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10-08-2015, 16:40

THE RISE OF NATIONALISM

Lenin’s optimism that the colonial world was on the verge of revolt possessed a kernel of truth. Although the West had emerged from World War I relatively intact, its political and social foundations and its self-confidence had been severely undermined by the experience. Within Europe, doubts about the future viability of Western civilization were widespread, especially among the intellectual elite. These doubts were quick to reach the attention of perceptive observers in Asia and Africa and contributed to a rising tide of unrest against Western political domination throughout the colonial and semicolonial world. That unrest took a variety of forms but was most notably displayed in increasing worker activism, rural protest, and a rising sense of national fervor among anticolonialist intellectuals. Where independent states had successfully resisted the Western onslaught, the discontent fostered by the war and later by the Great Depression led to a loss of confidence in democratic institutions and the rise of political dictatorships. As we have seen (see Chapter 1), nationalism refers to a state of mind rising out of an awareness of being part of a community that possesses common institutions, traditions, language, and customs. Unfortunately, few nations in the world today meet such criteria. Most modern states contain a variety of ethnic, religious, and linguistic communities, each with its own sense of cultural and national identity. How does nationalism differ from tribal, religious, linguistic, or other forms of affiliation? Should every group that resists assimilation into a larger cultural unity be called nationalist? Such questions complicate the study of nationalism even in Europe and North America and make agreement on a definition elusive. They create even greater dilemmas in discussing Asia and Africa, where most societies are deeply divided by ethnic, linguistic, and religious differences and the very concept of nationalism is a foreign phenomenon imported from the West. Prior to the colonial era, most traditional societies in Africa and Asia were unified on the basis of religious beliefs, tribal loyalties, or devotion to hereditary monarchies. Individuals in some countries may have identified themselves as members of a particular national group, while others viewed themselves as subjects of a king, members of a tribe, or adherents of a particular religion. The advent of European colonialism brought the consciousness of modern nationhood to many of the societies of Asia and Africa. The creation of European colonies with defined borders and a powerful central government weakened tribal and village ties and reoriented individuals’ sense of political identity. The introduction of Western ideas of citizenship and representative government engendered a new sense of participation in the affairs of government. At the same time, the appearance of a new elite class based not on hereditary privilege or religious sanction but on alleged racial or cultural superiority aroused a shared sense of resentment among the subject peoples who felt a common commitment to the creation of an independent society. By the first quarter of the twentieth century, political movements dedicated to the overthrow of colonial rule had arisen throughout much of the non-Western world. Modern nationalism, then, was a product of colonialism and, in a sense, a reaction to it. But a sense of nationhood does not emerge full-blown in a society. It begins among a few members of the educated elite (most commonly among articulate professionals such as lawyers, teachers, journalists, and doctors) and spreads gradually to the mass of the population. Even after national independence has been realized, as we shall see, it is often questionable whether a true sense of nationhood has been created.

 

 

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