Thoughts on nationalism

As I understand it, the modernist take on nationalism requires that the nation is not prior to nationalism; that is to say, nationalism may cause the nation or something causes both the nation and nationalism to come about. The nation cannot come first and therefore cannot cause the nationalism.

There are many, competing definitions of nationalism. Nationalism is a bit like a sausage – everyone knows what it is, but no-one can really describe one. Nevertheless, I like Benedict Anderson's definition from Imagined Communities: "an imagined political community [that is] imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign".

To the extent of those writers with which I am familiar, the causative factor occurs exclusively in modernity. Those competing writers look for different features of modernity to explain the rise of nations and nationalism; variously print capitalism, the bureaucratic state, industrialisation in general and so on. Unfortunately, it ignores certain important facts.

Firstly, there were nations before the modern age. Two of Queen Elizabeth I's most famous speeches, that at Tilbury and the Golden Speech, are appeals to national sentiment. The speech at Tilbury was directed to the common soldier on the ground and so must, I think, represent an upwards affiliation which precludes the common idea of the upper and priestly classes having some sort of trans-continental affiliation and the lower classes being vertically stratified by their villages.

I would say that there was also a nation at the time of the Dutch Revolt, as shown in the Oath of Abjuration, and I think (although I'm not sure) that you could say that there has been Armenian nationalism since the fifth century (or perhaps as early as the fourth with the adoption of Christianity as the world's first state religion); certainly, the autonomy and recognition of Christianity that Armenia was granted under the Ottomans would suggest something deeper than recognition of 'a person at the top'.

I would also contend that there was city-nationalism and pan-Hellenic nationalism (as opposed to Macedonians and/or Barbarians) in Classical Greece. All of these are imagined, political, limited and sovereign communities. City-nationalism and pan-Hellenic nationalism are not 'stacked nationalisms' but operate, I think, at the same level, and are co-sovereign, with one coming to the fore over the other depending on the situation at a given time.

There is a very simple riposte to the nation not possibly being prior to nationalism in the form of the Jews; there was a political desire to return to the traditional Jewish homeland since the diaspora resulting from the Jewish-Roman war of c. 70CE that formed classical Zionism. Equally, I think that Italians (by which I mean people from approximately modern Italy) in the Roman empire were a dominant nation in a multi-national empire in which some other groups formed as nations and some did not. For that reason, I disagree with Anthony D. Smith.

I do not know a huge amount about Zionism, so forgive me, fair reader, if I make some mistakes here. As I understand it, Herzl, in the late nineteenth century and partially as a result of the Dreyfus Affair, catalysed the formation of modern Zionism. What he did not do was create, ex nihilo, Zionism but build on an existing national feeling. The nationalism came, at least in a political sense, after the nation.

There is a very valid discourse to be had about the effects of the modern period and various features of industrialisation on the development of nations and nationalism; however, to say that nations are conceptually impossible before nationalism and that neither existed before the modern era is, I think, simply wrong. While it is true that nationalism grew in depth and spread across Europe at the same time as the Industrial Revolution, the two, to an extent, fed off each other. It is equally wrong to assume, as I think people do, that the rise of nationalism is a step in a teleological chain.

Given those two facts, I think it is fair to say that there is no single type of nationalism. That much, I think, is uncontroversial, as people have distinguished between civic and ethnic nationalism for some time. That simple dichotomy is, I think, grossly insufficient.

Oppressive, reactive, liberation, linguistic, cultural, state-seeking, state-having and various other adjectives can usefully be applied to nations and nationalism. I think that having more definitions, but each being more pared down, would be a lot more useful than the current catch-all definition of 'nationalism'. After all, if I can return to an earlier metaphor, both the bratwurst and the Cumberland are sausages, but they are quite different beasts.

There is somewhere here an explanation for the failure of state-nationalism or geographically-delimited nationalism to take hold in, for instance, Africa. I would contend that the transportation of European nationalist ideals by people such as Jomo Kenyatta failed in many cases because they were trying to import a new nationalism onto somewhere that had nationalisms already operating – what might be called tribal loyalties. These nations already had members spread out across externally imposed boundary lines and so would not readily conform to something that came to replace them with a geographic definition of nationality that excluded co-nationals.

This adds into dependency theory and complex sequencing; I will not go into that at any length other than to say that the political canvas against which a nation must develop, flourish, exist or fail have changed and will continue to change.

It may be too early in the day, but I wonder if new forms of communication and collaboration may open a conceptual door to new nations. The development of print capitalism is held to be a key moment in the development of nations by Anderson and others; could the internet do the same in future? I do not mean by communication, as this is the same as before, only faster, but by collaboration – Wikipedia, for instance? It is an imagined community and has political aims (or, at least, some of its principles have political and philosophical implications) that could, conceivably, have some sort of sovereignty over how its members act.


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