Reassessing Political Ideologies: The Durability of Dissent

By Michael Freeden | Go to book overview

9

Power and vacuity

Nationalist ideology in the twentieth century

Andrew Vincent

Nationalist ideology has had a tortured and complex relationship with twentieth-century politics and still appears as a crucial driving force into the twenty-first century. However, in discussing it, in retrospective terms, at the dawn of a new century, it is important to realize that the legacy of nationalist ideology constitutes a continuous strained debate and practice from the early nineteenth century. The twentieth-century experience of nationalism is thus partly configured in the nineteenth century. In assessing nationalism, we ignore this longer-term history at our cost. Most of the nationalist controversies and political practices which have figured during the late twentieth century, have been echoes of those from the nineteenth century. Many contemporary nationalist movements have not outgrown the powerful myths and aspirations of the earlier nineteenth-century debates. The fierce nationalist myths, fantasies and aspirations - lovingly embodied in lexicography, historical writing, painting, poetry, literature and monuments during the nineteenth century - which then boiled over, in many cases, in the conflagration of the First World War, arose once again, phoenix-like, from the flames (literal flames in many cases) in the closing decades of the twentieth century. Old agendas were still very much the present realities of the 1980s and 1990s. Old national battles of the nineteenth and early twentieth century were being refought with rekindled hatreds.

The same point would hold for many anti- and postcolonial nationalisms of the twentieth century. The national renewal of postcolonial regimes in Africa or Asia during the twentieth century was, in part, also a recovery of national myths promulgated, or, in some cases, foisted onto earlier history. The language of national recovery, in postcolonial terms, was itself also partly adopted from the European political vocabularies of the colonial and imperial era. There is a sense in which nationalism always contains its own self-fulfilling historical prophecy, wherever it occurs. In effect, it commandeers history and tradition to establish its own existence and ineffable continuity with the past. All history therefore becomes literally the history of the nation.

During the twentieth century there have been two broad approaches to nationalism both within political and historical studies to date, as well as in the apprehensions of ordinary citizens of most states. One approach has been generally uneasy with nationalism. This sense of unease was profoundly affected in

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