John Breuilly
Defining and Classifying Nationalism


NOTE: John Breuilly's book Nationalism and the State is a classic discussion of the politics of nationalism in a comparative and historical perspective.


"The term 'nationalism' is used to refer to political movements seeking or exercising state power and justifying such actions with nationalist arguments.

"A nationalist argument is a political doctrine built upon three basic assertions:

  1. There exists a nation with an explicit and peculiar character.
  2. The interests and values of this nation take priority over all other interests and values.
  3. The nation must be as independent as possible. This usually requires at least the attainment of political sovereignity." (p.3).


"So the definition employed here can avoid the danger of being too vague and all-embracing and, among other things, draws attention to the modernity of nationalism.

"The definition also excludes from consideration political movements which demand independence on the basis of universal principles. The term 'nationhood' is often used to describe the achievement of such independence, as, for example, the creation of the United States of America. But the leaders of the independence movement did not refer to a cultural identity to justify their claims. They demanded equality and, failing that, independence, and justified the demand by an appeal to universal human rights. Parts of North America were simply the areas in which these rights were being asserted. Admittedly a sense of national identity developed after the achievement of independence but by then nationalism had a rather different and less distinctive function." (pp. 6-7).


"These general remarks have served to define and narrow down the area of investigation. I am concerned with significant political movements, principally of opposition, which seek to gain or exercise state power and justify their objectives in terms of nationalist doctrine. This still covers a large number of political movements and it is necessary to subdivide them. To do so one requires some principle of classification.

"Classifications are simply sets of interrelated definitions. Utility is their justification. There are numerous ways of classifying nationalism....

"The concern here is with nationalism as a form of politics, primarily opposition politics. This suggests that the principle of classification should be based on the relationship between the nationalist movement and the existing state. Very broadly, a nationalist opposition can stand in one of three relationships to the existing state. It can seek to break away from it, to take it over and reform it, or to unite it with other states. I call these objectives separation, reform and unification.

"In addition the state to which such a nationalist movement is opposed may or may not define itself as a nation-state. If it does, conflict may arise between governmental and opposition nationalisms, conflict which cannot occur when the state does not define itself as a nation-state. The position of a nationalist opposition having to counter governmental nationalism is fundamentally different from that of one which does not.

"These distinctions yield six classes, which are set out here with examples for each class:

(Opposed to) Non-nation states a (Opposed to) Nation states 1
Separation Magyar, Greek, Nigerian Basque, lbo
Reform Turkish, Japanese Fascism, National Socialism
Unification German, Italian Arab, Pan-African

"(a) A rather clumsy term but I can think of nothing better" (pp. 11-12).

 1) EDITOR'S NOTE: The bracketed text was added in the Second Edition of Breuilly's text (1992). I have included it here in the hope that it will make the author's distinctions a little more clear. The remainder of the text quoted here is drawn from the 1985 edition.

Breuilly, John. Nationalism and the State. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.