Question of the Month: November

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H-Nationalism’s Question of the Month series offers a forum for discussing the big questions surrounding research, pedagogy, and practice in the field of nationalism studies and the history of nationalism. Use the reply feature to join the conversation! Email Simon Purdue ( of Northeastern University if you’d like to propose a question of you own. If you need technical assistance with logging in and posting comments, please contact H-Net’s Help Desk (

Hello all,

As we enter election week here in the US the study of nationalism feels more important than ever. The world is watching as history unfolds in front of us, and we can't know what the next month will hold. Whatever happens (or happened, depending on when you're reading this) on November 4th, I'm sure we will all have a lot of work on our hands as scholars in this field. It seems pertinent then that our question of the month should have some bearing on the election, so this month we're asking:

What are some of the twists and turns in the long relationship between nationalism and authoritarianism? Can we safely categorize any nationalist movements and organizations as anti-authoritarian? Are there authoritarian regimes that we can describe as opposed to nationalism?

As always we eagerly anticipate your replies, and we look forward to hearing your thoughts on this timely question.

Best Wishes,

Simon Purdue

Can we safely categorize any nationalist movements and organizations as anti-authoritarian?

I'm going to interpret 'anti-authoritarian' to mean specifically wanting a dramatic change in the nature of the state, rather than being not authoritarian or in the 'various people against nasty things' camp.

I think a possibility might be the Movimento das Forças Armadas that led the Carnation Revolution in Portugal, and another might be the Indian National Congress. 

Are there authoritarian regimes that we can describe as opposed to nationalism?

I'm right out of my depth here, so please forgive me if this is silly, but perhaps the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in the late days of the Russian Empire and the early days of the USSR?

I'm very much mindful, though, that the nature of all the movements and organisations I've mentioned changed, and I suspect that mutability may be important; eventually, nationalist movements will succumb to either the philosophical temptations of ethnic nationalism or the practical temptations of squashing your opponents, and authoritarian movements will find the power of nationalism too tempting too ignore.

We can find instances where nationalism and authoritarianism do not go together, like those mentioned by David Landon Cole (Rojava and the EZLN in Chiapas also come to mind).

For me the more interesting question has to do with the "twists and turns in the long relationship between nationalism and authoritarianism." Today we have to search for movements and organizations that utilize one but not the other. Why is that? How is it that nationalism and authoritarianism have become such consistent bedfellows?

This has not always been the case. Nationalism was utilized by pro-democracy movements in Central and Eastern Europe before and after the fall of Communism. At that time, nationalism easily aligned with democracy because democracy was the perceived alternative to foreign domination.

But of course, over the past few years we have seen nationalist forces abandon democracy for authoritarianism in some of those same countries, perhaps most noticeably in Hungary and Poland. Is this a return to the natural marriage of nationalism and authoritarianism? Or is it another reaction to perceived foreign domination, this time by the so-called globalists and Brussels Bureaucrats, proponents of liberal democracy and purported enemies of national autonomy?

I guess for me the question is whether nationalism has an innate magnetic attraction to authoritarianism (or vice versa), or whether the relationship between nationalism and authoritarianism is dictated by the conditions of the time, place, and context.

Just a passing note: the Bolshevik party from the fin de siecle up to the Russian civil war (approximately 1917-1922) was authoritarian pro-nationalist, as reflected in the Declaration of rights of nations, issued 10 days after the October Revolution by Lenin and Stalin. Simply, that was a strategic tool to enlist various national movements in the Russian empire into the support of communists. Thats how they won the Civil war.

I'm very much interested in the twists and turns within nationalism(s) of a single country. Indian nationalism in some important segments has turned authoritarian. I wonder if there is a difference between state attained nationalisms turning authoritarian versus the state seeking ones. In the Indian case, with more and more institutions (Judiciary, Media, Civil Society) muzzled and diminished, so that a challenge to the existing regime cannot be launched, but there is still resistance from the states (federal sub-units), citizenship protests, etc. I wonder whether it's a lot harder for nationalism to turn entirely authoritarian in such contexts of institutionalised federalism, civic citizenship and electoral democracy.

Dear All, 

I.W.R. Miller's question about innate magnetic attraction is a good one. We might flesh the question out by asking whether its is the case that nationalism and authoritarianism have an innate magnetic attraction to each other, or whether they both have magnetic attractions to something in common. Put another way, do nationalism and authoritarianism have some of the same drivers--such as economic inequality or social media (pick your theorist of nationalism). 

Perhaps the most obvious example of anti-authoritarian nationalism would be in the nationalist movements of the early and mid 19th century, which often struggled against controlling imperial regimes. There is also a good case that the dominant thread of nationalism in the United States is deeply anti-authoritarian, and has long celebrated the country's allegedly weak state. Even a would-be authoritarian like Trump rallies (literally and figuratively) supporters around libertarian messages, like opposition to government imposed regulations to limit the spread of coronavirus. He is a kind of libertarian authoritarian.

Kind Regards, 

Dave Prior 

Another interesting discussion with many potential aspects. Could I suggest that most political ideologies have potentially authoritarian traits when attempting to apply the idea to political practice. In most cases as Weber pointed out the state has a monopoly of violence and when challenged will use authoritarian means to secure its authority. Even liberalism is not excluded from this behaviour in practice if not in theory, unlike fascism, communism or most types of populism.

Are there characteristics specific to nationalism that makes this ideology more prone to authoritarianism? There are two ways in which nationalism can promote and indeed justify authoritarianism. The first is when unrepresentative groups take it upon themselves to represent the nation as an idea rather than the nation in terms of its actually living people. By embedding authority, legitimacy and sovereignty in the nation, many nationalist movements make a distinction between those living in the nation at this time and the nation as an everlasting and organic political form to which appeal is made.
Thus the nation can be invoked to justify military take over, repression by a state, a coup d'Etat or terrorist acts on the grounds that certain groups are more representative of the nation than others. Authoritarianism can be justified in these and other cases because it is claimed that the insurgents reflect the 'real' will of the people as distinct for the 'false' will of the people reflected through elections or other representaitve forms. Military intervention (whether from the right or left) has often justified authoritarianism on the grounds that party politics and parliament cannot represent the nation in its fullest organic sense. There can be no divisions within the nation because the nation is ultimately a single unit (see Rouseau for one of the first expressons of this).

The othe way is when the majority in a state insists that all those who live on the national territory (whether in a state or not) are members of the same nation. When this is denied by other nations, it is often characterised as false consciousness or even as unpatriotic and considered traitorous. There are many examples of this including Sri Lanka and India.
Priyadarshini Singh draws attention to an imporant matter in this respect. Can authoritarianism be constrained within an established state setting. Democracy itself does not impose constraints on authoritarians, especially if they are in a majority as has proved to be the case in India and Sri Lanka, but also to some extent in the United States. Even in the United Kingdom the current government has engaged in autoritarianism by attempting to prorogue parliament and change the legal context. Liberal democracy is a complex set of rules and institutions, but it has to be very robust indeed to protect against the authoritarian temptation.

This was a rich discussion which gave much food for thought. How and at which points do the Venn diagrams of authoritarianism and nationalism overlap?
From the European point of view I would point out three things.
[1] Democracy itself can, paradoxically, spawn an authoritarian interpretation: those who believe in popular sovereignty may at any point come to mistrust the intermediate elite authorities who "represent" the will of the people, and leaders may arise who, bypassing these elite intermediaries (including the independent judiciary), claim, not to "represent" the will of the people, but to channel and embody the will of the people. That lineage starts with Robespierre. It includes dictators both nationalist and otherwise, and a good few authoritarian leader-figures who, while they did not go all-out dictatorial, relied on a mystical sense of being in touch with what the people wanted/needed (De Gaullle, Thatcher). Such leaders may at any point choose to wrap themselves in the flag and invoke the "nation" and its transcendent personality.
[2] Nationalism gained traction in European politics in the century of hero-worship, between Carlyle’s "On Heroes and hero-worship" and Weber’s idea of charismatic leadership.
[3] A majority of states in post-Versailles Europe that relied on a nationality principle voluntarily sacrificed their democracy to authoritarian or dictatorial rule. Not just the usual suspects (Hitler and Mussolini, Franco and Salazar, Stalin): the list also includes Hungary (1920), Bulgaria (1923), Poland and Lithuania (1926), Austria (1933), Estonia and Latvia (1934), Greece (1936) and Romania (1938). This makes current developments in Central/Eastern Europe all the more disheartening.

Hello all,

Thanks to all of you for this months invigorating discussion on what I believe is a very timely question. This month we tackled the complex relationship between nationalism and authoritarianism, and we have seen through your comments how this relationship can take many forms. While it is clear that nationalism and authoritarianism often do come hand in hand, some of you have highlighted case studies - both contemporary and historical - that disrupt this narrative somewhat. Whether it be the relationship of the USSR to nationalism or the INC to authoritarianism, it is clear that these ideologies are not necessarily always a package deal.

Further disrupting this narrative is the idea that other political ideologies, even liberalism, can adopt authoritarian tendencies when deemed necessary or desirable. Authoritarianism is not something unique to nationalist ideology, and so the bigger question seems to be whether nationalism is in any way unique or exceptional in the extent of its adoption of authoritarian rule.

We have also heard, however, that the relationship between the two has got closer in recent decades, and perhaps we are now entering an era in which nationalism is, by its very nature, authoritarian. In contrast, historically many pro-democracy movements have mobilised nationalist narratives, and nationalism has often been liberatory rather than authoritarian. It remains to be answered whether or not this trend continues and nationalism becomes more innately authoritarian in the coming years.

This was a very rich and interesting discussion that I’m sure will spawn further debate in the coming weeks. As always we will be launching our next question of the month tomorrow, December 1st, so if you have any closing thoughts on this month’s discussion please do submit them ASAP.

Thank you all again for your continued support and your fascinating insights on the study of nationalism.


Simon A. Purdue — Network Editor