion a novel and, in the framework of the existing social consciousness, unimaginable social process.

A new dynasty, the Tudors, poor and nearly common relatives of the Lancaster branch, gained the throne and needed an aristocracy to help them rule, but there was no aristocracy. This need and the vacuum on the top of the social hierarchy triggered upward social mobility, first of the particularly intelligent and educated people from below, who formed the new aristocracy, then general upward movement to fill the better positions below the aristocracy that were vacated. A century of mostly upward social mobility ensued.

The form of consciousness that existed at the time, at the core of which lay the image of the rigidly stratified social order, created once and for all by God, and thus unchangeable and allowing man no freedom of choosing one’s social position. The social order consisted of three functional orders, on the top of which was the narrow military order of nobility – the bellatores – whose function it was to defend the Church, the community of the faithful, by the force of arms. On the bottom was the huge, mass order, to which between 80 and 90% of the population belonged, of the laborers – laboratores or the people in European vernaculars – put on earth to support the upper orders, and the middle there existed a rather extensive order of the clergy – oratores – mediators between the all-important transcendental realm and mortal men, whose responsibility was to pray for the faithful. No social mobility was conceivable between the upper and the lower orders: they were mutually exclusive, imagined very much as we today imagine different animal species who cannot mix; it was even believed that the nature of their blood was different: red in the veins of the laborers, but blue in those of the nobility. The clergy, which was celibate, recruited its lower ranks from the laboring masses and its very narrow upper stratum from the nobility, and though it did occur in isolated cases that a uniquely endowed clergyman of common origin (clearly, chosen by God) rose to the position of a prince of the Church, these rare individual occurrences, which were by definition miracles, did not suggest the possibility of social mobility and, because of the vow of celibacy, did not interfere with the mutual exclusivity of the upper and lower strata. Only the upper orders had any experience of dignity; the experience of the people – the 80 to 90% of the population was limited to humility and abnegation. They were perceived by themselves and others as low, vile; the synonyms of the word “people” in the 16th century would be “rabble,” “plebs,” “canaille.”

But these contemptuous terms no longer applied to the new aristocrats, who rose to their exalted positions thanks to their own choice and initiative, as a result of upward social mobility. They could not deny to themselves that they came from the people, that their blood was red; as such, they knew humility and abnegation, and the sense of their own unworthiness. But they also knew and would not give up the dignity they acquired as aristocrats and occupied positions that, their consciousness told them, could only be occupied by those whose blood was blue. Their experience was in sociological terms anomic, confusing, it was that of status-inconsistency, and because the part of it, which was inconceivable within the framework of the existing consciousness, was so satisfying, they had to rationalize it (in the sense of making it both understandable and legitimate) in different terms. Such reinterpretation implied a different image of reality, a new consciousness.

As they began – unselfconsciously – constructing a new consciousness, they naturally used available cultural resources. One such available resource was the concept of the nation, used in ecclesiastical councils where limits to Papal authority were discussed by representatives of temporal rulers and princes of the Church. The word “nation” (“natio” in Latin) was very old, but before its employment in ecclesiastical councils, it had zero political meaning and its socio-cultural significance was very limited. Conciliar nations were factions or parties of the medieval respublica Christiana, tiny groups of highly placed people with the authority to decide the life and death questions in regard to the populations whose rulers they represented. Both the socio-cultural and political significance of this concept was enormous: nations were exalted cultural and political elites. One fine day in the beginning of the 16th century, as the new English aristocrats from the people tried to explain to themselves their extraordinary experience of upward mobility, one of them chanced on the idea that the English people was a nation.

The equation of the two diametrically opposed concepts, the people as contemptible lower order and the nation as the dignified bearer of supreme cultural and political authority, changed the meaning of both and created a new concept of the people as nation, which became the essence of a new image of society, transforming the nature of consciousness and of reality, which was experienced through it. By dint on this equation the lower classes were elevated to the dignity of the elite; they became members of the same community, sharing in the same, inclusive identity, no longer divided into self-enclosed exclusive orders, as was the case in the feudal society; as this community was in its entirety possessed of the supreme authority to decide its own fate, that is, self-governing, sovereign, it was fundamentally a community of equals. The national community, the people-nation, therefore, was defined by popular sovereignty, fundamentally egalitarian, and inclusive in its identity. These being precisely the principles of democratic society, the nation thus was a democracy by definition. Nationalism, the consciousness at the core of which lay this image of a natural society, implied democracy. Membership in a nation, in a democracy, made dignity general experience.

The principles of nationalism could be interpreted differently, leading to different institutional implementation. The nation could be seen as an association of individuals or as a collective individual, in the former case national consciousness would be individualistic, stressing the rights of individuals, in the latter collectivistic, emphasizing group rights. Membership in the nation (nationality or national identity) could be seen as voluntary, producing civic nationalism, or as inherent, transmitted by blood, producing ethnic nationalism. Individualistic nationalism, which, logically, could be only civic, institutionalized as liberal democracy, collectivistic-ethnic nationalism resulted in authoritarian democracy, while collectivistic-civic nationalism, an ambivalent type, could lead, under certain conditions, to liberal democracy, and, under other conditions, to the authoritarian one, as the historical record of France, for instance, so clearly demonstrates. There are historical examples (for good logical/psychological reasons) of the transformation of individualistic-civic nationalisms in the direction of collectivistic and, specifically, ethnic ones, but none of the transformation in the opposite direction. The focus on race and other physical characteristics and rights of groups, defined by physical characteristics, in the United States and Britain, today transforms the originally individualistic-civic national consciousness in these countries into collectivistic-ethnic nationalisms. This is one of the new developments as regards nationalism. The emerging collectivistic-ethnic character of the originally individualistic-civic American and British nationalisms, in turn, changes the nature of democracies in these countries from liberal democracy into authoritarian one.

The most important such new development, unquestionably, is the final globalization of nationalism as it is penetrating the colossal population of China. After decades of failed efforts to achieve this on the part of the Chinese government, the hundreds of millions of Chinese are at last fervently engaged in the national project. From the beginning of the 20th century, successive governments in China were self-consciously nationalist. The Communist government, in the course of its 70-year-long rule, has shrewdly pursued the supreme nationalist goal: prestige or dignity of the nation. But until the 1980s in China national consciousness was limited to a narrow elite, leaving the masses basically untouched. Though education traditionally, for over a thousand years, provided a venue for upward mobility and, unlike in Europe, elite positions were allocated on the basis of examinations, rather than birth, there was no sense of equality between the upper strata of the educated and the common lot, and the high-handed policies of the Communist government contributed little to its creation. Equality, in fact (and likely because status rested on education and mobility was both conceivable and legitimate) was assumed but not at all emphasized by Chinese nationalism: dignity vis-à-vis other nations was nationalists’ sole concern. The hundreds of millions of Chinese did not share in it as they did not share in the dignity of the educated, it had no relevance to them.

This changed dramatically with Chinese government’s turn to the capitalist economy with Deng Xiao Ping. The explicit definition of economic power as the central pillar of China’s greatness awakened ordinary Chinese to nationalism’s appeal. After a century of slowly fomenting among Chinese intellectuals, national sentiment has captured and redefined the consciousness of vast masses of Chinese people during the recent decades of China’s economic boom. Having become direct contributors to the nation’s dignity, these masses now have a stake in it, it has become their dignity and they are embracing national identity and converting to national consciousness. It is this mass conversion which allows President Xi to demand recognition from the world and insist on an international status commensurate with the country’s vast population and with the intellectuals’ conception of China’s rightful – that is, the central – place. Because of the globalization of nationalism, indeed, our era will likely be remembered as the time when a new global order, with China at the helm, was born.

Nationalism and Protest

By Liah Greenfeld

SAIS Review of International Affairs Johns Hopkins University Press Volume 40, Number 2, Summer-Fall 2020 pp. 5-14


Politics within nations and between nations are by definition a product of nationalism, the consciousness which defines polities as nations, presupposing popular sovereignty and fundamental equality of national membership, thus, as democracies. Nationalism lies at the root of national and international political institutions, including the state and civil society; political values of freedom, equality, and human rights; the characteristic forms political participation in nations takes, be it the grassroot work of gradual reform, motivated by rational interest in improving the conditions of one’s immediate community or wars, revolutions, and ideologically-inspired protest movements; and the specifically nationalist discontent behind ideological politics, the fear of being cheated of one’s rightful share of equality (and dignity dependent on equality), being, and being treated as, less than equal, to others within the nation or on the international scene. These general considerations, derived from the historically-based analysis of comparative politics, are connected to the protest movements of the last decade, stressing the complex, double-helix manner in which nationalism affects political action: directly, by translating ways of thinking into ways of acting, and indirectly, through the characteristic psychological discomfort which makes certain strata of society perennially dissatisfied with their surroundings.

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Cherryleaf Library for Children


For those of my friends, who have children in the pre-school – elementary school ages:

In Mind, Modernity, Madness I have written that, to arrest the ever-rising rates of functional mental illness in the United States, we would need to revamp our system of education, beginning from kindergarten. (As I am writing to my friends, I presume that you have read Mind, Modernity, Madness.) Onset is occurring earlier and earlier, so that mental disorder is common in middle school and in high school already rampant, and this means that the work of prevention, making children resistant to mental illness, has to begin at an age before the assault starts.

Since the agent of the disease in this case is cultural: the inability of modern – secular, egalitarian, and open – culture to provide large swaths of people with sufficient guidance for the formation of clear identity, the preparation and prevention must also be cultural: the intentional provision of such guidance to young children. To do so through the channels of the educational establishment would require the message of Mind, Modernity, Madness to achieve the status of self-evident truth – something that is evidently not happening right now and unlikely to happen in the near future, and for an entire generation of educators to be educated in its light and know how to help a child to form a clear identity.

The understanding of identity in our society is grossly underdeveloped and the vague ideas regarding it that exist are based precisely on the presuppositions that make the formation of identity in our society so problematic. The chief of these presuppositions, perhaps, is that each individual is born with an unchangeable identity – an essential self, which will, and must be allowed to, have an expression, for its repression condemns one to unhappiness and leads to mental disease. This presupposition encourages people to “discover” themselves, to do which they must focus on themselves, i.e., they are effectively educated to be self-centered. Alongside this presupposition of the essential individual self exists the contradictory idea of identity as the essential self of one’s biologically-defined group, racial (which, upon analysis, includes ethnicity) or sexual (which includes sexual orientation). This presupposition encourages the individual to discover in oneself the identity of one’s presumed group (which, of course, does in no way help one to develop a functioning identity, because it does not locate one in a clear position on the socio-cultural terrain) and to focus on the political defense of this group’s rights, specifically demanding that the group be treated in every respect equally with other groups. Paradoxically, the two presuppositions (of the essential individual self and of the essential biological group self) are combined in the popular consciousness and educational curricula reflecting this consciousness.

To combat this on the level of the educational establishment is beyond the powers of any individual or a small group of individuals. A revolution, a complete breakdown of the social order and the construction of a new one in its place, would be needed to effect the required change of thinking. The only way to help children to form functional identities (and identities are formed, not innate, reflecting some inner essence) and prevent their developing functional mental illness is to do so from the outside of the educational establishment. Children are raised in and by culture, a process consisting of numerous specific processes, interrelated in numerous distinctive ways: the family process, the educational establishment (institutional) process, religion, media, literature, and so on. Our culture, in general, does not offer us sufficient guidance in forming our identities, but some of its constituent processes do help. Formal educational institutions, that is, institutions specifically entrusted with the transmission of the dominant cultural messages, as might be expected, reinforce this cultural insufficiency and the family, which is all-important in the child’s early years, is quite likely to reflect it, because the parents are products of the culture themselves. But literature, for instance, the books we read to our children, when they are little, and books they start to read themselves, is far more heterogeneous. While most books in our bookstores would transmit dominant cultural messages (for instance, the two presuppositions inimical to the formation of a clear stable identity, mentioned above), there are some that can provide a counterweight to them. If organized into a systematic program and read at home from a very early age through kindergarten and elementary school (and, perhaps, in some kindergartens and elementary schools, where individual teachers would appreciate their benefits) such books could help children to form firm identities, which would in turn enable them to withstand the assault of contradictory messages of our secular, egalitarian, open (anomic) society and protect them from mental disease.

Books that can help in the process of identity formation in an anomic society do so in a way very different from societies that simply impose identities on people in them by limiting individual experience to a particular, very limited area on the cognitive map of the socio-cultural terrain. They do this, instead, by presenting one with the picture of human behaviors, probable in open societies, distinguishing (in the manner of presentation) between right and wrong, good and evil actions, and provoking sympathy with the suffering of others and antipathy towards those who cause this suffering. The confusing reality of contemporary society is simplified, presented, underneath apparent heterogeneity of observable behaviors, as the confrontation of good and evil, defined basically as kindness vs. cruelty (intentional causing of suffering), with other behaviors and attitudes ranged in between.

When one’s cognitive map of the socio-cultural terrain is drawn in these simple terms, being a good person becomes the core of one’s ideal identity – what one strives to be, the goal of one’s self-realization. One is encouraged to take advantage of the freedom and equality offered by the open society not to “discover,” but to “make” oneself, to cultivate one’s empathy (which presupposes focusing on others), to be actively kind, useful to those who are weaker, in need of help, and must be protected from suffering. Competitiveness, constant self-comparison to others, self-measurement against them in quantitative terms of relative achievement and virtue (do I have more or less money, accolades, professional success, intelligence, beauty, and so on, than x, y, z, to whom I should be equal) which are encouraged by the egalitarianism and freedom of the open anomic society, in turn encouraging envy, self-doubt, insecurity, sense of inferiority which contribute to social maladjustment and in so many cases ultimately lead to mental illness, fade into near-irrelevance. One’s identity-map is no longer the map of an endless race-track with oneself as one of the racers, constantly in danger of being left behind or overturned. It is no longer one’s comparison to others, but the calls for one’s help that determine one’s position on the map; wherever they come from on one’s socio-cultural terrain, there one gravitates, one’s conduct is oriented by these calls, by thinking about the needs of others.

This must appear too simplistic a characterization of the complex masterpieces of the 18th and especially 19th centuries, be it Dickens’s Great Expectations, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, or Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, and, of course, the message is more or less explicit even in different books by the same author. Such, nevertheless, is the common basic message of the great modern – psychological — novel, called into being by the need to make sense (for the authors, in the first place) of the secular, egalitarian, anomic society. All these novels treat of the provocations with which anomie of the open society presents to the individual, unanchored by a clear identity, all see mental illness as a constantly lurking danger. Depictions in black and white contrasts as in the “sensationalist” best-sellers of Wilkie Collins are not to be met among greater artists, whose novels are likely to focus on the behaviors of the middle range, eschewing absolute good and absolute evil. Still, they all advise: be guided by the understanding of fundamental right and wrong, focus on the world, not yourself, be kind, above all, and things may turn all right – at the very least, they won’t go horribly wrong: you won’t go mad.

Psychological novels of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, from Moll Flanders to An American Tragedy are a great antidote to the disorientation of the open egalitarian society and a very powerful educational tool. Whether encouraged at home or integrated into school curricula, this literature can be very helpful for young people trying to come to grips – and form their identity – in the baffling anomic world. This literature is rich and may provide emotional support for years. Unfortunately, it is not a preventative therapy, because it cannot be administered to pre-teenage children. Yet, it is among the pre-teens that defenses against anomie must be built.

Identity-formation-facilitating literature for young children, ages 3 to 12, where it is especially needed, is very sparse. In English, even if one includes translations, there is nothing of this nature for children under 6 or 7 years of age. Taking whatever exists into consideration, I set myself the goal of creating an English-language corpus of such identity-formation-supporting children’s literature, organized as a continuous stream of age-appropriate reading from stories to toddlers through older preschoolers, kindergarten, and to older elementary school children. Readings for 3-5-year-olds would have to be created, and I intend to use the work of the exceptional Russian writer Korney Chukovsky, who wrote for very young children, as the foundation for this segment. Chukovsky’s goal in writing was to cultivate in the child kindness (humane disposition) and empathy, “this marvelous ability to worry about other people’s misfortunes, to rejoice at other people’s joys, and to experience another person’s destiny as one’s own.”  He did not think that Russian children of the early 20th century needed aid in identity-formation, but his “tales” provided this aid nonetheless, while teaching the child to focus on others, not on oneself, and to consider being good, actively kind, to the defenseless and helpless as the most important quality of a person. In fact, Chukovsky’s tales are the only equivalent of modern psychological novel for very young children – at least, the only one which is relatively well-known. Even in Russian, which can boast of a very distinguished tradition of children’s literature, there is nothing else of the kind.

Having for over a century contributed to the upbringing of Russian, Soviet, and post-Soviet children (and served as a counterweight for literature faithfully expressing the social values and cultural presuppositions, dominant in each of these periods), Chukovsky’s tales have been translated into many languages. Even in English there are some translations. The problem is that in the original these tales are poems. While in the original text, reflecting the creative process in the mind of the author, prosody and content develop organically, mutually inspiring and reinforcing each other, in translation, the very desire to keep the rhymed form obscures the meaning of the tale and interferes with the delivery of its message. Therefore, instead of attempting another rhymed translation, I decided to re-tell Chukovsky’s tales in prose. I selected five of them that appeared to me most directly relevant to the project of assisting very young children in identity formation – preparing them to meet the challenges, while resisting the pressures, of our society, and immunizing them to some extent against mental disease. I hope to publish them as individual picture books, which would allow parents to read and re-read them to their children and children to leaf through them and let illustrations remind them of the story told for months. But securing a publisher may take a long time, and I would like to make the identity-formation-supporting literature for the very young available immediately. So, please, watch for Cherryleaf Library for Children on YouTube: I’ll read the tales on video as soon as I figure out how to do so.

Why Cherryleaf? In honor of my mother, Victoria Kirshenblat (Kirschenblatt = Cherryleaf), who was an exceptionally good person, actively kind under all circumstances, daily diminishing suffering wherever she found it – among people and animals alike. She was a pediatrician by the grace of God, an extraordinary children’s doctor. For decades she had patients whose parents were her patients; by the end of her working life, she had patients whose grandparents were her patients. While in medical school, she thought of becoming a psychiatrist. So she was acutely aware of the realities of mental disease. She would certainly support this new undertaking of mine, and I prefer it to be associated with her name, rather than with mine: “Professor Greenfeld” would mean nothing to children and nothing but an imposition of academic authority to their parents.

I also intend to start reading books for the slightly older, 6-year-old+ children, beginning with “Nobody’s Boy” by Hector Malot. This is one of the tiny identity-formation-assisting corpus of literature for this age-group that I mentioned. It is available in English, but is quite unknown, and reading it aloud online, I believe, would attract more attention to it than simply recommending it. So please watch for the Cherryleaf Library podcast.

Liah Greenfeld

Michael Barone on Liah Greenfeld

The paradox of conservatism in a revolutionary nation has been noted by others. Its revolution gained the sympathy of the conservative paragon Edmund Burke. More recently, the scholar of nationalism Liah Greenfeld has written that “America’s young society is nonetheless one of the oldest nations on earth, and the only one without a pre-national history.” ….
In my view, history recent and remote provides a strong basis for Yoram Hazony’s claim in The Virtue of Nationalism that “the best political order that is known to us is an order of independent national states.”6 The nationalism he has in mind was first advanced, he argues, as does Greenfeld in Nationalism: A Short History, in England and the Netherlands in the 16th century. One might call it almost a family project, of the Tudor dynasty, which soon went extinct, and the Orange family, whose king was seen in the audience in this month’s US-Netherlands women’s soccer championship game….
Those who decry nationalism, like the Economist, hear the word and think of Nazism. Hazony and Greenfeld see its roots in Europe’s free societies and argue that nationalism, rightly understood, tends to produce civil equality, promote human dignity, and foster political democracy. Trump and Brexit, for all their rough rhetoric, do not in my view refute that view.

Conservative tradition in America

Interview with Brookings Institution Press about Nationalism: A Short History

Liah Greenfeld, professor of sociology, political science, and anthropology at Boston University, talks with Brookings Institution Press Director Bill Finan about her new book, “Nationalism: A Short History.” She explains her broad definition of nationalism, Shakespeare’s role in shaping the language of democracy and modernity, and how modern notions of “white nationalism” may not be nationalism at all.

Where does nationalism come from?

The Boston Globe on Nationalism: A Short History

The Boston Globe, July 10, 2019:
Boston University professor Liah Greenfeld has been thinking and writing on nationalism for much of her career, and in her new book “Nationalism: A Short History ” (Brookings Institution), she argues that nationalism is the driving force behind the great shifts in global history, and explains, in a clear and readable way, how and why this is so. “The history of nationalism essentially is the history of the march of equality across the world: the history of how it conquered in some places and stumbled in others, and of the myriad positive and negative ways it has affected our lives and changed humanity’s existential experience.” Greenfeld illuminates shifting notions of nationhood, and the ways in which a sense of national identity has propelled and continues to propel us, in individual experience and sweeping global consequences.


Nationalism’s Dividends

By Liah Greenfeld

Here are some facts about China from the World Bank:

Since initiating market reforms in 1978 . . . China has expe­rienced rapid economic and social development. GDP growth has averaged nearly 10% a year—the fastest sustained expan­sion by a major economy in history—and more than 850 million people have lifted themselves out of poverty. . . . Although China’s GDP growth has gradually slowed since 2012, as needed for a transition to more balanced and sustainable growth, it is still relatively high by current global standards.

There is nothing in the entire history of the world that compares to this Chinese achievement of last forty years, in terms of both the magnitude and rapidity of its impact on the condition of humanity. Between 1990 and 2005, China accounted for more than three-quarters of global poverty reduction. Anyone wishing to make the world better, and to reduce human suffering, should observe, study, and follow the example of the Chinese government.

How was China able to achieve such extraordinary economic success? It did so by encouraging the spread of economic nationalism.

Mainstream academic “theories” of nationalism, which still domi­nate comparative politics bibliographies in run-of-the-mill courses in the social sciences, affirm that nationalism arises out of the inde­pendently emerging needs of the modern economy. These “theories” are essentially Marxist in their inspiration and rely for evidence either on altogether fictional cases, such as “blue” people and the states of “Ruritania” and “Megalomania,” or on cases carefully selected because they obligingly (but only apparently, as it happens) fit the proposed speculations. Such speculations do not take history into account and thus usually get it backwards. Contrary to these theories, history shows that the modern economy is the product—not the creator—of nationalism.

A modern economy is an economy systematically oriented to­ward growth instead of subsistence, unlike premodern economies. Since the nineteenth century, this systematic orientation toward growth has been referred to as “capitalism.” But it could be observed well before it was so named—since the mid-sixteenth century, after the first society to develop national consciousness, England, began consciously pursuing economic nationalism. This modern economic orientation has led to the consistent (and dramatic, in comparison to all the previous centuries of human history) accumulation of wealth: first in nations that practiced it and then, because of their impact, the world as a whole. It contributed to the explosion of the human pop­ulation, allowing a far greater percentage of infants born to sur­vive than was possible in precapitalist ages. All this—economic growth, capitalism, rising standards of living, and the concomitant drop in infant mortality—was the result of nationalism.

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American Affairs Volume III, Number 2 (Summer 2010): 151–64

The World Nationalism Made

By Liah Greenfeld

The great and good of the Western world are alarmed. Nationalism, they say—rising from the primeval depths of biological human nature, untouched by the civilizing influences of History whose telos is global democracy—undermines the achievements of enlightened humanity. It poses an inherent threat to just societies—those based on the universal values of freedom, equality, and fraternity. Promoted by uneducated people of ill will, this nationalism is supposedly anti-subaltern, despite the fact that most of its representatives by definition belong to the lower classes. This nationalism is said to be essentially white and Judeo-Christian, though the overwhelming majority of its proponents come from China and India and thus are neither. 

Critics of nationalism are moved to these incongruous claims primarily by the events of the last three years that have occurred at the core of the Western world (the United States and leading western European nations such as Britain and France)—specifically Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the resilience of Rassemblement National (formerly the Front National) despite the victory of Emmanuel Macron. Their consideration of the expressions of nationalism elsewhere is both selective and an afterthought; therefore the contradictions in their outcries do not appear obvious.  

Western concern about the rising tide of nationalism engulfing the world is contradictory because, to begin with, these opponents of nationalism speak from a position created by nationalism. Their ideas of social and political reality; of a just society as a democratic society; of the historical necessity of globalization; their values of freedom, equality, and fraternity (i.e., inclusive identity); and even their belief in the existence of separate races into which they divide humanity—all these are products of nationalism, inconceivable outside its framework, and ingredients of their (Western) national consciousness. Their analysis of the current situation (if their published laments can even be called analysis) suffers from a complete lack of self-analysis. They do not understand the world in which we all live, and, unable to understand the world around them, they do not understand themselves. A predicament, indeed.  

The fact is that the world we live in was made by nationalism. Nationalism is the cultural framework of modernity. Modern consciousness is national consciousness. This means that we see reality through the lens of nationalism, or that reality is constructed by nationalism. This in turn means that everything that is modern—both good and bad—in politics, society, economy, personal relations, literature, science, and so on, is neither the result of an inevitably progressing civilization, nor an expression of an incorrigible human nature. All the ingredients of modernity are here because of nationalism.  

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American Affairs Volume II, Number 4 (Winter 2018): 145–59

The Nature of Nationalism and What’s New in it Today

Synopsis of Liah’s Greenfeld’s talk on April 26, 2018, at The Global Order in a New Age of Nationalism conference, Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania

The Nature of Nationalism and What’s New in it Today

Liah Greenfeld

Nationalism is the cultural framework of the modern world. The modern age is the Age of Nationalism. Nationalism was born in the 16th century in England, traveled to the other parts of the British Islands and to the British colonies in America (making the American nation the second historical nation) and then spread, in waves indeed, across the globe: in the 18th century penetrating the intellectual elite in Russia and the urban population in France, in the early 19th century the German intelligentsia and bureaucracy and by mid-century those in the rest of Continental Europe; by the 1860s establishing itself in Japan, by the very end of the 19th century, spreading to the narrow intellectual groups in the Middle East, while simultaneously reaching these narrow groups in China through Japan and in India through Britain; in the 20th century carried to the masses throughout the colossal Russian Empire by those who renamed it the Soviet Union and, very much under Soviet sponsorship, to the elites in Africa. The last significant wave in the spread of nationalism has been its penetration, in the last several decades, of the masses in China and India, with China’s spectacular “coming out” as a nation in 2008, specifically, sending shock waves throughout the West. This is the only development which justifies speaking of the new wave of nationalism today.

Wherever it was once established, nationalism never abated. As we live in it and perceive reality through it, it only occasionally becomes problematized for us, just as we only occasionally problematize life and death, and very rarely attracts our attention and demands explanation. Usually, we simply don’t notice it. That’s why, though nationalism is the most important, defining factor in our social and political life, it is so ill understood.

Nationalism is, above all, a form of consciousness which projects the image of social/political reality as consisting of sovereign communities of inclusive (that is cutting through lines of status and class) identity, whose members are fundamentally equal. The English in the 16th century were the first to envision reality this way and called such communities “nations,” appropriating for this the word “nation,” which at the time meant “an elite.” That is the derivation of “nationalism.” The word “nation” was made the synonym of the word “people,” which, before that, referred specifically to the lower classes, and thereby equated the entire population, irrespective of social position, with the elite, in principle wiping out class distinctions and creating a community of inclusive identity. Before the birth of nationalism, only “the people of Israel” – the Jewish community as conceived in the Bible – implied such fundamental equality of membership. However, this was not accompanied by the presupposition of the people’s sovereignty, since sovereignty belonged to God, nor by the assumption that other communities were also communities of fundamentally equal members and inclusive identity. Thus, ancient Israel and the Jewish community in the subsequent millennia before the 20th century cannot be said, as it sometimes is, to have a national consciousness and to constitute a nation.

The core nationalist principles of popular sovereignty and fundamental equality of membership made the personal identity of every member of a nation dignified. Before nationalism, the great majority of humanity had no experience of dignity, only narrow upper strata enjoyed it, but nationalism made this experience common. Dignity became a defining experience of human life. The connection between one’s personal dignity and membership in a nation made one invested in the dignity of the nation. Since, as a general rule, dignity is a relative good, measured in the coin of respect, prestige, or standing among others, nationalism is an inherently competitive consciousness (conducive to envy). The enjoyment of dignity is rarely secure, one is ever on the alert against slights to one’s (or one’s national) dignity, which can be slighted simply by the improvement in the standing of another. This is the psychological dynamics behind all the political conflicts within and between nations, making all modern politics identity politics.

Some nations, however, are more sensitive to such slights than others and may be expected to be more aggressive as a result. Before its recent globalization into China and India, whose nationalism has not been studied enough to allow characterization, three types of national consciousness (and related institutions) developed. These are, in the order of appearance, first: the individualistic/civic nationalism, combining the definition of the nation/people as a composite entity, an association of individuals (as in “We, the people…”) with in principle voluntary nationality or membership in the nation. This is the type of nationalism least sensitive to slights to the national dignity. Second: the collectivistic/civic type, combining the definition of the nation as a collective individual with its own will and interests, and in principle voluntary nationality. Third: the most common type of nationalism, collectivistic/ethnic type, combining the definition of the nation as a collective individual with the nationality determined by blood, i.e., genetically. Ethnic nationalism is, in effect, a form of racism; ethnic nations are extremely sensitive to perceived slights to their dignity, very easily mobilized in its defense, and, as a result very aggressive.

The unexpected “coming out” of China as a nation redrew the political map of the world and redefined the positions of the frontrunners in the competition for dignity, changing the established pecking order and undermining their sense of security in it. The reaction of these frontrunners to this unexpected development was the reassertion of their claims to the respect of the world, which, given what nationalism is, could be expected. Such challenges to the prestige of nations actively competing for international hegemony happened before, provoking, among others, the two world wars. Preventive measures must include, above all else, the understanding of the nature of nationalism as such. Nationalism understood, in the US, specifically, they must include dispelling the confusion about American national identity, reigning since the dissolution of the USSR, in order to know what in the nation’s way of life is worth fighting for and what can, if need be, given up for peace.

Left, Right, and Nationalism

By Liah Greenfeld

First published in H-Nationalism as Left and Right around (and within) Nationalism, November 2017

The familiar terms of “left” and “right” acquired their political meaning in 1789, at the start of the French Revolution. Let us further unpack this momentous connection.

This pivotal event, which, in many ways, inaugurated the Age of Nationalism, was the first collective expression of national consciousness in France, while France was the first society into which this new spirit was imported from Britain, where it was born. The Revolution was inspired by nationalism and represented an attack on the pre-national form of the social order – ancien régime – and the social consciousness on which it was based. This social consciousness was religious, monarchical, and hierarchical, presupposing the obedience of the secular world to divine authority, differences of fundamental nature between social strata, and corresponding differences in rights between them. In distinction, national consciousness is secular, democratic, and egalitarian, presupposing popular sovereignty and an egalitarian community of identity, inclusive of the entire population of the country. Because England, where this consciousness emerged, called such community “nation,” “nationalism” is the name for the related complex of phenomena. Continue reading