The Exercise of Nationalism: Exploring its Civic and
Ethnic Components

Nationalism is an umbrella term covering elements such as national consciousness, the expression of national identity, and loyalty to the nation. This study will examine the political and social exercise of nationalism as an ideology and subjectivity through the theoretical avenues of civic and ethnic nationalism as represented in literature. The exercise of nationalism is the assertion and/or reassertion of the mutual (political) sovereignty of a community in the form of a nation-state. The examination will be confined to nationalism in contemporary Europe. As an ideology it is a form of political expression; as a subjective element it defines the nature of the relationship of a person to a collectivity. The -ism in nationalism is a practice, a process of development, an activity, "a mechanism of adjustment and compensation"1, acting as a vehicle of delivery for both the mass and elite within a community. In one of its modern expressions, nationalism is the self-identification of a community of people who see themselves as having an observable sovereignty and identification of a political unit housing a culturally homogeneous group. What this means is that there is a relative congruence of a political unit and a high culture where a certain kind of homogeneity is necessary for a cohesive nation-state.2 The nation-state is a power body in which community and polity come together.

This thesis aims to explore two theoretically different routes and forms of the exercise of nationalism, focusing specifically on modern Europe: civic nationalism and ethnic nationalism. It will argue that though theoretically separate, in practice the two forms of nationalism are collaborators in the journey towards nationhood and in the pursuit of the establishment of a nation-state. This collaboration will be explored via two competing perspectives: that held by the radical modernists and that proposed by the ethnicist-modernists both operating within the framework of modernism. My own position also works within the framework of modernism recognising a change in the perception and role of culture from the premodern to the modern age, but it seeks to explore the theoretical consequences of an all-too-obvious claim: that culture in modernity contains both political components and ethnic components.

Nationalism is a part of the developmental process of modernity (and perhaps now post-modernity) for a group of people who regard themselves as culturally (which may mean politically or ethnically) homogeneous, exercising this in the form of a nation-state. The focus of the thesis will be on nationalism as not only a stage of development in modernity but an ongoing process of development within modernity3 indicative of the framework of modernity within which nationalism operates. The civic and ethnic components of nationalism are not the only pressures which push nationalism in a particular direction, but their representation in the literature on nationalism leads to the notion that they are two mutually exclusive forms of nationalism, existing on opposite ends of the nationalism spectrum.


Civic Nationalism versus Ethnic Nationalism
Civic and ethnic nationalism are the classifications to be used in this examination, but they are respectively analogous or highly similar to political, core or Western nationalism, and blood, peripheral, Eastern, or cultural nationalism. My argument is that civic and ethnic nationalism are not, as often presented, part of a dichotomy of nationalism set against one another but are two intermingling components of the one ideology and subjectivity of modern nationalism. The key distinction between the two is their focus, the point around which people begin to identify and imagine themselves as a community:4 that is, the inception of the national community relative to congruent state development and the conception of nationhood.

The idea is that civic nationalism is exercised in those areas where there exists a civil society. That is, a group of people who feel they belong to the same community, are governed by law and respect the rule of law. The sovereignty of the people is located in the individual (the citizen) whose national identity is a sense of political community within a demarcated territory defining the social space that houses a culturally homogeneous group. It requires that people and territory must belong together, and that the people are in possession of a single political will. It demands that one must belong to a nation, which in turn belongs to a state, and an individual has the option of choosing which nation she/he wishes to belong to and enjoys legal equality along with the other members of the nation. National dignity is derived from the individual/citizen who in turn defines the national community. There is a government that respects the law, rather than existing above the law, which indicates that civic nationalism is complementary to liberal democracy. Being such, civic nationalism as a social movement is said to be more democratic than the populism of ethnic nationalism. The mass are more inclined to be incorporated into a high culture (via education), which gives them the same right of political decision as the elite. The role of the elite then is to manage (rather than crudely manipulate) the mass.

Ethnic nationalism refers to nationalism as determined by descent. Attachments are inherited and not chosen, representing the exclusivist element of nationalism. Those groups who exercise nationalism clothed with the ethnic element are considered to be nations that have had to come to terms with the political developments of alternative civilisations elsewhere. Feeling the dominance and perceived superiority of these other nation-states (who would have their own demarcated territory that defines them), these more inferior-feeling groups may increasingly feel the need to become a part of this civilisation in order to survive, progress, modernise, and be successful. To achieve this and become equals in this new modern civilisation (as a part of the process of modernity), the people in these regions must unite as groups that would be politically recognised in the form of a nation-state. In the absence of institutions or other tools that may unite these people (such as class), these groups turn to themselves identifying their own unique characteristics that set them apart from foreigners in order to assert their sovereignty.

Ethnic nationalism "was active on behalf of a high culture not as yet properly crystallized, a mere aspirant or in-the-making high culture."5 These are the groups that needed a short cut towards a high culture necessary for modern development. Since there was not the required foundations and institutions in place in society, they had to create one from what they had. This was likely to be language, culture, skin colour, religion, etc., drawing what they could from the Volk (the people). Therefore the belief is that ethnic/blood consciousness rather than the civic/civil consciousness dominates the newly emerging political culture. The ethnic concept of nationalism incorporates a more collectivistic identity. Nationality is not voluntary but by birth and native culture, considered an inherent characteristic defined by descent as opposed to choice. These distinctions illustrate the lack of latitude in the classification of ethnic nationalism and its exclusivist nature. This can actually impede progress towards liberal democracy, even though it was probably first instigated as a drive towards it (or rather a drive towards modernity that contained the liberal democratic feature).

Therefore the difference between civic nationalism and ethnic nationalism is said to lie in the beginnings of the imagining of the community, relative to the actual development of a political unit. This is the classical division in political and sociological theory on nationalism. Many theorists use this dichotomy in their writings on nationalism. Plamenatz uses the unsophisticated categories of Western and Eastern nationalism, thereby creating two Europes.6 Kearney takes this division and carries it to a "postnationalist" level,7 whilst Conversi on the other hand has disputed this classical division only to create three more new ones: homeostatic, transactionalist, and the ethno-symbolist.8 Plamenatz views nationalism as primarily a cultural phenomenon where "the belief in progress is strong" though a recourse to non-progressive measures, particularly nationalism taking illiberal and undemocratic forms, is common.9 He labels the division of nationalism as Western and Eastern: Western nationalism demonstrated best by the nationalisms of France and England (and interestingly Plamenatz also includes Germany and Italy in the same category). They were nations that possessed a progressive culture and were conscious of that. They were equipped with the correct instruments with which to progress. The nations of the East however were drawn into a new civilisation needing to adopt new values, ideas and practices – i.e. Western ones – in order to be equals in this new civilisation of modernity.10 Theirs was an imitative and fiercely competitive nationalism, prone to hostility and illiberal behaviour, whose "ancestral cultures are not adapted to success and excellence by these cosmopolitan and increasingly dominant standards."11 Nationalists of the East recognised both their "backwardness" and their need to overcome that.

More recently Kearney promotes the dichotomy claiming that by separating nationalism one can then gather what is good and progressive and develop that into a postnationalist model (particularly concerning Irish and British nationalism). All those who subscribe to the nation’s political principles or constitution exercise civic nationalism.12 Ethnic nationalism on the other hand is inherited and the bond is blood rather than law. Kearney gives us Germany as an example of a nation-state that defines itself ethnically. In offering this example he goes on to suggest that the nation-states that developed in nineteenth-century Europe looked to Germany as a model and thus committed to ethnic nationalism. Plamenatz makes the same claim, though Germany appears on the other side of the dichotomy in his demonstration. The major difference between civic nationalism and ethnic nationalism according to Kearney is in the different sources of identity. Unfortunately he perpetuates the ethical falsehood that these categories generate by claiming that as one emancipates the other incarcerates, and if nationalism is ever to be good it should undergo a "decoupling" from ethnicity.13

Kearney’s central focus as mentioned is postnationalism. Though not explored in this study postnationalism is worth a brief comment. Kearney considers that the union formed between politics and culture at the onset of modernity should be redefined in postmodernity, with specific reference to Britain and the Republic of Ireland. Britain represents all that is positive in nationalism, the "civic, secular, pluralist, rational and multicultural" and Ireland the negative "irridentist, ethnic, primitive, reactionary."14 However, in this postmodern world there is, according to Kearney, a "revised Irish nationalism"15 that is a rational extension of the past, which is a consequence of postnationalism. Nairn also suggests that there is "a new civic nationalism" in Ireland that could easily be emulated by Scotland or Wales.16 Postnationalism in this context is the vehicle of "new paradigms of political and cultural accommodation"17 suggesting fresh separations of nationalism. Kearney seeks to do this by separating nation and state and by doing so separating culture and politics. Culture and politics are conjugal elements joined at modernity but Kearney seeks to divorce culture from politics calling this process postnationalism.

Turning to a more cultivated division in the literature, Rogers Brubaker offers a sophisticated approach to the splitting of nationalism in this way. He uses France and Germany to demonstrate two types of nationalism. The ‘type’ of nationalism in these two countries is determined by whether the national feeling emerged before or after the development of a nation-state. In France the national feeling occurred after the nation-state developed thus according to Brubaker national feeling grew out of the state and its institutions – an example of civic nationalism. But in Germany national sentiments preceded the emergence of a state and adopted the character of the Volk, meaning its development into a nation-state was not a political development but an ethnocultural one.18 And so the division, according to Brubaker’s theory, is determined by the manner in which a society is bound. This will in turn determine the criteria for membership. Society in France is politically bound and membership is politically defined via the formal method of citizenship. In Germany, society is bound according to ethnicity and membership is along blood ties.19 These different criteria then differentiate the type of relationship an individual has with a state, and the relationship of society to state in modernity and thus the relationship to nationhood. The understanding of nationhood in France, according to Brubaker was political, in Germany it was ethnocultural.20 In his own words:

In Germany the "conceived order" or "imagined community" of nationhood and the institutional realities of statehood were sharply distinct; in France they were fused. In Germany nationhood was an ethnocultural fact; in France it was a political fact.21

This study disputes the dichotomising use of this distinction. Civic and ethnic nationalism appear in the literature as two mutually exclusive concepts, however this study will suggest that the exercise of nationalism in modernity is an interplay of components of both civic and ethnic nationalism. The dichotomy is fallacious and misleading for it does not represent the true nature of nationalism as both political expression and cultural declaration, it perpetuates notions of Western and Eastern nationalism and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ nationalism. Certainly the two can be distinguished theoretically, and certainly we can find instances where one or other comes to the fore as the dominant expression of national allegiance, but the practice of nationalism, both politically and culturally, involves a criss-crossing of these two theoretical routes.


The Modernists and the Ethnicists
Recognising that civic and ethnic nationalism are theoretically distinct but intermeshing in practice, I will examine the theories presented by the modernists and ethnicists in explaining the process of nationalism within the framework of modernity. The modernist argument will be primarily drawn from Gellner who defines nationalism as "about entry to, participation in, identification with, a literate high culture which is co-extensive with an entire political unit and its total population."22 In addition to Gellner the modernists are represented by the theories of Tom Nairn, Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm, among others. It is the modernists, collectively, who offer the closest thing there is to a theory, or partial theory, of nationalism. Gellner is at the forefront stressing that nationalism is a sociological necessity based upon the kind of social structure and culture engendered by modernity rather than an awakening of a slumbering nation, as some of the primordialists (working outside the framework of modernism) for example would have us believe. Instrumental to the modernist theory of nationalism is the existence of the state. Nationalism is contingent upon the existence of a state, it is "parasitic on a prior and assumed definition of the state: it also seems to be the case that nationalism emerges only in milieux in which the existence of the state is already very much taken for granted."23

John Hutchinson and Anthony Smith will be used as the ambassadors for the ethnicists. Hutchinson’s definition of the nation focuses primarily on the ethnic group, where their characteristics are more likely to be inherited. "The nation is thus an ethno-cultural community shaped by shared myths of origins, a sense of common history and way of life, and particular ideas of space, that endows its members with identity and purpose."24 Who actually is an ethnicist, a primordialist or a perennialist is debatable. Tom Nairn classifies Anthony Smith as a primordialist thereby representing a ‘soft’ definition of primordialism where ethnicity transmitted by culture is the essence of a nation. But Smith regards primordialists25 as far more radical, where the belief of ethnicity being the essence of the nation is one rooted in biology. Smith believes that the "proponents of this view claim that nations and ethnic communities are the natural units of history and integral elements of the human experience."26 He defines himself as an "ethno-symbolist". He is not a primordialist in that his theory does not essentialise the ethnie, but does stress its importance to both the nation and nationalism. His is more a culturalist position in response to the modernists; he is a modernist with ethnic claims, or a reflexive modernist.

Therefore in examining the arguments put forth by both the modernists and ethnicists I do not seek to disprove either camp, rather to show that both contribute to our understanding. Though the modernists and ethnicists appear to represent two opposing camps in explaining nationalism, I will seek to establish that both theories are encompassed by all European nationalisms, but to varying degrees. The core of nationalism in modern Europe is the modern nation-state, which does have pre-modern claims. That is, though there has been a definite change in the perception and role of culture with the onset of modernity, as espoused by modernists such as Gellner, the ethnic rationale is still very important to the motivations and perpetuation of nationalism, as emphasised for example by Smith. Each of their theories state a particular route towards nationhood as paramount (the civic one for modernists and the ethnic one for ethnicists). But by showing that these routes are crossed by a network of connections this thesis will argue that both theories must compromise.


The psychological influences of nationalism and the idea of nationalism as pathology will also be mentioned but not deeply discussed. Rather a reflection on the rational and non-rational elements of nationalism will be explored, incorporating notions of pathology. In the literature ethnic nationalism is represented as the reactionary element of nationalism, and the emotionalism more fervently attached to this classification means that it is perceived as the more non-rational element of nationalism. This is not to suggest that non-rationality is exclusive to ethnic nationalism alone. Non-rationality, irrationality and a-rationality are all present throughout the theoretical spectrum of nationalism; it is just more concentrated on the ethnic end. The ethnic component of nationalism allows for a greater "retreat from rationalism"27 though nationalism itself demonstrates "national belonging can be a form of rational attachment"28 important to all members of society.

The acquisition of a national identity and the act of nation formation are processes and not occurrences of nationalism as stipulated by Connor.29 Nationalism is a "compulsive necessity for a certain socio-political form".30 It can be progressive and regressive, constructive and destructive. It may initially emerge in a society as a part of its developmental process, but it does not disappear after this, rather it becomes imbedded in the functioning of that society in the future. It is a pursuit and manifestation of a national identity, or rather the pursuit of a national identity trying to manifest itself politically, exercising a collective psychological need made political: the politics of identity as opposed to the politics of interest. Nationalism "corresponds to certain internal needs of the society in question, and to certain individual, psychological needs as well. It supplies peoples and persons with an important commodity, ‘identity’." 31

Nationalism is essentially a mass movement, volatile and dynamic, given direction and governed by the elite who in turn is fuelled by the mass. There exists an interdependence between the elite and the mass, their behaviour and relationship will determine (or be determined by) the character of the nationalism, that involves a particular interplay of civic and ethnic nationalism (though these are not the sole components). The character of a nationalism will be predominantly determined by the initial motivations for its emergence, whether it be a ‘natural’ process of a nation’s development, or a reaction to another nation’s development. And whether the inception of the national consciousness occurred within a politically demarcated territory, or is separate to state development. Theoretically the nature of the emergence of the nationalism (i.e. whether it is classified as civic or ethnic) will determine the ongoing nature of the nationalism and the national character of the people it possesses. The national character provides for a sense of self whilst the political culture creates the political environment in which the national character is to assert itself. Each nationalism is subjective, but nationalism is the objective exercise of it.


Nationalism is not the rite of passage to modernity, but goes beyond this. It is a cultural and political reaffirmation of a group within modernity and towards post-modernity. Collectivities are dynamic and new or altered high cultures always have the potential to still emerge. The exercise of nationalism is a result of a set of social conditions that produce a situation where the pervading culture is the high culture. This does not just effect the elite minorities but the entire population and ‘constitutes very nearly the only kind of unit which men willingly and often ardently identify’ in modernity.32 Nationalism as a function of modernity (and post-modernity) is used by the elite as a vehicle for social mobility - a method of redefinition. It is the role of the elite as intellectual awakeners to mobilise the mass, and by doing so nationalise them, either through management or outright manipulation. This process sees the birth of a new high culture, whether via education or by inherited characteristics, which either replaces some previously dominant cultural group or creates a new one ‘recreated by political will and cultural engineering, based on elements drawn from a distant past.’33 The elite governs and the mass follow, but the elite must be moved from below.

The route towards nationhood has in theory been divided into two possible categories: the pursuit of a national identity as housed in a nation-state; or the exercise of national identity as the (re)assertion of a culture as being politically legitimate. This thesis is not seeking to disprove these routes to nationhood rather to show that in the exercise of nationalism these routes are not exclusive roads. Rather, regardless of the inception and conception of nationhood by a community of people, the actual process of nationalism involves an intermeshing of both forms. This is the theme throughout.

The following chapters will first explore the dichotomy of civic nationalism and ethnic nationalism set up in theory, and the interplay of the two in practice. The arguments of the modernists will be critically examined followed by the arguments of the ethnicists in Chapter Three. Chapter Four will derive the finer points from both perspectives demonstrating that in examining the exercise of nationalism both the modernists and the ethnicists working within a modernist framework make valid and important contributions to the theory of nationalism. From this it will be demonstrated that civic and ethnic nationalism are not mutually exclusive elements but that in practice they are collaborators in each nation’s own nationalism. The focus here will be limited to that of modern Europe.


(Table of Contents)

Title Page | Introduction | Chapter I | Chapter II | Chapter III | Conclusion | Footnotes | Bibliography


Copyright © Margareta Mary Nikolas
Published with Permission of author by The Nationalism Project, Madison, WI. 2000.
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