Nationalism: Definitions and Clarifications

By Michael Staudenmaier

The world context that has developed since the events of Sept. 11 has heightened the urgency of anarchist attempts to understand nationalism. If we are to retain the momentum of an anarchist movement that was advancing in important ways, we must understand the new situation we operate within

There are two main criticisms of current anarchist views on nationalism, and both are important in this new world of anthrax letters and Afghan refugees. The first, encountered mainly in conversation with older comrades, is that our worldview is stuck in the past, in a time when Marxist-influenced national liberation movements were ascendant, or at least held some lingering viability in places like El Salvador or Peru. That time is over, with most such movements reabsorbed by capital (as in El Salvador) or physically eliminated (as in Peru). The important question, then, is: what does nationalism mean in a world where revolutionary movements are more likely to look like Al-Qaeda or the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan?

The second criticism laments a lack of precision in defining terms. While we offer occasional catch-phrases or brief descriptions, we rarely give a precise definition of any of the major terms used: nation, state, class, nationalism, national identity, race and so forth. This vagueness has several negative effects: it makes our line of argument difficult to discern and analyze; it allows critics to be similarly unclear in their responses; and it hinders the overall aim of advancing the quality of discussion of nationalism, leaving the participants mired in much the same fog as before.

With these two criticisms in mind, and with the post-Sept. 11 context as a framework, below are a series of definitions, which may clarify some of the positions I and other anarchists have previously staked out. These definitions represent an attempt to describe a framework for future anarchist discussion, not to defend a particular “line,” either pro- or anti-nationalist, within that framework.


In the days after Sept. 11, Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was widely quoted in the media calling for “ending nations” that support terrorism. Despite Wolfowitz’s leading position among the hawks in the Bush administration, it is almost certain that, as he maintained, he was misquoted. Wolfowitz claimed almost immediately that he had called for “ending nations’ support for terrorism,” the apostrophe indicating an end to the support, not the nations. The United States has a long history of genocide, possibly extended this past winter as several million Afghans risked starvation because of U.S. intervention, but no one in the U.S. government in the last half-century has publicly articulated genocide as strategy. The administration’s stated objective is the destruction of the Taliban, and no one would call the Taliban a nation.

The Taliban is an organization, and it administered a state, but these factors make it too narrow a construct to be considered a nation. As Kofi Annan put it in 1998, “in a country of 20 million people, 50,000 armed men are holding the whole population hostage” (Rashid, p. 78). But do these 20 million Afghans constitute a nation? How about the 8 million Pashtuns who make up the largest single language group?

Afghanistan, like many other contemporary nation-states, was cobbled together by European imperial powers with little regard for demographics or geography. In all such cases, the origin of nationhood is historical, not mystical, god-given or “natural.” Panama, for instance, exists partly because the U.S. manufactured its secession from Colombia to advance the canal’s construction. Similarly, Afghanistan originated in nineteenth century battles between Russia and Great Britain, and through the arbitrary departmental divisions of British India. It contains large numbers of five very different populations (Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras and Turkmen), four of which exist in similar or larger numbers in other nation-states.

But to conclude from this that Afghanistan is not a nation would be premature, since the top-down action of imperial powers is only part of the story. It provides the conditions for a common lived experience that can facilitate bottom-up activity as well, as in Panama, where a century of popular struggle against U.S. control of the canal forged a nation incontestably distinct from Colombia. To deny the importance of such self-actualization is inconsistent with any anarchist worldview that recognizes and valorizes class- or community-based self-activity.

The various Afghan populations are in turn made up of various smaller communities – villages, clans, religious and occupational groupings, and so on – that overlap and diverge in various ways. To the extent that they share a perception of a common history and lived experience such communities become bound together. This connection cannot be quantified or given percentages, and the process happens on a continuum rather than in a black and white framework.

In Afghanistan, 300 years of disputes over territory and resources ought not be seen as a passive population acted upon from without (by the British, Russians, Persians, Pakistanis, etc.). Our understanding of nations must change in a way that reflects the complex reality of history. Centuries of anti-colonial struggles had undeniably produced an Afghan nation by the time of the Soviet invasion in 1979, moving the community of communities well down the continuum toward common history and lived experience, linguistic and tribal barriers notwithstanding. The development of the Loya Jirga (a conference of tribal elders from across Afghanistan) is the best evidence of this.

But nations are not static. The civil war that erupted after the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989 shattered the perception of commonality that held the Afghan nation together. The rise of the Taliban has furthered the idea of a Pashtun nation, while the former Soviet Republics have given inspiration to the national aspirations of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmen. As Ahmed Rashid points out, even these identities may be fracturing back into the communities that make them up. “Rather than a national identity or kinship-tribal-based identities, territorial regional identities have become paramount. Afghans no longer call themselves just Afghans or even Pashtuns and Tajiks, but Kandaharis, Panjshiris, Heratis, Kabulis or Jowzjanis. Fragmentation is both vertical and horizontal and cuts across ethnicity to encompass a single valley or town. The Pashtun tribal structure has been destroyed by the loss of common tribal property and grazing grounds, and by war and flight. The non-Pashtun identify their survival with individual warrior leaders and the valley of their birth” (Rashid, p. 208). This process of national disintegration was made easier by the diversity of languages and religious traditions, but in principle it is possible anywhere.

From this context we can define a nation as a community of communities, manifested in perceptions of shared identity and experience, possibly including culture, language, ancestry, land and various intangibles, with said perceptions being the result of the interaction of popular self-activity and external historical forces.

Thus, there was once (and may someday develop again) an Afghan nation, but currently the territory of Afghanistan is home to a number of smaller, unstable nations, most of which exist in geographic space inside and outside the official borders.


Many commentators have noted the unusual content of the social and political program advanced by Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. Its immediate demands are mostly reformist: removal of U.S. troops from the Arabian peninsula, ending sanctions against Iraq, an independent Palestinian state (this last demand has multiple versions, the more extreme of which call for the complete expulsion of all Jews from Palestine). It does not overtly call for domestic revolution in any Muslim country, although it is open to this possibility as one acceptable way to obtain the aforementioned objectives.

This stands in stark contrast with most traditional models of terrorist action, which, as some anarchists have noted, revolved around revolutionary organizations and their attempts to create newly independent nation-states in the third world. This model told us nothing about state terrorism and lacked an analysis of pro-state paramilitary terrorism, organized patriarchal violence, white supremacist terrorism and so on.

But whatever value it once had dissipated with the national liberation movements it described. In their place we find Al-Qaeda, a multicultural, internationalist veterans’ organization, with members from dozens of countries. Bin Laden utilizes a number of motivating factors to mobilize his followers, from anti-imperialism to Islamic fundamentalism, but national identity is not among them. In this context, it makes no sense to describe Al-Qaeda as a nationalist organization, regardless of bin Laden’s personal interest in the liberation of his homeland (the Arabian peninsula) from the clutches of the U.S. military.

By contrast, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan articulates a nationalist program, though they avoid describing it as such. Beginning with its name, RAWA represents an effort to restore the Afghan nation; they are not Pashtun women or Uzbek women, nor are they women of Central Asia. More important, however, is the content of its politics. Since its founding in 1977, the organization has developed a forward looking program demanding social gains for women, children and other disenfranchized sectors of the population, all in the framework of a democratic, secular society. It has consistently opposed foreign imperial interests, local warlordism, reactionary elements of Afghan tradition and emergent Islamic fundamentalism. RAWA prioritizes direct action, attempting to implement in practice the social gains it struggles for – schools and health clinics for women and children being the most prominent examples.

This is a program most anarchists would cautiously support, and there is no obvious nationalist component. This nationalism is seen more in the motivating factors used by RAWA to mobilize broad sectors of the Afghan population. As the name indicates, RAWA seeks to mobilize across language and tribal barriers, and this appears to be reflected in the composition of the membership. The oppositional aspects of its program (against U.S. bombing, the Northern Alliance, etc.) are tied to an appeal for the independence and cohesion of Afghanistan. The organization’s statement condemning the U.S. air strikes of October 2001 makes this explicit: “We believe that once there is no foreign interference, especially of a fundamentalist type, all ethnic groups of all religions, with no regard to the devilish designs of the fundamentalists, will prove their solidarity for achieving the most sacred national interests for the sake of a proud and free Afghanistan.” (RAWA website)

RAWA opposes the Northern Alliance partly because of the latter’s reactionary social program, and partly because the exclusively Tajik and Uzbek make-up of the leadership threatens the future existence of Afghanistan as such. Its tactical support for the return of King Mohammed Zahir Shah (within the strictures of a democratic constitution) indicates RAWA’s desire to reconstruct Afghanistan on a national model, with Zahir seen as the only figure capable of forging any immediate unity among the many populations within its borders. The nationalist character of RAWA’s program becomes more clear when discussing its strategy.

The contrast between Al-Qaeda and RAWA, both of which have been thrust into the spotlight since Sept. 11 after years in obscurity, leads us to a more precise definition of nationalism: nationalism describes any ideology based on utilizing national identity in the service of one or more of several political struggles, including social revolution, state-building, improvement of social services, genocide and so on. Further, we can see that what distinguishes various types of nationalism is this choice of struggle, rather than the historical status (oppressed or otherwise) of the national identity thus utilized.

In this context, it is clear that anarchists oppose Al-Qaeda because of its reactionary program and terrorist methods, not because it is nationalist; if anything, the rejection of nation-states as an organizational paradigm is perhaps the only thing it has in common with anarchists. At the same time, many anarchists have lent tentative support to RAWA, partly because of its reliance on tactics of direct action, partly because we support the basic outlines of the particular struggle it connects to a nationalist method. The limits of this support have less to do with simple anti-nationalism than with RAWA’s reformist approach to statism, exemplified in their backing of a constitutional monarchy.


By contrasting responses to Sept. 11 in the United States and Puerto Rico we can begin to define national identity. The reaction in the U.S. is well known: patriotism and “national unity” skyrocketed, with the flag as the essential visual aid. Anti-immigrant sentiment led to racist attacks, the arrest without charges of hundreds of foreign nationals and the tightening of border controls. It has become painfully clear that the “nation” people are rallying to is white, multicultural protestations and interfaith prayer services notwithstanding. This is nationalism in the service of white supremacy and the continued military might of the world’s only superpower. As my brother Peter argued in an assessment of Sept. 11 written for some European comrades, people behaved “as if national identity could offer solace in the face of tragedy.”

Less widely appreciated is the response to Sept. 11 in Puerto Rico. New York has almost as many Puerto Ricans as San Juan, and the preliminary figures, according to the island’s leading daily paper, El Nuevo Dia, were that 800 or more had been killed in the World Trade Center. Given the response in the United States, two different outcomes might have seemed likely after such a massive tragedy: an upsurge in Puerto Rican nationalism, or perhaps more likely, a spike in pro-Statehood (anti-independentista, pro-U.S.) sentiment. Strangely, neither has occurred.

The first can be dispensed with easily enough: no one in Puerto Rico or the United States thought the attack on the World Trade Center was aimed at Puerto Ricans. Thus, the aggrieved patriotism witnessed in the U.S. was unlikely to be paralleled in Puerto Rico.

Statehooders, however, could have been expected to gain. Because the Statehood position is that Puerto Ricans are really “Americans” (that is, U.S. nationals) first and foremost, the attack on the World Trade Center could be expected to cement that combination identity. Just as Puerto Ricans died “for their country” (the U.S.) in every war of the twentieth century, so they have now died in what is increasingly regarded as the first war of the twenty-first. Why didn’t this position resonate more with Puerto Ricans facing the same tragedy that produced such war-mongering jingoism in the U.S.?

The struggle around the island of Vieques provides a partial explanation. For several years, popular efforts have grown to evict the U.S. Navy from the small outlying island whose land and population have been decimated by decades of bombing practice. By the November 2000 elections, widespread opposition to the bombing of Vieques helped oust the Statehood governor, and the support for direct action against the Navy – especially land occupations on the bombing range – had become overwhelming across the main island. The movement encompassed every sector of society in a classic popular front. One of the results was a broad-based anti-militarism unlike anything seen in the U.S. in recent memory.

This skepticism of the U.S. military seems to have muted any fervor for an armed response to Sept. 11. Simultaneously, the popular front has diminished the ability of the Statehooders (already weakened by their two-faced approach to Vieques, pledging support to the popular front while negotiating extensions of the bombing with the Navy) to mobilize whatever pro-U.S. sentiment might otherwise have emerged in the aftermath. It seems Puerto Ricans have rejected the all-too-common logic of national pride as a response to tragedy.

The key here is the self-identification of the people of Puerto Rico, who have never been comfortable with their absorption into the U.S., a minority of hardcore Statehooders notwithstanding. Nationalism of whatever sort can only mobilize people who actively share the subjectivity of national identity. This mobilization, on behalf of white supremacist nationalism, was simple in the United States, but futile in Puerto Rico.

Using this example we can formulate a definition of national identity as the subjective experience of the perception of shared identity that makes up the nation, manifested as attachment to and love of one’s nation, and the prioritization of that community of communities over all others. This subjective definition should take precedence over any merely descriptive definition, in which one’s national identity can be identified by outsiders in some objective fashion.


Hopefully these definitions will clarify the framework within which anarchist discussions of nationalism take place. At the very least, they may advance a basic anarchist understanding of the new world emerging since Sept. 11, 2001. Other definitions are surely needed for the conversation to get much further: state, race, class and others all require more precision. The trick is to transform clarity into practice, to utilize our developing analysis in the day to day work of anarchist organizing. As a smart young man (who eventually became an indigent refugee) once argued, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”


A. Rashid, Taliban, Yale University Press, 2001.

M. Staudenmiaer, “What Good Are Nations?” Arsenal #3, Spring 2001

J. Bekken, “Nationalism or Freedom?” Anarcho-Syndicalist Review #39, Summer 2001.

RAWA website,

P. Staudenmaier, “The Hijacking of History” Direkte Demokrati no. 13, Nov. 2001 (Norway)

Michael Staudenmaier is a long time anarchist living in Chicago. He works on Arsenal magazine, is a member of Anti-Racist Action, and is active in solidarity with the Puerto Rican community. A grant from the Institute for Anarchist Studies helped fund the research for this piece.

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