National Identity Formation

Identity Formation in Civil Resistance StrugglesLee Smithey

As other chapters in this volume illustrate, nonviolent resistance has often played an important role in nationalist movements for independence. These cases offer important opportunities to study the power potentials of strategic nonviolent action, and the prominence of nationalism in them compels us to ask how identity and tactical choice influence one another. This chapter draws on the sociological study of social movements to theorize ways of thinking about relationships between the nonviolent tactics that many nationalist movements have employed in conflict and their collective national identities. The relationships are probably much closer and more important than either sociologists or scholars of nonviolent resistance have realized. Identities can be publicly displayed for strategic ends. Tactical repertoires, including nonviolent ones, reflect collective identities or resisters’ cultural predispositions. Conversely, choosing certain tactics can influence the construction of collective identities as people adapt their national identity to incorporate new tactical rationales and justifications.

This book analyzes impact of civil resistance on nation building. The power of nonviolent conflict must be understood broadly since civil resistance itself is more than just a set of physical or material techniques or the instrumental use of certain tactics. The experience of waging nonviolent struggle can itself be a transformational societal force on multiple levels: economic, social, political, cultural, and psychological. Furthermore, resisters often devise nonviolent actions instinctively while relying intuitively on their knowledge, experience, and interpretation of the society that surrounds them—thereby making their resistance even more organically connected with the people who rally beside them. This noninstrumental view of civil resistance, ontologically embedded in a social environment yet autonomous and constitutive, is essential in understanding its influence on collective consciousness and national identity.


The emergence of new nation-states has been associated with either great and volatile upheavals or long-term structural changes. Accordingly, some modern nation-states were formed through violent state implosions— revolutions, foreign invasions, wars, or the decline or breakup of empires. Others were created as a result of the cumulative effects of industrialization, urbanization, the development of capitalism, mass migration, and the invention of new communication and transportation technologies. Still others came about as a result of internal domestic policies such as universal conscription, free compulsory education in a national language, the buildup of national bureaucracies, or functioning party politics.


However, such nation-forming forces have often been seen as macro level, top down, elite driven, and almost deterministic. In contrast, the empirical chapters of this volume suggest that a number of subjugated nations underwent often unnoticed, but no less significant and transformative, bottomup changes driven by continued overt or tacit civilian-based mobilization, organizing, and activism despite direct or indirect foreign domination, ethnic or cultural denationalization, and forceful integration or assimilation. Under the heavy weight of foreign domination, nation formation was far from being a forgone conclusion, as the nationalist-boosting processes such as raising a national army, building a national bureaucracy, or developing national education were often banned by foreign powers while nationalist advocates were killed, imprisoned, or exiled. Under such oppressive conditions, subjugated nations could have simply disappeared, as indeed was the fate of many first nations. Through mass-based civil resistance, ordinary people (more so than abstract or imperceptible forces) performed and created a sense of stateness. They bestowed their collective legitimacy on new forms of alternative cultural, social, economic, and political activities and organizations, thus wrenching political control out of the hands of foreign states or their local surrogates. They created greater awareness about and ownership of a common national collective with a strong belief that they could develop and prosper only in an independent state free of foreign intervention. Thus, through the deployment of a rich repertoire of nonviolent tactics, the resisters engaged in challenging the powerholders that be. And by doing so, they solidified a sense of the national selfhood, created autonomous institutions, and established quasi-independent structures often outside the purview of foreign forces. Mass nonviolent mobilization and participation enabled societies to reject foreign dominance and indoctrination while practicing self-governance and building the nucleus of a new civil society. Through civil resistance, people became vividly conscious of their belonging, identity, language, and culture—the process that George Lakey, a leading educator in nonviolent social change, has referred to as “cultural preparation,” or, translating from Paolo Freire, “conscientization” through which personal destiny becomes interwoven with that of a collective life. In this sense, civil resistance, through its transformative force, functioned as an instrument of state making often long before such states were formally open for business. It laid foundations for the emergence of a nationally conscious and politicized citizenry and nationwide institutions of economic, civic, and political governance necessary for running a country after its independence, even if democratic changes in these newly independent states might have left much to be desired.


Civil resistance contributed to and shaped national identity during the spread of nationalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The nonviolent strategies used to defend society and undermine foreign oppression and control reinforced people’s own affinity with their yet-to-be-independent nations, which in turn strengthened their collective resistance. Chapter 2 of the book elaborates on this mutually recursive relationship, which has in some cases also inadvertently paved the way for a narrower, ethnically focused, and exclusive understanding of nationhood. Examples include the nation of Poles, but with restricted political rights for Ukrainians, Jews, or Belarusians; the nation of Kosovars, but without Serbs; the nation of Hungarians, but with exclusion of other ethnic minorities living in the Austro-Hungarian Empire; the nation of American colonists that had little room for Native Americans; or the nation of Bangladesh with a limited public space for Hindu or Christian minorities and the continued de facto disenfranchisement of most Biharis. Nonviolent methods of resistance such as nationalist education, setting up ethnic organizations, or the surfeit of national commemorations and celebrations often promoted and exalted the culture, language, and history of the suppressed nation as well as glorified its military past. According to some chapters in this book, this inadvertent impact of civil resistance can be paradoxically blamed for suppressing stories of nonviolent resistance. Would national identities in these nations have developed without recourse to the methods of civil resistance? Perhaps, but the process would have taken longer and its final outcome been less certain in the face of the forces of denationalization unleashed by dominant foreign powers. This book offers an important, but still a preliminary, study of the historic role of civil resistance—as a sort of mnemonic device—that helps restore full national consciousness and consolidate collective identity.