Nationalism – Key Thinkers

Nationalism – FIVE key thinkers

Jean-Jacques ROUSSEAU


Philosopher of the French Enlightenment.

One of the first philosophers to frame modern ideas of nationalism.

We think of him as a nationalist, and a LIBERAL nationalist, because his thinking did much to inform and influence the creation of the idea of the NATION STATE.

Rousseau’s thinking played a key role in the French Revolution (1789)

Key ideas include:

THE GENERAL WILLsovereignty rests with the PEOPLE, their COLLECTIVE WILL is what is best for the state overall.

GOVERNMENTS had to listen to the people and ENFORCE their collective will.

Rousseau also argued that the power of the state / government would only be legitimate if it was based on the active participation of all citizens. This is the idea of CIVIC NATIONALISM, an idea Rousseau was to develop later in his key work ‘The Social Contract’ (1762)

How would you use Rousseau in an exam answer?

He may be useful if you are discussing

  • Liberal nationalism with its focus on self-determination, progressiveness, rationality and inclusivity.
  • Nation states where the nation’s desire for self-determination is realised
  • The state – especially when held together by patriotism and education
  • Society – where citizens are engaged inactive participation

Rousseau’s best lines

Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.  The Social Contract

Every man having been born free and master of himself, no one else may under any pretext whatever subject him without his consent. To assert that the son of a slave is born a slave is to assert that he is not born a man. The Social Contract

What, then, is the government? An intermediary body established between the subjects and the sovereign for their mutual communication, a body charged with the execution of the laws and the maintenance of freedom, both civil and political. The Social Contract

Johann Gottfried von HERDER

  • German philosopher with specific interests in language and culture
  • Interested in the role played by language and culture in nations – for Herder, nationalism is all about the LANGUAGE
  • Liberal or conservative nationalism? A bit of both, really. Liberal nationalists in Wales and Scotland, for example, may see the preservation of language as a key aspect of their desire for independence whereas more right-wing nationalists may seek to use language as a form of social control (i.e. the British effectively banning the use of Irish Gaelic for most of the 19th century).

Key ideas include:

CULTURALISM – culture, Herder argued, was something unique and special to each nation. It was OK for nations to recognise and acknowledge other cultures but is should pride and protect its own above all others

VOLKSGEIST – where ‘Volk’ means ‘people’. Herder saw the ‘volksgeist’ as the unique essence of the spirit and culture of a nation.

PATRIOTISM – like other nationalist thinkers (i.e. Mazzini) Herder saw patriotism and the ‘patriotic spirit’ as a key element of nationalism

How would you use Herder in an exam answer?

  • If you need to discuss aspects of CULTURALISM
  • If you wish to make some point about the occasional IRRATIONALITY of nationalism
  • His ideas may fit into a discussion on CONSERVATIVE NATIONALISM
  • His ideas may be useful if you were discussing nationalism in terms of HUMAN NATURE and/or SOCIETY

Herder’s best lines

What of us lies in the hearts of others is our truest and deepest self.

Everyone loves his own country, customs, language, wife, children, not because they are the best in the world, but because they are his established property, and he loves in them himself, and the labor he has bestowed on them.

Guiseppe MAZZINI

  • An Italian nationalist who lived before the Italian states became a unified country – a cause to which he was committed to throughout his life (Italy was unified in 1871)
  • The ONLY individual in this list who actually went out and fought for his political and philosophical beliefs – the rest of them stayed at home, thinking
  • Campaigned against hereditary monarchies and in doing so did much to create the idea of REPUBLICANISM
  • Wished for a unified Italy to be a DEMOCRATIC Italy
  • Many of his views are seen as ROMANTIC in that the forces he saw as binding people together as a nation where as much about national SPIRIT as about territory and land
  • A Liberal nationalist? Not quite, not always . . . the aims of the nation came before – and were more important than – individual liberties – COLLECTIVE FREEDOM IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN INDIVIDUAL FREEDOM
  • So, he’s a dynamic romantic republican nationalist

Key ideas include

PATRIOTISM – where the love of the nation must be more important than all other feelings

SELF-DETERMINATION – which demands each nation to be free and to control its own state – without this there is no real freedom

REPUBLICANISM – self-determination and democracy free from hereditary monarchies

How would you use Mazzini in an exam answer?

  • If you were discussing liberal nationalism (but remember this does not mean individual freedom was greater than collective freedom)
  • If you were discussing the rights of nations and nation states
  • If you were discussing self-determination
  • If you were making the point that sometimes nationalism needs to be understood in ‘romantic’ terms

Mazzini’s best lines

No nation deserves freedom or can long retain it which does not win it for itself. Revolutions must be made by the people and for the people.

Without country you have neither name, token, voice, nor rights, no admission as brothers into the fellowship of the Peoples. You are the bastards of Humanity.


  • French, ultra-nationalist
  • A right-wing, conservative, regressive nationalist
  • Links to modern nationalism through associated concepts such as ‘Populism’ and ‘Nativism’
  • His journal ‘Action Francaise’ – monarchist, anti-democratic, anti-semitic
  • World War Two – supported the pro-fascist Vichy regime in occupied France
  • Didn’t like Germans yet bought their views on Jews in France
  • Represented a type of nationalism that looks back to past ‘glories’ – in this sense he represents a ‘mythical’ form of nationalism
  • Maurras hoped to revive the French monarchy, re-establish the link between church and state and to reduce the impact of democracy
  • Essentially – Maurras wanted a return to pre-revolutionary France where the link between the state and the Catholic church would return alongside a hereditary monarchy

Key ideas include:

EXPANSIONISM – an idea based on a nation’s strong military power and ethos. This idea can be linked to the concept of CHAUVINISTIC nationalism. The two ideas together suggest that the pride and glory of a nation could be linked to invasion and conquest. You may see these ideas described as MILITARISM

INTEGRAL NATIONALISM – not too dissimilar from Mazzini, it’s just the politics that’s different. Maurras was suggesting that all French citizens should feel themselves to be completely within the nation to the extent that the needs of the state were more important than their own

How would you use Maurras in an exam answer?

  • When nationalism is irrational
  • exclusive, expansionist, chauvinistic
  • …and racist
  • When you want to emphasise how nationalism frequently rejects individualism

Maurras’s best lines

For monarchy to work, one man must be wise. For democracy to work, a majority of the people must be wise. Which is more likely?

A true nationalist places his country above everything


  • Born in Jamaica – lived in London and the USA
  • Committed to the cause of BLACK NATIONALISM
  • Main area of interest – AFRICA
  • Believed that black Africans were a single race divided and scattered by the slave trade
  • Believed that black Africans were capable of managing their own affairs and did not need to be controlled and ruled by imperial powers such as the British Empire
  • His key ideas are best described as PAN-AFRICANISM and BLACK PRIDE

Key ideas include:

PAN-AFRICANISM – the belief that a mass-movement of black people focussed on the economic empowerment of Africa could bring an end to imperial rule and lead to modern democratic societies. Garvey argued that black people would not be respected if they were economically weak.

BLACK PRIDE – this was the belief that black people should be proud of their race and heritage. To do this effectively, black people would need to forget their ethnic and cultural differences – they were all black, that’s what mattered. Once black pride had been achieved, and white cultures rejected, black people could proceed to build an economically strong ‘United States of Africa’

SEPARATISM – Garvey supported racial separatism. This was to ensure that black people would have the time and space to establish their own identities. It was not ‘racist’ in the sense that Garvey wanted to create a hostile white v black atmosphere – he believed all humans were equal

How would you use Garvey in an exam answer?

  • Certainly when discussing anti/post colonial nationalism
  • His views also offer a perspective on self-determination and culturalism
  • His views also touch upon racialism

Garvey’s best lines

If you have no confidence in self, you are twice defeated in the race of life

The Black skin is not a badge of shame, but rather a glorious symbol of national greatness

You may also like...