The Invention and Imagination of Nationalism

propNationalism works within a unique niche in contemporary society. It is constantly romanticized by its proponents, described as both necessary and natural, despite having to reinvent itself with every new epoch. Nationalism prides itself on its continuity, but it is constantly changing the means with which it defines itself. In a symbolic gesture, nationalism “mediates the past with the future, while providing an effective dimension for the present” (Tonkin, McDonald, Chapman, 255). It gives the appearance of historical resemblance in a reality that is actually ever-changing and fluid. The Enlightenment and Romanticist literary movements have played their part in developing national consciousness by describing nationalism as eternal, static, and even “infinite.” Ironically, it is because of the ordinariness of capitalist standardization that nationalism found its sincerest and most passionate supporters. The fact that nationalism rose during a time of emerging economic automation and science is no coincidence – National consciousness had to be created as a means to cope with the turbulent alienation of modernity.

I. Essentialism Is Inseparable from Nationalism

This stamp from 1964 is meant to commemorate the nationalist icon, JFK. He is honored with a depiction of the eternal flame.

This stamp from 1964 is meant to commemorate the nationalist icon, JFK. He is honored with a depiction of the eternal flame.

The eternal flame is the distinctive marker of national honor. It is used to respect those who died for their homeland, or to venerate political figures of national importance. The “eternal” in this fiery symbol is an all-encompassing depiction of the nation-state; the nation is conceived as immaterial, unique, and timeless by its most fanatical believers and oftentimes heightened to quasi-religious proportions. This line of rhetoric is characteristic of a philosophical position which dates back to Greek Antiquity – essentialism. Essentialists posit that there exists an objective, core quality to a particular person or group that is inherent in their very being. Therefore, essentialism is also an a priori claim on human nature.  This philosophy can take on different forms. It can function within an individualistic framework where attributes are assumed for an individual based on how they can be characterized more generally (race, gender, etc.). Ethno-nationalism derives its power from an essentialist position, arguing that their particular group constitutes a natural identity and one that has a greater historical narrative they are destined to complete. It is the position that “nations are natural, organic, quasi-eternal entities” rather than products of historical forces (Tonkin, McDonald, Chapman, 248). Essentialist nationalism is thus the position that the individual is second to the community and therefore owes allegiance to the nation.

6a00d83451cdc869e20120a8b4166c970bVirtually all of nationalism functions as essentialist in how it conceives itself. The concept of “the nation” rests on four major ideas that Benedict Anderson in the introduction to his book Imagined Communities outlines. Firstly, the nation is imagined. It is imagined because, although conceiving of themselves as a group, “the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members” (Anderson, 15). Secondly, the nation is limited. Each national group has finite boundaries with which it defines itself. Anderson makes an effort to clarify this distinction by arguing that “the most messianic nationalists do not dream of a day when all the members of the human race will join their nation…” (Anderson, 16). In other words, nationalism is by its very design limited in scope; Nationalists does not seek the expansion of all people within its borders. Instead, they value most those that culturally qualify as their own.  Thirdly, moving forward, the nation is sovereign. Nationalism requires a state to enforce itself or else it falls into obscurity, which is why the “nation” and “state” are so deeply intertwined. And finally, fourthly, the nation is a community because “regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep horizontal comradeship” (Anderson, 16). It is why individuals die for their nation – they conceive of themselves as inseparable from it and are therefore willing to be slaughtered for the state. Such actions, although sometimes full of valor, are motivated by imagination.

Ironically, the more passionate nationalism is, the more it discredits itself as an ideology by turning to violent means to achieve an imagined vision. As Josep Llobera writes, “in the long run, the history of Western Europe is the history of the qualified failure of the so called nation-state” (Tonkin, McDonald, Chapman, 248). However, despite the atrocities committed in its name, nationalism relentlessly survives with each decade. Nations amass popular credibility and power through two means – by creating the “Other” and the myth. In order for nationalism to take root, it must first differentiate itself from other groups or individuals that are unlike it. Commonalities are formed within a particular group – be it cultural, religious, or political – and eventually synthesized, popularized, and normalized and made natural in contrast to the “Other.”

II. The Creation of the “Other”

In order for an ethno-national state to affirm itself, it first has to make clear what it is not. This process of differentiation is crucial in the development of nationalism since it distinguishes the “nation” from those that are outside it, and thus creates an imagined community for its people to follow. However, imagined communities are not created in a vacuum; there must be particular historical forces at play in order for a group to conceive of themselves, collectively, with one national identity. Take the case of Catalan nationalism – it emerged as a result of regional repression, an ineffective Spanish state, industrialization, romantic literature, and a strong Catholic base (Tonkin et. all 250, 251, 252). The final differentiating factor is, ultimately, language which is arguably “the symbol and the lively expression of the personality of [the] people” (Conversi, 55). Catalan nationalism and its history provide us with many sources on how the intelligentsia made an effort to differentiate Catalans from other Spaniards. The dichotomy of being “Catalan” and “not-Catalan” is an important one, since the whole purpose of its nationalist project was to create an “irrefutable and indestructible Catalan personality” (Conversi, 55). Thus, the creation of Catalan nationalism involved the creation of core values and language as a means to differentiate Catalan as a legitimate nationality. And such was not just the case in Catalonia, but for all nationalist movements that sought validity in the post-Enlightenment era.

III. The Myth of Nationalism

The creation of nationalist myths goes hand-in-hand with differentiating the nation from others. The myth functions as a unique starting point for national consciousness – it inspires and creates a common story of origin for all the people in its supposed jurisdiction. The need for myths is apparent in virtually all nationalist movements. For Croatians, they found national solidarity by identifying themselves as the cultural ancestors of the historic Illyrians who lived in the Balkans around 5th century B.C. In another case, the Scottish Highlands created their own nationalist myth by distinguishing themselves from Irish culture. As Hugh Trevor-Roper writes in The Invention of Tradition:

It occurred in three stages. First, there was the cultural revolt against Ireland: the usurpation of Irish culture and re-writing of early Scottish history… Secondly, there was the artificial creation of new Highland traditions, presented as ancient, original, and distinctive. Thirdly, there was the process by which these new traditions were offered to, and adopted by historic Lowland Scotland… (Hobsbawm, 16).

scot5In an effort to forge a national identity, the Scottish intelligentsia told stories of Scotts resisting Roman armies, called Irish-influenced ballads their own, and even popularized their own non-Irish traditional garb by the 18th century (Hobsbawm, 17, 19). This was done all in efforts to differentiate themselves from Ireland, who they felt culturally overshadowed the Highlands.

The creation of myths is the imaginative potential of nationalist projects. The sheer literary talent of piecing together a coherent (although fictitious) narrative was a product of 18th century Romanticism. Eventually, these tales became ingrained in the culture from which they sprung; the myths began to be taken as true, as if they had a life of their own. These stories’ main purpose was to establish a grander narrative which grounds the community in core values and common history. Thus, myths are a necessary component of any nationalist project – they reinvigorate a community to stand on its own, distinguishes them as unique, and ultimately gives them a reason to take up arms to defend their imagined history.

III. Inventing Traditions

Thus far, we have discussed the steady progression of nationalist development. First, it begins by taking an essentialist position on a group’s origin. From here, differentiation begins by defining the particular group separate from the “Other.” It is then that the creation of “myths” arises in order to justify collective consciousness and action.  Once a national identity is established, it becomes the responsibility of the state and/or the people to maintain it.

Structures and codes of behavior are usually maintained through invented traditions, by using repetition and appealing to continuity with the past.  Historian Eric Hobsbawm defines this phenomenon in the opening pages of The Invention of Tradition:

‘Invented tradition’ is taken to mean a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behavior by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past (Hobsbawm, 1).

Invented traditions function as the maintainers of state power. They are constructed with the intent of making the custom appear “historic” or “natural.” Such was the case for the British Monarchy, which was forced to reinvent itself in the late 19th century amidst an educated, growing middle-class. However, this process was not easy and required many failures on part of the ruling class to perfect its rituals. David Cannadine in chapter four of The Invention of Tradition writes, “For the majority of the great royal pageants staged during the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century oscillated between farce and fiasco” (Hobsbawm, 117). This was because royal ceremonies in Great Britain before the mid-19th century were historically done behind closed doors, rather than as public spectacles (Hobsbawm, 116). With the rise of liberalism, the British monarchy had to create a ceremonial tradition that would quell the public’s animosity towards the Crown. They exacted it to a science – appealing to tradition, populism, and the myth of their necessity as an institution. Soon, the British royal family became the living embodiment of national pride, whose “traditions” live on to this day.

However, when a hegemonic imperialist power invents traditions, these changes have ramifications far outside its nationalist borders. The British Empire also imposed these traditions on its colonies, in an effort to naturalize their exploitation and justify their expansionism. It is not a coincidence that the rise of the British monarchy’s symbolic power, starting in the late 19th century, was directly around the time of it colonizing Africa. The same process of “inventing tradition” would be applied to Africa to make them submissive to Anglo-Saxon power. Terence Ranger writes in chapter 6 of The Invention of Tradition:

But serviceable as the monarchial ideology was to the British, it was not enough to provide the theory or justify the structures of colonial governance on the spot. Since so few connections could be made between British and African political, social, and legal systems, British administrators set about inventing African traditions for Africans (Hobsbawm, 212).

A hierarchy was enforced in Africa which placed “white” as the ideal amongst the people living there. The watchful eye of Anglo-Saxon officials became symbolic of the African peoples’ position in relation to British power and was justified through appeals to nature and history. With this also came justifications from Protestant theology – the mantra was that it was the white man’s burden that the British have taken upon themselves, out of benevolence, just to help these people succeed. This, however, could not be farther from the truth.

A British ceremony commemorating Ado’s Kingdom assimilation into greater British Nigeria [1897 - 1899]. It was through these rituals that the British empire created traditions and assumed dominance. They did it by creating a spectacle.


British imperial power expanded its power by forcing groups to assimilate into their empire with the threat of force. In this photo, British colonial administrators meet with Nigerian representatives.


The British Royalty, starting in the late 19th century, began to rely on aesthetics and ritual to enforce their necessity. In an age of growing democratization, the royalty needed to stay relevant by making each of their actions a symbolic event. The coronation stood, above all else, a symbolic representation of the passing of imperial power. The above photo is a postcard meant to endorse national pride from 1911.


“Are We Afraid? No!” is a jingoistic British postcard from WW1. The five pups represent the best of Britain’s colonial territories (i.e. Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, and South Africa). The exact year of the postcard is unknown.


This is a french poster by the Mouvement Anti-Apartheid (also known as the Campagne Anti-OutSpan or C.O.A). The group was founded in 1975 and supported the African National Congress and the struggle against apartheid. This was part of its first campaign to boycott Outspan oranges from South Africa in an attempt to destroy the Western hegemony in Africa.

The British Crown is an especially relevant example of invented traditions. Because its influence was so widespread, Anglo-Saxon culture permeates and invents itself as “natural” even to this day. Still, Great Britain aside, virtually all nationalist state projects appeal to a type of invented tradition to maintain itself and make its institutions seem “natural” – be it the caste system in India, or the romanticizing of the Founding Fathers in the United States, or even the appeal to the Roman Empire in fascist Italy under the rule of Mussolini. All of these invented traditions appeal to supposed “historical continuity” and attempt to make a narrative to justify its institutional power. Invented traditions are the means with which nationalism maintains itself as relevant and necessary with each passing generation.

IV. Popularizing the Nation

The spread of nationalism goes hand-in-hand with its invented traditions. Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities outlines a few historical patterns which explains how virtually all nationalist movements popularized themselves. Much of it has to do with “print capitalism,” which was the commodification and mass-production of texts. It ultimately led to a codified language, a “national” language, and extinguished any dialects that previously existed locally. The rise of print capitalism was a steady process, but it eventually grew to encapsulate every aspect of life. Anderson notes, “at least 20,000,000 books had already been printed by 1500… if manuscript knowledge was scarce and arcane lore, print knowledge lived by reproducibility and dissemination” (Anderson, 37). In turn, the print expansion also brought with it a level of greater community, one which extended far beyond kinship and familial ties. It molded a type of national consciousness, a collective identity, by standardizing the means of communication. Therefore, the birth of nationalism can very much be associated with the birth of capitalism and their development is intertwined.

Far beyond print capitalism, other historical factors merged to further solidify nationalism in public consciousness. The spread of the newspaper connected previously unrelated social phenomenon into an implicitly greater narrative, which eventually led to nationalism. Anderson writes:

In this way, the newspaper… quite naturally, even apolitically, created an imagined community among a specific assemblage of fellow-readers, to whom these ships, brides, bishops, and prices belonged (Anderson, 62).

Along with the newspaper, the homogenization of time with the steady adoption of the Gregorian calendar created “the idea of a sociological organism moving calendrically through homogenous, empty time” which fits nicely into nationalist narratives of continuity. All of these factors – propagated through print capitalism – led to a kind of philological revolution, while also creating a common measurement of time, which allowed for the birth of the collective consciousness that would become nationalism.

IV. Conclusion and Final Remarks

Nationalism derives its prowess from essentialism, myths, and differentiation. It popularizes itself through print, through national language, and through common narratives for the future. And finally, it cements its dominance through repetition and invented traditions. The nuances of how nations individually created their sense of pride are invariably unique, mostly due to differences in relative power, but the general way nationalism is conceived is virtually the same in every historical situation.

Although nationalism is derived from invented traditions and mythological imagination, this does not delegitimize its potential as a political force. Nationalism has proved to be one of the most dynamic phenomena in history, constantly re-inventing itself with each generation. Although as a rule, nationalism is an imaginative community, it has its uses in fighting hegemonic power and re-vitalizing exploited peoples. As Stuart Hall writes in Culture, Globalization, and the World System: “I do not know an example of any group or category of the people of the margins, of the locals, who have been able to mobilize themselves, socially, culturally, economically, politically… who have not gone through some such series of moments in order to resist their exclusion, their marginalization” (King, 53). It for this reason that nationalism cannot be discarded purely on the basis of being imaginative – it has the potential to be a necessary counter to dominant power, and has revitalized marginalized people throughout the world, especially in the post-colonial era. As a means, nationalism is a sound anti-imperialist platform, but it still fails to provide an end. The historic end-goal of nationalism is the victory of the particular nation. What this end entails is potentially open to reactionary violence, and even political manipulation, which has been the case for the much of modern history. Nationalism breeds competition; It may function as a means to liberate a group, but it fails to provide a proper end.


- Tonkin, Elizabeth. McDonald, Maryon. Chapman, Malcolm. History and Ethnicity. Routledge, 1989. New York. pp. 247 – 261. Print.

- Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. Verso Books, 1983. London. Print.

- Conversi, Daniele. Ethics and Racial Studies, Vol. 13, No. 1. Routledge, 1990. pp. 50 – 70. Print.

- Hobsbawm, Eric. Ranger, Terrance. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge University Press, 1983. New York. Print.

-  King, Anthony D. Culture, Globalization, and the World System. University of Minnesota Press, 2011. Minneapolis. Print.

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