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National Self-Determination: The Legacy of the French Revolution

Chimène Keitner

Oxford University
March 2000

International Studies Association Annual Meeting


This paper examines the role of the nation-state principle in international politics: that is, the often tacit assumption that nations and states are or should be congruent, and that a presumptive right to national self-determination exists where this is not the case. The political resonance of the "nation" and sympathy for claims to its ethical primacy come largely from the association between nationhood and self-government, a connection often traced to the French Revolution. On both the historical and the conceptual levels, the experience of the French Revolution offers crucial insights into the logic of national self-determination and its implications as an international political standard.

Ultimately, the nation-state principle rests on the idea of the nation as an automatically cohesive and distinct portion of humanity that, by virtue of these characteristics, deserves to be self-governing and free from external intervention. In fact, a precise analytical framework derived from a study of the French Revolution shows how the tenacity of the nation-state principle threatens efforts to implement more flexible models of governance. Pinpointing the tensions and clarifying the underlying premises of this principle can offer a core contribution to understanding and handling conflicts over the legitimacy of political and territorial claims.

Table of Contents


Part I: The French Revolution and the Paradoxes of Voluntarist Nationalism

  1. Conception: How to imagine a pre-political, voluntarist nation?
  2. Constitution: How to give the nation a political voice?
  3. Composition: How to define insiders and outsiders?
  4. Confrontation: How to interact with other political units?

Part II: Some Implications for Contemporary Inter-National Relations


This paper is based on the author's doctoral dissertation in International Relations at Oxford University. Sincere thanks are due to Dr. Andrew Hurrell of Nuffield College, Oxford for his patient and insightful supervision.

All comments and suggestions are most welcome, and can be sent to

Any use of this paper must be accompanied by proper citation.


A significant number of today's most violent conflicts seem to be fueled, if not created, by the desire of nations to control their own states. Recent headlines include renewed bombing by Basque separatists, the outbreak of hostilities along the Eritrean-Ethiopian border, demonstrations and clashes over secession in the Comoros, heightened tension between China and Taiwan over the island's political status, investigations into past violence in East Timor and reports of current violence in Aceh, and accusations of torture by Russian soldiers in Chechnya. It may not be a World War, but much of the world is at war. What is going on here? And how can we better understand it?

The nation-state principle posits an international society composed of sovereign nation-states. While the assumption that nations and states should be congruent may appear outdated or benign, it can create volatile expectations, leading to secessionist and irredentist claims. These are especially likely to arise when socioeconomic and political discontent becomes focused on discrepancies between the boundaries of historically and culturally distinct communities and the borders of states whose control over these groups is perceived as illegitimate.

This paper analyzes the normative framework within which nation-based demands for political and territorial control are articulated and addressed. The goal is to introduce greater conceptual clarity into debates about the nature and validity of nation-based claims. The French Revolution is often upheld as the birth of the modern nation-state. While clearly oversimplified, this accepted wisdom nevertheless offers a fruitful starting-point for examining the assumptions and implications of the nation-state principle. A study of the French Revolution provides insight into some of the key historical underpinnings of enduring understandings about the entitlements of nationhood.

From the French Revolutionaries to Mazzini to Abdullah Ocalan, political leaders have found the idea of the nation particularly resonant and powerful. The notorious ambiguity of the nation makes it problematic as a conceptual category but enhances its attractiveness as a platform for political mobilization. David Miller defines a nation as "a community of people with an aspiration to be politically self-determining," and a state as "the set of political institutions that they may aspire to possess for themselves." 1 Statehood is valued as enshrining internal control over a given territory and population and external sovereignty in international relations, including freedom from intervention by other states (except perhaps in cases of egregious human rights abuse). Nations achieve internal control and external independence through recognition as sovereign states, the members of international society.

While sovereign statehood is by no means the only-and perhaps not even the most common-political embodiment of nations in the contemporary international system, it remains a basic aspiration and entitlement of nations in a purely nation-statist model. Despite the growing importance of regional organizations, multinational corporations, non-governmental organizations, and other non-state actors in international relations, it is probably still safe to say that we live-or at least think we live-in a world of nation-states. The "right of self-determination" of peoples enshrined in Article I of the United Nations Charter and in Common Article 1 of the 1966 Covenants is generally limited to the context of decolonization when understood as a right to sovereign statehood. 2 However, this restriction is difficult to justify within a nation-statist model. There is no self-evident reason why the meta-option of separate statehood ought to be granted to former colonies but denied to other self-identified national groups.

Of course, "the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples" is difficult to operationalize without a clear definition of "a people." 3 Virtually all formulations of the self-determination idea seem to take for granted the existence of distinct and identifiable collectives, and for good reason: after all, if a nation is only defined by its political institutions, then the nation-state principle is a truism, and the story ends there. 4 Ian Brownlie's definition of self-determination as "the right of cohesive national groups (‘peoples’) to choose for themselves a form of political organization and their relation to other groups," John Stuart Mill's observation that "[o]ne hardly knows what any division of the human race should be free to do if not to determine with which of the various collective bodies of human beings they choose to associate themselves," and Ernest Gellner's affirmation that "[n]ationalism is primarily a political principle, which holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent," all postulate the existence of pre-political nations that provide an independent standard for the legitimacy of states. 5

In the nation-statist model, state legitimacy depends on whether the state embodies a particular nation, or at least whether the nations within the state have consented to its control. Whether or not nations are actually free-standing entities that exist in the world, the idea of national self-determination as a logical corollary of the nation-state principle offers a resonant and potent platform for challenging the political and territorial status quo. 6 On a basic level, national self-determination holds that nations should have, and can legitimately demand, political and territorial self-control. According to this view, practical obstacles and conflicts may arise, but these do not impair the soundness of the principle itself: to each nation its own state.

Part I: The French Revolution and the Paradoxes of Voluntarist Nationalism

Where does the French Revolution fit into all of this? Proponents of the nation-state principle take it as a given—a set of core assumptions based on shared understandings, if not common sense. In fact, of course, there is nothing natural or inevitable about nation-states, and few states in the world conform to this ideal model. Far from making the presumed congruence between nations and states obsolete, this disjunction gives rise to conflicting and potentially irreconcilable perspectives and expectations. The tension between the pervasiveness of non-national states and the persistence of international normative standards based largely, if implicitly, on the nation-state principle fosters inconsistency and even incoherence in international law and practice.

The idea of an international system composed of sovereign states, generally dubbed the "Westphalian" model, provides a structural framework for relations between distinct political and territorial units. However, standing alone, this model offers no standard besides effective control for delineating states and investing them with the rights and duties of membership in international society. Elements of the Westphalian model characterize current international relations: effective control remains an important (though no longer exclusive) test for state recognition, and states are still considered the central members of international society, with this status enshrined on a literal level by membership in the United Nations.

While the United Nations could not be called the United States for obvious reasons, there is something deeper at work in the frequent conflation of the terms "nation" and "state" in popular, political, and even scholarly discourse. This "something deeper" stems from the tacit assumption that all states are or should be nation-states. If the Treaty of Westphalia provides a convenient, though not entirely historically accurate, shorthand for the birth of the modern state-system, then the French Revolution performs a similar function for the idea of the modern nation-state. In the ideal version of this model, pre-political nations should determine the legitimacy of states for both consequentialist and deontological reasons. On a practical level, national ties are presumed to ensure the cohesiveness and administrability of a linguistically and culturally unified population, and to motivate compliance and commitment of the members of a polity to its institutions and commands based on a presumed identification between the government and the governed. This presumed identification is also valued in itself as a moral good, based on the notion that people should be-and would choose to be-governed by members of their own community. In this picture, national self-determination supports the values of both collective identity and individual choice.

The two senses of self-government-participation of the population in political decisions through voting as opposed to despotism, and identity between the government and the governed as opposed to foreign rule—are often conflated. There are at least two reasons why the idea of national self-determination (the presumption that a nation should have control of its own state) is often closely connected to ideals of liberation and democratic self-governance. First, it seems intuitively plausible (if not borne out by experience) that a people is best able to choose and to implement its own conception of the good life when governed by its own members. Second, the concrete historical connection between the rise of the nation as a political platform and the overthrow of monarchy during the French Revolution helped fuse the ideas of national self-determination and popular sovereignty in political rhetoric and in the popular imagination.

Despite the auspicious beginnings of the French Revolutionaries in proclaiming the nation the fundamental source of political sovereignty and legitimacy, Napoleonic conquest in the early nineteenth century and German aggression in the twentieth revealed the "darker side" of nationalist policies, demonstrating the potential for internal oppression and the appetite for external domination. More recently, campaigns of "ethnic cleansing" and the rise of the rhetoric of "blood and belonging" in regions like Serbia and even Austria have further discredited the idea that national bonds based on the reality or the fiction of common descent should be regarded as legitimate foundations of modern political communities. But the feeling persists that there is something important, both in principle and in practice, behind the conviction that a large degree of shared identity and understanding is valuable and perhaps even necessary for a democratic polity to remain cohesive and responsive to the needs of its members. This intuition is particularly strong in the face of disunity and discontent in what are perceived as increasingly pluralistic and fragmented state populations.

The impulse to preserve some element of the nation-state idea has led to a division between ethnic and civic varieties of nationalism, the latter of which continue to be generally advocated and endorsed. 7 The French Revolution seems to exemplify civic nationalism, as the French population at the time of the Revolution was clearly too diverse to constitute an ethnic nation, and Revolutionary rhetoric tended to focus on political rights rather than ethnic belonging. However, the uncritical identification of the French Revolution with a purely civic model in fact misses out crucial aspects of the Revolutionary view of the "nation" as the basis for political legitimacy and the ultimate source and holder of "sovereignty." As noted above, the nation-state principle only makes sense as a standard for territorial delineation and political control if one can point to a pre-political nation independent of its institutional manifestations; it would be circular to appeal to institutions to justify institutions, so nationalist leaders must appeal to something else.

Strategies that invoke a pre-existing ethnic "something else" based on the idea of individuals as belonging involuntarily and essentially to a particular ethnic nation have been widely discredited. This leads to support for voluntarist models of national membership as the product of individual choice. However, this choice cannot simply be manifested in allegiance to the political institutions of the state. The nation and the state must be able to be differentiated, both conceptually and concretely, if the former is to serve as a basis for legitimating or challenging the latter. Starting from this observation, the following analysis of Revolutionary principles and practice reveals that the ideal of civic nationhood is in fact not immune from the problems associated with other appeals to pre-political forms of belonging. 8 At the same time, the importance of cohesion, understanding, and commitment within a political body suggests why nationalist arguments are persuasive to begin with, and why they cannot be completely discredited or ignored. The second part of this paper explores the implications of this basic dilemma. The rest of this part offers a closer look at how these sets of tensions played themselves out in the French Revolutionary period.

A. Conception: How to imagine a pre-political, voluntarist nation?

The paradox of conception arises from a core assumption of the nation-state principle: namely, that nations are sufficiently independent of their institutional manifestations to serve as separate and authoritative arbiters of the legitimacy of political and territorial arrangements. During the eighteenth century, the concept of the nation emerged as a platform for political revisionism, as it provided political challengers with a source of legitimacy that they could uphold as distinct from and prior to the monarch. The paradox of conception-the difficulty of conceiving of a pre-political entity without reference to its institutional manifestations (especially if that entity is envisaged as "voluntarist," rather than defined by pre-existing and readily apparent characteristics and ties)-captures the ambiguities in this emerging notion. While such complications could have rendered nationalist arguments more precarious and less useful, they in fact contributed to the expediency and popularity of the nation as a particularly malleable and potent platform for making political and territorial claims.

During the late eighteenth century, shifts in fundamental understandings about the nature and justifications of political institutions were both accompanied and catalyzed by transformations in the words used to express basic political concepts and even the concepts themselves. These conceptual and philosophical changes were driven largely by institutional pressures and rivalries, as different parties and actors vied for political control. Suggestively, this period saw the emergence of an entire literary genre of pro- and counter-Revolutionary dictionaries, which were in fact thinly disguised polemical tracts. The changes in everyday language were palpable, beginning in the 1750s and carrying through to the Revolutionary decade. For example, contemporaries observed that "we now speak of nothing else but the rights and interests of the Nation," and that "never have the words 'nation' and 'state' been as frequently used as they are today.... These two terms were never uttered under Louis XIV; even the idea of them was lacking. We have never been so aware as we are today of the rights of the nation and of liberty." 9 At the height of the absolute monarchy, the king was, in effect, the embodiment of three other entities: the state (the territory plus the administrative structure), the nation (the population thought of in an abstract but territorially-defined fashion), and the people (his actual subjects). A distinction between these categories was precluded by definition. By 1766, however, Louis XV could no longer simply assert his authority as had his predecessor, but instead felt compelled to defend it:

As if anyone could forget that the sovereign power resides in my person only..., that public order in its entirety emanates from me and that the rights and interests of the nation, which some dare to regard as a separate body from the monarch, are necessarily united with my rights and interests, and repose only in my hands. 10

By affirming that the nation's interests were united with his own and depended on him, Louis XV in fact contributed to the very distinction that he was trying to negate. His successor Louis XVI did the same when he invited the Nation to come to the rescue of the State during the fiscal crisis of 1789. The nation could perhaps bolster the state, but it could also check it. This was the first step on the path to the nation becoming the state's very basis.

The process of consolidating the self-image of the French people as a nation was reflected in and enhanced by the use of the adjective "national." One dictionary explains this word, wryly emphasizing its pervasiveness:

adjective that qualifies all that belongs to the nation; moreover, everything belongs to the nation, so everything is national. Also, since the revolution our physical and moral way of being has become entirely national; our dress, from the cockade down to the buckles, is national. Our way of thinking, Lord knows how national it is! and our written works are like our thoughts.... 11
This citation shows in detail just how all-encompassing the Revolutionary idea of the nation could become. 12 It provides testimony, however mocking, to the transformation of language and mentalities and to its manifestation in everyday life.

By the time of the Revolution, the nation was poised to become the central platform for claims to political legitimacy and territorial control. This was reflected in the definition of the crime of treason and the word for describing it, which went from lèse-majesté (treason to the king) to lèse-nation, lèse-patrie, lèse-liberté, and even lèse-humanité (treason to the nation, to the country, to liberty, and to humanity). 13 Changes in the word for treason concretized the prescribed transfer of loyalty from the king to the nation and to the values of the Revolutionary nation-state. The meanings of these new political terms did not go uncontested. As emphasized below, theoretical debates were often driven by concrete struggles between institutions and groups claiming to speak on the nation's behalf, with competing conceptions of nationhood used to bolster particular claims to political legitimacy and power. Far from compromising the importance of new concepts, however, these arguments in fact confirmed the theoretical and practical centrality of the nation in the emerging political order.

The Revolutionary account of the relationship between king and nation and its expression in political vocabulary ultimately defined the criteria for political authority in France. The conceptual relationship between nation and state in a nation-statist framework is most clearly explained in Léon Duguit's (much later) Treatise on constitutional law:

The nation is the original holder and source of sovereignty. The nation is a person, with all the attributes of personality, conscience, and will. The person nation is, in reality, distinct from the State; it is anterior to it (the State); the State cannot exist except where there is a nation; and the nation can subsist even when the State no longer exists or does not yet exist. 14

This vision lies at the heart of a nation-based account of the political and territorial legitimacy of states on both the domestic (internal) and international (external) levels. However, its applicability is by no means self-evident. The possibility of a voluntarist nation is especially interesting (not least for Western liberals seeking to establish consistent global standards for state legitimacy) because it seems to offer grounds for social cohesion, territorial delineation, and political mobilization that are maximally inclusive and minimally pre-determined. But the problem of what criteria one could in fact point to as evidence of the existence of a pre-political voluntarist nation remains unresolved, suggesting a difficulty with this category itself. It remains difficult to envisage how a voluntarist nation could fit into the framework established by the nation-state principle: the idea that there are pre-existing nations that because of their pre-political solidarity, cohesion, and distinctiveness are entitled to claim and to control their own territorial states.

B. Constitution: How to give the nation a political voice?

Intertwined with and underlying these conceptual developments, concrete power struggles within the French monarchy served as a catalyst for an ever-increasing emphasis on the idea of the nation. In co-opting and implementing the contractualist requirement of popular consent (loosely adopted from Jean-Jacques Rousseau and other social theorists) to bolster their own importance, the parlements (French sovereign law courts) exploited and enshrined the effectiveness of claims to political power made in the name of the nation, a rhetorical entity abstract enough to be manipulated but concrete enough to be compelling. Not surprisingly, the deliberate use of the nation by the parlements as a vehicle for their political ambitions had the unintended effect of opening the door for other self-styled national spokespeople to override the parlements' own claims.

The paradox of constitution focuses on the need to rely on those who speak on behalf of the nation in order to validate and implement the nation's political demands. 15 In theory, the Revolutionary nation became a political actor; in practice, politics became a competition between individuals and institutions claiming to speak on the nation's behalf. Political discourse became a kind of reverse ventriloquism whereby rhetoricians asserted that they were speaking in the nation's name and even with the nation's voice: conflicting claims led successive leaders to be denounced as "inauthentic" and replaced with often equally precarious pretenders. 16 In this fashion, the nation developed into a central legitimating platform without necessarily promoting the interests of the individuals within it or contributing to political stability.

The political claims of the parlements were articulated and popularized through official remonstrances, petitions submitted to the king and often published and circulated illicitly among the population at large. The remonstrances had three important effects from the perspective of this analysis. First, they emphasized the distinction between king and state, extrapolating from the abstract idea of so-called "fundamental laws" as restraints on the arbitrary exercise of monarchical power to suggest the conditional nature of the king's legitimacy, separate from the stable existence of the French state per se. Second, they reinforced the idea of a people with its own rights and interests that had to be protected (by the parlements) against unjustified encroachment. Third, they enshrined the concept of the nation as a particularly strong and compelling way to represent the French population as spatially unified and temporally continuous, creating a practice of making political claims in the nation's name. These three developments were essential contributions to the emergence of the nation as the basis of the state's legitimacy and a central platform for claims to political power.

The parlements came incrementally to champion the nation's centrality. According to parliamentary rhetoric, only those who upheld the rights of the nation could stake a legitimate claim to political power. The more the parlements felt their own existence was threatened, the more they emphasized the importance of the nation and their unique role in protecting it, again demonstrating the importance of practical imperatives in shaping political principles. A typical passage from the remonstrances insists on the need to consult the nation, represented by the parlements:

this right could not be lost for the Nation; it is imprescriptible, inalienable. To attack this principle is to betray not only the Nation, but kings themselves; it is to overturn the constitution of the Kingdom, it is to destroy the foundation of the authority of the Monarch. 17
The parlements presented themselves as indispensable to the king's political survival whilst at the same time staking out their own political territory. Although clever, this approach proved difficult to sustain, as the parlements' emphasis on the rights of the nation eventually overrode their claims to bolster the king. From mere guardians of the social contract, the parlements came to portray themselves as the defenders, and ultimately the voice, of the nation itself.

In this fashion, the nation proved a crucial platform for the parlements' claims—as long as they could ensure a monopoly on its use. Predictably, this strategy proved dangerous by paving the way for the appropriation of the parlements' arguments by other political contenders also claiming to speak on the nation's behalf. The parlements' emphasis on the primacy of the nation and the importance of national consent became disengaged from parliamentary rhetoric and entered popular political discourse, laying the foundations for a radical reconceptualization of the nature and origins of legitimate political authority, with ultimate consequences beyond parliamentary control.

In the face of a debt crisis at the end of 1788, the king convoked the Estates-General, an official meeting of representatives of the three estates (the Clergy, the Nobility, and the Third Estate) last called in 1614. This move opened the door for a new, more "authentic" set of national spokespeople to replace the parlements as the voice of the French nation. More specifically, the Third Estate declared itself the National Assembly in response to perceived exclusion from meaningful political debates among the privileged classes in an act often upheld as marking the beginning of the Revolutionary uprising. Their choice of the title "National Assembly" is itself significative of the delegates' conviction in the supremacy of the nation, and of their desire to be perceived as its authoritative voice. 18

The danger that recognizing an exclusive set of national spokespeople might erode the voluntarist premises underlying support for popular participation in government was not lost on the critics of political reform. Andre-Quentin Buée lamented: "The good of the people is the supreme law:a perfectly vague maxim, and, by that alone, a perfectly tyrannical one." 19 Jean-Pierre Gallais concurred: "In every town, in every village, we find the nation exercising all the rights of sovereignty, which at times obtains for us rather ferocious sovereigns." 20 These concerns, present from the beginning, were voiced with increasing urgency as the Revolution progressed. The struggle for political power exacerbated the theoretical tensions in the paradox of conception, leading to potentially authoritarian results.

While asserting the importance of the nation began as part of an attempt to reinforce monarchical legitimacy by reaffirming the nation's support for the king in the face of perceived usurpation of political power by the privileged classes, the conflict between national sovereignty and royal sovereignty eventually turned the competition for political power into a zero-sum game, with the king on the losing side. The king's reluctance to accept a constitutional mandate that would have circumscribed his absolute power led the nation's representatives to challenge the very legitimacy they had intended to reinforce. The National Assembly, created to represent the nation before the king, ultimately institutionalized the pre-eminence of the nation itself.

The nation may have been conceptualized as a pre-political association, but only by adopting a concrete institutional form could it translate theoretical power into effective political sway. This is where the paradox of constitution complicates the paradox of conception. The practical imperative of institutionalizing the nation in order to render its political claims effective means that those who succeed in speaking for the nation will in fact become the authors of the national will. In addition, because the much vaunted unity of national identity and purpose is often expressed in—if not created by—state institutions like the National Assembly, the nation and the state become even more difficult to distinguish, further muddying the possibility of evaluating them separately. This lack of clarity may undermine the value of nationhood as a legitimating platform. As the paradox of conception has shown, it is difficult to adjudicate between rival territorial and political claims based on a standard (the nation) that is not identifiable separate from the entity whose form it is meant to legitimate or challenge (the state). The paradox of constitution adds to this dilemma by enhancing the presumptive legitimacy of nation-based political demands without providing a guide for ascertaining their credibility apart from the convictions of those who make them.

C. Composition: How to define insiders and outsiders?

The Revolutionary re-vision of the French polity enshrined national (as opposed to royal) sovereignty as the source of and justification for political authority. Article III of the famous Declaration of the rights of man and the citizen proclaimed: "The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body, no individual may exercise any authority that does not emanate expressly from the nation." 21 In this picture, national self-determination replaced absolute monarchy as the standard for both domestic and international legitimacy. 22

The idea of national sovereignty provided the theoretical basis for the constitution of the nation-state. But what about its concrete composition? Simply positing the sovereignty of the nation was insufficient to ensure the viability of the state created in the nation's name. Criteria for national membership had to be identified and bonds of solidarity created to foster political allegiance, compliance, and support for the Revolutionary regime. Despite the importance of conceptual self-creation, national cohesion had to be based on more than just a contractual fiction in order to underpin the unity and effectiveness of the Revolutionary state. The question was: how to forge a voluntarist nation? The paradox of composition encapsulates this imperative and accounts for its potentially illiberal results.

While the monarchical nation had been held together by the king and delineated by his administration, the Revolutionaries defined their version of the nation more subjectively and even metaphysically, based on the people's will to live together as a sovereign unit. The "will to live together" was assumed to exist among members of the French nation (those who spoke the French language or had a French "heart") but not among undesirables: counter-revolutionaries, reactionary priests, or (during the years of the Terror) those who sought to challenge whoever happened to be in power or who were considered politically or socially subversive. Solidarity was forged positively through symbols, ceremonies, and festivals, but also negatively through exclusion, purges, and even executions. 23

As the Revolution progressed, the perceived precariousness of successive Revolutionary regimes fostered an exclusionary and even monolithic definition of national membership in response to the need to galvanize the nation as a bulwark against competing sources of political authority and allegiance. This experience illustrates how the process of national consolidation, even if based on ostensibly voluntarist premises, may end up blurring the classic distinction between civic/inclusive and ethnic/exclusive nations. The idea of the nation as a moral and political entity itself creates the need to delineate members from non-members but, in theory, principles of delineation may be more fluid, including, for example, an exit option. In practice, such openness tends to work against the emotional resonance and political utility of the nationalist platform; nationalist leaders may feel that pure voluntarism is simply not enough to hold the nation together and to guarantee support for their control of the state. For a nation to establish a credible claim to its own exclusive territory and political institutions (or, rather, for credible claims to be made in its name), it must be robust and to some extent self-sustaining. This observation represents a central challenge of implementing voluntarist nation-based conceptions of the state.

Revolutionary leaders found themselves having to fortify their purely voluntarist conception of a French nation based on will with non-voluntarist elements in order to preserve the resonance and viability of their nation-based political claims—a practical imperative that forced modification of the nation's theoretical underpinnings. The most concrete manifestation of this modification on a territorial level was the idea of national self-determination as a one-way street: once the Revolutionary nation-state's parameters had been defined by those in power (ostensibly in accordance with the wishes of the people concerned), the inviolability of national unity precluded secession of a "part" from the "whole". This proposition became especially important in attempts to assert the right of all nations to determine their own political destiny (for example, for Avignon to "choose" to renounce its papal ties and incorporate itself into France) while at the same time precluding the secession of any part of France. As Menou, reporting for the diplomatic committee on Avignon, explained:

A people that is part of a society, that is bound by a contract, cannot make itself independent except by the consent of the other contracting parts; but [a people] that composes a complete society in itself, that never formed part of any other, that [people] is free, sovereign; it can adopt as it wishes any form of government; none has the right to prevent it from doing so; for the government is only made for the governed.... But, it will be said, it would result from these principles that each part of the French empire could declare itself independent. I answer that no part of the French empire is actually independent by that very fact that it is part of a society with which it has contracted.... no part of the empire has the right to break this contract. 24
By equating the French people with a nation that was unified and internally cohesive by definition, Revolutionary leaders sought to preclude the possibility of internal threats to their own political supremacy, quickly developing mechanisms to suppress and to excise those that did emerge. The indivisibility of sovereignty reinforced the indivisibility of the nation, the entity said to possess it. And in a twist characteristic of the Revolution, that indivisibility, that imperative of unity, and that automatic self-legitimation were claimed by the leaders of the (re)constituted state once it had been affirmed, or they had defined it, as national. The circle of self-validation closed once again.

Beyond the exclusionary criteria for membership based on political ideology, a cultural definition of the nation also emerged to bolster the nation's claim for entitlement to political self-expression in state institutions. These two sets of criteria—ideological and cultural—were in fact related. For example, attempts to enforce linguistic uniformity became central as a means of promoting and disseminating the new regime's policies, especially in rural areas that risked becoming counter-revolutionary enclaves under the influence of priests who refused to swear allegiance to the Constitution. 25 Language became an essential tool for forging unity and concretizing identity. As the Revolution progressed, policies of linguistic homogenization reinforced the importance of cultural similarity alluded to by some pre-Revolutionary definitions of the nation but heretofore subordinated to territorial and administrative conceptions.

The French language was both constitutive and emblematic of political and cultural solidarity. Its use became an essential marker of and medium for French national identity, blurring the distinction between voluntarist and non-voluntarist nationalism. 26 The utility of a common language in permitting the formation and articulation of a shared political will led to the promotion of a single language. But the French language acquired much more than purely instrumental significance, becoming emblematic and constitutive of national identity itself. The centrality of language to identity-formation trumped the acceptance of cultural pluralism and the individual right to choose one's own linguistic and cultural ties.

In this fashion, the ostensibly voluntarist French nation sought more substantive and permanent foundations that began to point towards a more restrictive and even essentialist definition of membership. In an ideal civic nation, voluntarism itself becomes a platform for a sense of identification and loyalty, with common participation, or at least representation, acting as a social and political cement. The question of whether or not pure voluntarism, with or without an "exit option," is strong enough to define and sustain an autonomous political unit remains a contentious one. The Revolutionaries clearly felt that more was needed, as evidenced by their promotion of strict language policies and quasi-religious rituals that invoked common historic ties and a shared destiny among the French people. The perceived need for strong bonds among a nation's members, captured in the paradox of composition, continues to plague attempts to develop viable models of inclusive civic nationhood today.

D. Confrontation: How to interact with other political units?

The French Revolution was much more than a domestic political uprising. The paradox of confrontation captures the challenges faced by French Revolutionaries in their attempt to implement a universalist nationalism during the Revolutionary Wars of the 1790s: that is, to spread the Revolutionary ideals of national sovereignty and national self-determination in Europe. They did this through a policy of territorial annexation and the creation of virtual satellite states with French administrations in areas of Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Germany, and even Italy. 27 One of the most distinguishing features of Revolutionary France was its self-perception as a "universal nation." This notion is itself a paradox, juxtaposing the assertion that all people may be subject to a single universal standard with the particularist ethic contained in the idea of nationhood. The Revolutionary conception of international society embodies the classic and enduring tension between cosmopolitan and nationalist visions—between the idea of a single human family and the notion of the nation as a self-enclosed moral and political unit. The Revolutionary wartime experience offers a privileged window into this puzzle and its implications for international relations. The attempt to spread the French model of national self-determination as a universal ideal was particularly antagonistic and destabilizing in eighteenth-century Europe, which was composed of monarchical states. 28

The Revolutionary reconception and reconstruction of the French nation-state had direct implications for foreign policy and international relations in at least three ways. First, the Revolutionaries saw their principles as relevant not only to the French nation but also to humanity as a whole, compounding the implicit challenge the French example posed to the legitimacy of monarchical states in Europe. Second, on a more active level, the French deemed themselves empowered to act on behalf of European peoples whose freedom was compromised by constitutional arrangements that failed to recognize their sovereignty and rights. Third, the Revolutionary conception of international society that flowed from its domestic constitutive principles required the creation of a world of sovereign peoples unencumbered by the despotism of existing states—a world the Revolutionaries charged themselves with creating, when not by invitation, then by military force. The principle of national sovereignty at the heart of this Revolutionary vision was fundamentally at odds with the level of interference required by France's self-appointed liberationist mission, revealing the connection (and the potential conflict) between principles of constitution and patterns of confrontation. Inspired by a conviction in the moral unity of humankind, the Revolutionaries clung to their emancipatory project, handling its contradictory implications in ingenious but often pernicious ways.

As suggested above, the cornerstone of Revolutionary political theory was the idea of the nation as the source and first holder of sovereignty, separate from and prior to both the king and the state. Within France, the National Assembly drew its legitimacy from its claim to represent the French nation. The problem came when it and its successors pursued the self-appointed task of speaking on behalf of other nations, acting to uphold its definition of their interests based on its own "universal" standards of legitimacy and justice. France's self-perception as the "mother of free nations" generated an active and even interventionist view of French responsibility for the freedom and well-being of peoples throughout Europe. The Revolutionary idea of self-determination for other nations was highly restrictive, demanding political organization in accordance with a French administrative model and ideological and material support for the French wartime cause.

Revolutionary thinkers reconciled national sovereignty with the vision of a common humanity by offering a French definition of what that humanity entailed. The Revolutionaries took their own struggle to be exemplary for the world as a whole. As such, being faithful to their ethical and political principles meant embracing a liberationist mission that reconciled the apparently divergent ideals of cosmopolitanism and French nationalism by defining the first as the culmination of the second. This formed the ideological basis for the exportation of French principles and institutions during the 1790s, the essence of "Revolutionary Messianism." The Revolutionaries were nationalist in championing France and universalist in upholding the French nation as the embodiment of ideals for humanity as a whole. The Revolutionary ethos was so powerful precisely because of this ability to mobilize national sentiment around values envisioned and promoted as universal.

As some contemporaries warned at the time, the seeds of imperialism were contained in even the most ostensibly liberationist Revolutionary rhetoric. 29 The Revolutionaries' ideal of unity based on reason entailed a certain assumption of doctrinal and institutional uniformity, corroborating Martin Wight's description of "Revolutionism" as a strand of international theory. 30 The need for collective mobilization in the face of perceived internal and external threats transformed this assumption into an imperative. Revolutionary ideology had an (inter)nationalist ontology (international society composed of distinct nations), a cosmopolitan morality (with those nations joined by bonds of "fraternity," based on ideals of liberty and equality), and universalist ambitions (concerned with spreading and implementing the Revolutionary interpretation of liberty, equality, and fraternity on both the domestic and the international levels). This combination makes the French Revolutionary case instructive as a universalist nationalism based on cosmopolitan ideals, with echoes in liberal universalism today.

Although expansionist enterprises on the part of Revolutionary France led to rampant disillusionment with French ideals among occupied populations, this did not entail rejection of national self-determination as a while, but only of the French version of it. In fact, the French occupation and creation of virtual satellite states prompted local populations to draw on, consolidate, and even romanticize their own indigenous identities and traditions as a bulwark against French influence. This is the paradox or contradiction that arises in the attempt to implement a universalist doctrine of national self-determination. As long as the French insisted that neighboring nations "determine themselves" exclusively in France's own image, their posture as self-styled liberators was bound to undermine itself and appear naïvely hypocritical, if not intentionally duplicitous. The French Revolutionary rhetoric of liberation and national self-determination did indeed imprint itself on political discourse and on the popular imagination. However, these ideas were more likely to be used against France than for it, in an act of ideological appropriation that foreshadowed the dynamic of twentieth-century anti-colonial movements. 31

The French Revolutionaries introduced a "new diplomacy" based on the ideal of national self-government and the de-legitimation of monarchical absolutism throughout Europe. This is not to say that international relations after the Revolution were devoid of power politics—far from it. But it was balance-of-power politics with a twist, drawing on the new legitimating discourse of national sovereignty. Arguments about age-old treaties and hereditary ties largely gave way to struggles between different versions of liberationist rhetoric and competing conceptions of nationhood, which have also been used to challenge twentieth-century empires. The French Revolutionaries could not ensure the triumph of their own version of what national sovereignty meant and the political configuration they thought it should entail, but they did succeed in popularizing the ideal of national self-determination in international politics, both through their own rhetoric and practice and through reactions against it.

Part II: Some Implications for Contemporary Inter-National Relations

Conflict over territory, resources, and political control remains a major source of instability and violence within and between states, with clashes often focused on the drawing of state boundaries themselves. The idea of "one nation, one state" (the nation-state principle) and the corresponding conviction that self-identified nations ought to have control of their own states (national self-determination) give rise to a cluster of political and ethical arguments with both internal and external resonance. Internally, these ideas can be used to mobilize particular populations by legitimating and channeling frustration in the face of exclusion from the dominant political order, unjust treatment by those in power (especially vis à vis other identifiable groups), and lack of redress within existing governmental structures. Externally, these arguments and the assumptions they entail bolster nation-based claims in the global arena, based largely on the idea of a people's right to self-determination contained in United Nations instruments drafted in the context of decolonization. Questions of external legitimacy and the susceptibility of state borders to revision thus lie at one end of a spectrum that extends to internal claims for the inclusion of marginalized communities within existing political structures and for new representative institutions that take account of individuals as members of sub-state groups.

The study of the French Revolution summarized above was prompted by a desire to establish a historically grounded foothold in the morass of assumptions and expectations embedded in the nation-state principle. The paradoxes of conception, constitution, composition, and confrontation are derived from this historical analysis, but they are also designed as a possible framework for analyzing and evaluating other nation-based claims. Each paradox highlights a valuable use of the idea of the nation as a platform for political liberation in an international society composed of distinct, self-governing political and territorial units. However, as seen above, each benefit entails a corresponding warning that should form part of any inquiry into the legitimacy of claims on the part of actual or would-be nation-states.

The paradox of conception highlights the importance of being able to appeal to the governed as the source of political authority, especially as a basis for challenging authoritarian rule. Strong versions of this claim go beyond merely demanding popular participation in government and actually posit the existence, in theory if not in fact, of a pre-political nation whose consent is required to legitimate the structure and exercise of governmental power. This argument becomes especially important in claims that challenge the validity of political and territorial borders, since the boundaries of "the nation" will not necessarily coincide with those of a particular state. When these boundaries conflict, appeals are often made to history (for example, long-standing title to territory and historical continuity as a distinct and previously self-governing group) in constructing a story about corrective justice to validate nation-based claims. These kinds of arguments rely on the premise that nations are ethically, conceptually, and even historically distinct from and prior to states. The presumed connection between national self-determination and ideals of independence and democratic self-governance facilitate this rhetorical move.

There is, however, a danger that this idea of pre-political nationhood will become abstract, reified, and ultimately detached from the welfare and concerns of the people it purports to encompass. This potential is magnified by the tendency of various groups and institutional actors to use claims on behalf of "the nation" as weapons in political power struggles. This leads to the paradox of constitution, which illustrates how the claim to represent the people can be used both to promote and to undermine democratic rule. Once again, the idea of the nation is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is important for people to see themselves reflected in and represented by their political institutions so that they can accept the results of the political process as fair, legitimate, and binding. On the other hand, simply upholding the idea of rule by the people begs the question of which people is the appropriate referent for establishing the territorial and demographic parameters of legitimate governance, and how best to institutionalize popular self-determination. The principle of one person, one vote only holds sway if constituents perceive themselves to be sufficiently united that they will accept the majority decision on any particular issue as legitimate and binding for the population as a whole. The legitimacy of majoritarian rule depends on the ability of the minority to become the majority, or for a given individual to be part of either the minority or the majority depending on the issue at hand. This possibility presumes a certain uniformity in basic political and social values such that no particular subset of the population is categorically relegated to minority status, and all members of the polity are able to participate in and influence the outcome of political decisions.

The political challenge of nationhood in multinational states stems from the conviction that the members of a nation have so much in common that they will inevitably identify themselves as a permanent "subset" of the larger state population, negating the preconditions of democratic legitimacy outlined above. The nation-state principle in its pure form precludes the need to address the problems of "deeply divided" societies precisely because national and state boundaries are presumed to be congruent. The simultaneous discrediting of assimilationism and reluctance to endorse secession among "liberal" approaches to this issue create an urgent need to find acceptable and effective ways of fostering cohesion, compliance, and commitment in multinational states. These problems are insufficiently recognized and cannot adequately be addressed within the enduringly (if often implicitly) nation-statist terms of many political debates.

These concerns lead directly to the paradox of composition, another site of political contestation and self-definition in the French Revolution and today. Even in countries like the United States that pride themselves on an open and inclusive model of citizenship based on common allegiance to a set of political principles (albeit an increasingly contested one), abysmally low voter turnout rates, inter-group violence, the literal walling-off of private communities, and the formation of militaristic anti-government organizations testify to a worrisome lack of social cohesion and commitment to a common political project. The exclusionary potential of ethnic nationhood is clear and its susceptibility to abuse widely noted; however, even if ethnic nationhood is rejected as a basis for state authority and legitimacy, there remains an important need to harness or to create some kind of social glue among citizens and some basis for attachment to political institutions. On a theoretical level, the nation-state principle only makes sense if nations are assumed to be cohesive and in some sense unitary; otherwise, there is no apparent reason to look to nations as the normative basis for constructing territorially separate and politically independent states. Fundamental reconceptualizations of the nature of identity, territoriality, and governance may be needed, but none will succeed that do not take account of the factors supporting the development of the nation-state principle and the reasons for its perversions and failures.

Even with the entrenchment of customary international law and the emergence of concepts such as crimes against humanity and the idea of universal jurisdiction, there remain fundamental and apparently irreconcilable differences in values and perspectives among contemporary states. The process of developing an International Criminal Court both shows the potential for cross-boundary consensus and cooperation and painfully reveals its outer limits. Cultural diversity is not just a matter of eating different foods and celebrating different holidays; it is a matter of preserving different ways of life that, so far, continue to find their highest political expression in the aspiration for or reality of a sovereign state. Even ostensibly universal liberal values come up against the challenge of non-negotiable conflicts. It is not enough to rely on the force of the better argument when the discussion cannot proceed beyond what the terms of the discussion are or should be.

The paradox of confrontation addresses the tension between universalism and particularism in the global arena, suggesting both the positive and the dangerous aspects of the (often self-appointed) quest to create a better world, generally in the image of its proponents. This observation should by no means lead to a blind endorsement of any practice deemed to be culturally specific, but it should encourage humility in the promotion of one's own values and a willingness to entertain the possibility that other legitimate perspectives may exist. The radical disjunction between liberationist ends and coercive or imperialist means will not be lost on the objects of such efforts, nor on third-party observers. There are no easy answers, but there are certainly attitudes and actions that make one's arguments more or less attractive to those they are designed to reach.

While these propositions are derived from a specific study of the French Revolution, they hopefully capture and clarify some basic intuitions about the broader issues at stake in adhering, in whole or in part, to the idea of an international society of nation-states. These observations may be summarized as follows:





possibility of appealing to the governed as the source of political authority and legitimacy, especially in the face of authoritarian rule

potential for the idea of the nation to become abstract, reified, and detached from the actual welfare and concerns of constituents


emphasis on the need for people to see themselves reflected in and represented by their political institutions such that they accept the results of the political process as fair, legitimate, and binding

tendency to view the "people’s representatives" as legitimate de facto without further inquiry; perennial problem of avoiding both the tyranny of factions and the tyranny of the majority


desirability of some degree of shared values and/or identity among members of a polity such that they can cooperate to pursue their substantive conception(s) of the good; positive aspects of a sense of collective belonging

perceived limitations on the capacity for inclusiveness in any given polity; tendency for fears of social fragmentation to lead to more restrictive and exclusionary definitions of national identity


possibility for open, participatory societies to provide positive examples of individual liberty and democratic governance; recognition of interdependence and the need to view one’s own polity as one part of a much larger global society

risk of universalism leading to imperialism rather than cooperation and constructive dialogue; tendency to view one’s own political model and values as superior; lack of responsiveness to the needs of "others" except insofar as they create an opportunity for proselytizing

In addition to providing insights into the motivations and implications of nation-based claims, a study of the Revolution can also illuminate the origins of certain assumptions underlying attempts to "manage" the disruptive potential of national self-determination by promoting a civic, as opposed to an ethnic, conception of nationhood. 32 These strategies endeavor to preserve the benefits of nationhood (cohesion, compliance, commitment) while precluding its alleged dangers (exclusion, belligerence, secession). Although superficially appealing, different versions of this approach often exhibit the following problems, suggested by the paradoxes described above:

  1. the failure to recognize or to acknowledge the connection between national self-determination and the nation-state principle, leading to misguided attempts to separate the nation's "integrative"/legitimating power from its "disintegrative"/revisionist potential;
  2. the failure to realize the importance of the conceptual distinction between nation and state, and the way in which this impairs attempts to uphold civic nationalism (allegiance to a pre-political, voluntarist nation), often conflated with state patriotism (allegiance to the state).
Some appeals to the idea of a civic nation tend to conflate the nation and the state, tacitly invoking the cohesion and commitment of a pre-political nation while purporting to rely exclusively on state institutions. 33 Others focus directly on the state but fail adequately to address the questions of what bonds would hold together a purely political community, and what principles would justify its delineation from other political and territorial units. 34 These proposals prompt questions including:
  1. Why is state-based allegiance necessarily better than nation-based loyalty: that is, more open and less belligerent?
  2. If assimilation and wider integration are rejected, what will prevent civic nations from becoming the functional equivalents of ethnic nations in their quest to maintain distinctiveness?
  3. If we reject the idea of a nation entirely, how will we compensate for the kind of automatic bonds it engenders? What mechanisms will produce alternative bonds to ensure state viability, and what other principles could act to delineate states and to legitimate their separate existence (assuming the persistence of some form of state-system in the foreseeable future)?

A preliminary set of answers to these concerns would look something like the following: The nation-state principle, however allegedly outmoded, continues to provide tacit support for conflicting claims to political and territorial control in the international arena. It bolsters the normative foundations of the sovereignty of existing states and gives self-identified nations a powerful tool for challenging the status quo, based on the argument that existing states do not accurately reflect the configuration of pre-political nations. The attractiveness of the idea of state sovereignty is likely to persist in the foreseeable future despite the proliferation of multinational and transnational organizations; in fact, in the short term, processes of "globalization" may spark a retreat into statist forms.

The appeal to civic nationalism does not seem the best way to address the risk that such a retreat will lead to internal assimilation and external belligerence. Any appeal to a pre-political nation, whether explicit or implied, is likely to create analogous problems. Current claims to national self-determination based on a theory of corrective justice should be dealt with on these terms, rather than through appeals to a fiction of pre-political nationhood. While this may simply entail replacing one political and territorial status quo with a previous one, it at least avoids the problem of differential citizenship in new, nation-based states that distinguish authentic members of the nation from "stranded" outsiders (think, for example, of citizenship debates in the Baltics).

How to ensure cohesion and commitment in new and existing polities without invoking the idea of nationhood? The emphasis on democratic governance is a step in the right direction but it is not enough, both because traditional liberal notions of majority rule are insufficient to address the relationship between identity-based minorities and majorities in multinational states, and because Western ideas of democracy depend on economic foundations and social understandings that simply are not present in many parts of the world. We should neither underestimate nor overestimate how much human beings have in common in our quest to imagine and to implement new forms of global political life. Underestimation may breed complacency, while overestimation may foster heavy-handed policies that create more resentment than positive change. As with most things in life, we as international theorists and practitioners would be well advised to embrace the twin virtues of flexibility and balance.


This paper has presented one picture of the French Revolutionary legacy in national self-determination debates. The notion of a legacy, rather than a "lesson," recognizes that the inevitable specificity of a given situation precludes dogmatic generalizations or prescriptions in this area. This project has sought to clarify the assumptions embedded in the nation-state principle through an exploration of their historical origins. The fundamental constitutive puzzle of international society remains the question of how groups of individuals should organize and govern themselves. This leads to questions of how to delineate these groups and adjudicate between their political and territorial claims, and how to establish principles to guide their interaction in some form of global political system, be it one of world governance, independent nations-states, or any other configuration. The "meta-question" of the normative implications and assumptions underlying state-formation in the current international system tends to receive less than its fair share of attention in international studies, partly because of its position at the intersection of international relations and political theory. Hopefully, the above analysis provides persuasive evidence of the need for collaboration between IR scholars and political theorists in elucidating the relationship between the internal and external dimensions of statehood, a division often taken for granted but by no means self-evident in a dynamic, diverse, and developing world.


Note 1: David Miller, On Nationality(Oxford: Clarendon, 1995), p. 19.Back.

Note 2: International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted 16 Dec. 1966, entered into force 23 Mar. 1976; International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, adopted 16 Dec. 1966, entered into force 3 Jan. 1976. Common Article 1 of these Covenants states that "All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of the right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development." See generally Héctor Gros Espiell The Right to Self-Determination: Implementation of UN Resolutions, E/CN.4/Sub.2/405/Rev.1, and Aureliu Cristescu, The Right to Self-Determination: Historical and Current Development on the Basis of UN Documents, E/CN.4/Sub.2/404/Rev.1. Back.

Note 3: As Sir Ivor Jennings famously wrote on the subject of the UN decolonization debates: "On the surface it seemed reasonable: let the People decide. It was in fact ridiculous because the people cannot decide until someone decides who are the people." Jennings, The Approach to Self-Government (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1956), p. 56. Woodrow Wilson's alleged comment to the effect that he "knows a people when he sees one" provides little reassurance on this point. Back.

Note 4: Of course, this tautology is strongly endorsed by existing states seeking to preclude secessionist claims.Back.

Note 5: Ian Brownlie, Principles of Public International Law, 5th edn. (Oxford: OUP, 1998), p. 599; John Stuart Mill, "Representative Government" (1861), in Three Essays: On Liberty, Representative Government, and The Subjection of Women (London: OUP, 1975), p. 381; Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983), p. 1.Back.

Note 6: For a brief analytical overview of this phenomenon, see the author's "Power and Identity in Nationalist Conflicts," Oxford International Review, vol. VIII, no. 2, Spring 1997, pp. 2-10. Back.

Note 7: See the discussion in Part II below.Back.

Note 8: The four paradoxes of voluntarist nationalism derived from a study of the French Revolution are also presented and discussed in the author's "National Self-Determination in Historical Perspective 1789/1999: Insights from the French Revolution for Today's Debates," accepted for publication in International Studies Review. Back.

Note 9: P. Griffet, Traité de la Connaissance des Hommes, Tome II des Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire du Dauphin (1758), pp. 100-1, 106 (author's translation unless otherwise indicated); Marquis d’Argenson, entry of 3 September 1751, Journal et mémoires du marquis d’Argenson, vol. 6, ed. J.B. Rathéry (Paris, 1859-67), p. 464. Translation from Keith Michael Baker, Inventing the French Revolution: Essays on French Political Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 22.Back.

Note 10: Remontrances du parlement de Paris au XVIIIe siècle, ed. Jules Flammermont, 3 vols. (Paris, 1888-98), vol. 2, p. 557. Translation from John Rothney, The Brittany Affair and the Crisis of the Ancien Regime (Oxford: OUP, 1969), p. 177. Back.

Note 11: Pierre-Nicolas Chantreau, Dictionnaire national et anecdotique pour servir à l’intelligence des mots dont notre langue s’est enrichie depuis la révolution, et à la nouvelle signification qu’ont reçue quelques anciens mots (Paris: Politicopolis, 1790), pp. 132-33.Back.

Note 12: The permanent exhibit on the Revolution at the Musée Carnavalet, Paris, displays everything from dinnerware painted with Revolutionary mottoes to trunks with metal locks sculpted in the shape of the Bastille.Back.

Note 13: Beatrice Fry Hyslop, French nationalism in 1789, according to the General Cahiers (New York: Columbia UP, 1934), p. 159.Back.

Note 14: Léon Duguit, Traité de droit constitutionnel, 2nd edn., vol. I (Paris: E. de Boccard, 1921), p. 607.Back.

Note 15: This leads to a certain circularity, since "the ability to support [and, one might add, to articulate] a claim to statehood is partly constitutive of our notion of a nation." Paul Gilbert, "Criteria of Nationality and the Ethics of Self-determination," History of European Ideas, vol. 16, nos. 4-6, 1993, p. 516.Back.

Note 16: This trope of authenticity surfaces in both civic and ethnic forms of nationalism. See Carol Blum, Rousseau and the Republic of Virtue: The Language of Politics in the French Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell, 1986).Back.

Note 17: Remonstrances of the Parlement of Bordeaux, 25 February 1771, in Roger Bickart, Les Parlements et la notion de souveraineté nationale (Paris: Félix Alcan, 1932), p. 79.Back.

Note 18: On 17 June 1789, delegates from the Third Estate voted by a margin of 491-90 to declare that "[t]he denomination National Assembly is the only one that suits the Assembly in the current state of things, be it because the members composing it are the only legitimately and publicly known and verified representatives, be it because they have been sent directly by the almost-entirety of the nation, be it finally because representation being one and indivisible, none of the deputies . . . has the right to exercise his functions separately from the present Assembly." Gazette nationale ou le moniteur universel, Assemblée Constituante, vol. 1, no. 9, p. 83.Back.

Note 19: Andre-Quentin Buée, Nouveau dictionnaire pour servir à l’intelligence des termes mis en vogue par la Révolution (Paris: January 1792), pp. 96-7.Back.

Note 20: [Gallais, Jean-Pierre], Extrait d’un dictionnaire inutile, Composé par une Société en commandite, & rédigé par un homme seul (A 500 lieues de l’Assemblée nationale, 1790), p. 179, n. 1 on "Legislation."Back.

Note 21: Jacques Godechot, ed., Les Constitutions de la France Depuis 1789 (Paris: Flammarion, 1995), first published in 1979, p. 34.Back.

Note 22: Mirabeau insisted in a speech to the National Assembly that "there exists but one sole principle of government for all nations, I mean by that their own sovereignty." Gazette nationale ou moniteur universel, Assemblée Constituante, vol. IV, no. 142, session of Thursday 20 May 1790, p. 418.Back.

Note 23: For a fascinating first-hand account of the Festival of Federation on the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, see Confédération nationale, ou récit exact et circonstancié de tout ce qui s’est passé à Paris, le 14 juillet 1790, à la Fédération (Paris: Garnery, L’an second de la liberté, 1790). Back.

Note 24: Gazette nationale ou le moniteur universel, Assemblée Constituante, vol. VIII, no. 121, session of Saturday 30 April, 1791, pp. 264-65.Back.

Note 25: The so-called "Civil Constitution of the Clergy" in 1790 suppressed religious orders and required all priests to swear an oath of allegiance to the nation, the king, and the Constitution. The refusal of many to do this created a profound division within the clergy, and within France more generally.Back.

Note 26: Two important reports illustrate Revolutionary language policy: Abbé Grégoire, Rapport sur la nécessité et les moyens d’anéantir les patois et d’universaliser l’usage de la langue française (1793) and Bertrand de Barère, Rapport du Comité de Salut Publique sur les Idiomes (1793). These reports are conveniently reprinted in Une politique de la langue. La République française et les patois: L’enquête de l’Abbé Grégoire, ed. H. de Certeau, D. Julia, and J. Revel (Paris: Gallimard, 1975).Back.

Note 27: Jacques Dehaussy, "La Révolution Française et le Droit des Gens," in Révolution et Droit International (Paris: A. Pedone, 1989), p. 96 lists the "satellite states" created by the Grande Nation as "sister republics": batave (May 1795), cisalpine (May 1797), ligurgienne (June 1797), and helvétique (after the intervention of January 1798).Back.

Note 28: For Edmund Burke’s defense of traditional international society against the French Revolutionary threat, see Jennifer M. Welsh, Edmund Burke and International Relations: The Commonwealth of Europe and the Crusade against the French Revolution (London: Macmillan, 1995). For more on Revolutionary foreign policy, see the author’s "War and Nationalism in the French Revolution: The Theoretical and Practical Challenges of Universalist Nationalism," The ASEN Bulletin, no. 17, Summer 1999, pp. 12-19.Back.

Note 29: Crudely speaking, there are three versions of this "inevitability" thesis. The first holds that Revolutionary nationalist principles themselves lead to excesses. The second attributes France’s increasing bellicosity to a combination of theory and circumstances. The third sees Revolutionary principles as a deliberate cloak for more traditional expansionism. All agree upon the increasing distance between ideals and practice as the Revolution progressed.Back.

Note 30: Martin Wight, International Theory: The Three Traditions, ed. Gabrielle Wight and Brian Porter (London: Leicester UP, 1991), especially pp. 8-12.Back.

Note 31: See Bertrand de Jouvenel, "Reflections on Colonialism," Confluence, vol. IV, no. 3, October 1955, p. 263. James Mayall notes in "1789 and the liberal theory of international society," Review of International Studies, vol. 15, no. 4, October 1989, p. 306: "The leaders of many Third World countries may see themselves as heirs to the Revolution, but so do their opponents."Back.

Note 32: For a more extensive discussion of proposals such as "civic nationalism" and "constitutional patriotism," see the author’s "The ‘False Promise’ of Civic Nationalism," Millennium: Journal of International Studies, vol. 28, no. 2, 1999, pp. 341-51.Back.

Note 33: A striking example of this is Maurizio Viroli, For Love of Country: Essays in Patriotism and Nationalism (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995).Back.

Note 34: Jürgen Habermas tends to fall into this trap in "Citizenship and National Identity: Some Reflections on the Future of Europe," in Theories of Citizenship, ed. Ronald Beiner (Albany: SUNY Press, 1995), pp. 255-81. Habermas reveals a deeper appreciation of the need for "thicker" ties among members of a political community in "The European Nation-state— Its Achievements and Its Limits. On the Past and Future of Sovereignty and Citizenship," in Mapping the Nation, ed. Gopal Balakrishnan (London: Verso, 1996), pp. 28-194. Still, he believes that this function can be filled by a shared political culture that is strictly separate from "subcultures" and "prepolitical identities (including that of the majority)." As noted by the author in "The ‘False Promise’ of Civic Nationalism," the question of what such a political culture might look like and draw its strength from remains unresolved.Back.