Nationalism: a Paradox



The nineteenth century world witnessed a turmoil of human emotions.Showing love for one’s own country and keeping it above every other interest became a way of life for people. Soon, it engulfed big European nations like France, Italy, Germany, UK etc. and laterin the coming century took the entire world in its purview. Sociologists coined a new term Nationalism to explain this vast phenomenon. This strong feeling of patriotism, allegiance and loyalty to one’s country promoted unity and brought people together across class, colour, creed and gender.

French Revolution paved a way for a new thinking and showed the world the power of unity of common people. The concept of sovereignty for a nation soon became a strong pillar for building neo-nations and democracy. Although, philosophers such as Rousseau and Voltaire, whose ideas influenced the French Revolution, had themselves been influenced by the earlier constitutionalist liberation movements like the Corsican Republic and the American Revolution.To strengthen this feeling of bold patriotism, everything that came in its way not only gets amalgamated into it but also provided the much-needed endurance. Language, dress, symbols, flag, songs everything played a pivotal role in nationalism and soon became tools for the promotion of nationalism. It became a common feeling which binds every human being and gave them a sense of pride irrespective of the differences and disadvantages. The concept of nation-state was so glorified that it became the new Utopia. It flowed to the then USSR and came to India as well. This very idea of a nation state fascinates classes and masses.

In the modern times, Nationalism is a political, social, and economic ideology for the promotion of interests of a nation, especially with the aim of gaining and maintaining the nation’s sovereignty over its homeland. It strongly advocates that each nation should govern itself, free from outside interference. It further aims to build and maintain a single national identitybased on shared social characteristics such as culture, language, religion, politics, and belief in a shared singular history and to promote national unity and solidarity.

Sociologists often opine that nationalism is passé in all developed countries, it has faded away in twenty first century. It started from France, Italy, Germany, UK etc., but it’s no longerprevalent in these countries.

Post World-War II, Germany, France and UK, (who were the torchbearers of the concept of nationalism), are no longer seemed to be fascinated by nationalism because they are no longer at war. Neither these countries are facing any kind of tension nor any turmoil both externally and internally. So, they have things to indulge into and relax. The citizens of these countries are least bothered about others, they do not see themselves as a minute part of something, rather they focus too much on individual distinction and uniqueness. Individualistic focus is too high in these nations. They fascinate distinction and no longer want to be similar. They are done with everything set and orderly. New and unique concepts allure them as they have ample resources and time to put into. These nations are too used to peace that they no longer think about war and valour on their own soil.

However, sudden eruption of nationalism can be seen whenever something disturbs their long-cherished peace. The facts say it all, 9/11 unified America despite numerous prevailing differences within the nation. When the then President of USA, George W Bush in his famous call to the world said, ‘You are either with us or you are against us in the fight against terror’, he exemplifies himself as a true nationalist leader. This erupts the sudden dormant nationalism amongst Americans. The infamous UK recession of 2008 witnessed various philanthropic measures both from corporate houses and media barons. This is nationalism in its new avatar. Paris terrorist attack in 2015 unified France overnight against a particular religion despite being a liberal society. The recent example of Brexit showed the eruption of sudden dormant nationalism of the Britishers. When Scotland asks for a fresh referendum on Brexit, all the Englishmen wake up from their hibernation and calls for unification and strengthening of UK.  

Renowned psychologist cum social engineer VikasAttry explains this phenomenon: Nationalism is like a roller coaster. It may seem to subside, but it cannot be nullified as it’s a natural human urge which is essential for existence.  Nationalism which is now considered equal to patriotism, takes care of many human urges at a micro level and gives a collective satisfying urge to the society as a whole on a larger scale. Identification plays a vital role in the process of existence and merging into non identification is nearly impossible. With a lot of money or greater academic accomplishment (as in the case of developed nations), it’s more satisfying to be identified to micro groups or classes rather than to the whole country or continent, hence an impression of decline of nationalism is being created to the outside world. Out of various human attributes which needs manifestation is anger and frustration and one single attribute with provides way out to these is the nationalism and related feelings thereafter, hence it is more visible in the developing countries which are still struggling to come up to the ladder of success.

Attry studies nationalism in accordance to Durkheim’s theory. Nationalism is not anomie butsui-generis. Nationalism needs to be studied in a context, consider, if we are not focussing on the outside (macro), then we would be focussing on the inner self (micro) which is full of guilt, anger, assertiveness, frustration and hatred, whichis highly toxic for any individual. It is somewhat like, if we are not finding an enemy outside, we are finding an enemy within. This inner focus of finding an enemy within will kill any individual or will lead to civil riots. In the absence of non-identification with a macro institution like nation, world will not become peaceful, rather on a micro-level things will get from bad to worse. Micro emotions like arrogance and frustration are difficult to cope-up with and the society may collapse inside out. Hence, nationalism provides citizens a common platform to vent out their collective guilt, anger, assertiveness, arrogance, frustration and hatred to the outside agency like an enemy country or government/establishment. Nationalism keeps peace evident at micro level and gives collective emotions a way out. The paradox is, collective arrogance is better than individual arrogance. Nationalism pacifies this collective arrogance. Identification is impossible to be done away with and if identification prevails then nationalism is the best option as it helps in many ways specially for a pluralistic society like India.This collective identification known as nationalism helps the people to come out of their individual guilt and frustration, it kills their inferiority complex and gives them a sense of pride.

Attry categories society into three broad categories namely average constituting majority of people in the world, superiorconstituting the remaining significant number and a miniscule percentage of saints.

He elaborates each one of them as follows:

  1. an average mind identifies with the self and self-depending on the intellect, identifies with something else externally. Identification gives security and adds to assimilation.
  2. A superior mind having academic accomplishments or abundance of wealth gives the impression of generic indifference to things but at the same level identifies to a particular class. It’s not due to selflessness of the mind that nationalism doesn’t make sense but due to selfishness towards one’s own intellect.
  3. On the contrary, a saint identifies with nothing but the un-manifested and hence liberation takes prominence over any other identifications.

In an utter pluralistic country like India, which has geographical, cultural, religious, regional, caste and ethnic difference, nationalism is a boon as predominantly it’s very difficult to bind the country into one. If over a billion population acts on micro level then they will start identifying themselves on the basis of caste, religion, ethnicity and regional basis. There is no denying the fact that these identifications still exist, but nationalism acts as an umbrella identification which supersedes any of the former patterns of identification. Therefore,nationalism no matter how irrelevant a concept it may seem, is important for a country like India. It’s like a common medicine given to over a billion people at the same time which nobody can administer on individual levels.A country like Indiafacesconstant conflicts both internally and externally. War like condition on the Western border with Pakistan and tensionof Chinese hegemony on the North-Eastern border. Internal challenges like religious polarisation, communal disharmony and separatist movements prevailing in certain states. Hence, nationalism comes visible too often.

Nationalism also finds its relevanceinKarl Marx’s theory of Base and Superstructure, where base constitutes mode of production and nationalism is the superstructure. Visibility of the superstructure depends on the vulnerability of the base. Hence, it gets validated that nationalism as a feature and emotion can never subside but could just remain dormant for some time. It’s so natural for a country to flaunt its nationalism and feels proud about.


  • Vikas S. Attry, Psychologist and Educator
  • Jagdeep S. More, Educationist

Read More:- The Art of Mindfulness


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