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Capsule Review

Nationalism: A Short History

In This Review

Nationalism: A Short History
Nationalism: A Short History
By Liah Greenfeld
Brookings Institution Press, 2019, 158 pp. Purchase

Greenfeld, the author of massive historical-sociological studies of the rise of nationalism, capitalism, and modernity, here distills the story of nationalism into a short and captivating historical drama. She traces the origins of “national consciousness” to sixteenth-century England, when the new Tudor monarchy was attempting to rebuild—and legitimate—the political order following the destruction of the aristocracy in the dynastic wars of the previous century. The old self-understanding of England as a social hierarchy was replaced with an image of “the nation,” made up of a single English people. Greenfeld argues that the notions of social equality—secular, democratic, and egalitarian—that dominated this English-led “revolution in consciousness” played out across the rest of the world in the following centuries. The Protestant Reformation, the American and French Revolutions, the rise of commercial capitalism, the coming of modern science, the emergence of modern Chinese and Japanese nationalism—all have their place in Greenfeld’s grand narrative. Greenfeld argues that nationalism’s appeal flows from the dignity that a vibrant national consciousness bestows on a nation’s members. The task for those seeking to preserve the liberal democratic way of life is to reclaim nationalism’s progressive orientation.

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