Volume 5, No. 12, December 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
Detail from “Stalin: ‘Russian Revolution has given National Life and Development to Many Groups in Russia’,” 1930, via Russian Posters Collection, 1919-1989 and undated. David M Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University.
In the broad social sciences as well as in the discourse on politics, there is no consensus on how we should understand the nation – what its origins are, or on its meaning and value. By contrast there is widespread acceptance that nationalism – whether understood as doctrine, ideology, sentiment, identity, or movement – is a modern phenomenon. But after this, agreement largely ends. Two central divides exist with respect to mapping the nation and hence its relationship to nationalism. Is the nation old or new? Is it predominantly cultural or political? That is to say, even as most would accept that the nation (and nationalism) is both cultural and political, which is the dimension that is more important for grasping its (their) nature? From these two basic divides in perspective stem a whole host of ambiguities of comprehension and assessment that has created a situation whereby all theories of the nation and nationalism are partial.
Moreover, given the multi-hued character of these two phenomena, there are overlaps among these different theorisations. So even as one must adjudicate as to the relative worth among these approaches and mark out and explain clearly one’s preferential choices, it is also the case that among the otherwise dismissed approaches – dismissed because they are more limited or inadequate in their overall comprehension – some approaches nevertheless provide a deeper insight into this or that aspect of the nation and/or nationalism. To get a sense of just how complex these two phenomena are, and of the relationship between them, let us list some of the various questions that have been thrown up about the nation and nationalism.
Is the nation defined by objectively given characteristics of language, ethnicity, territory, history, etc, or by subjectivity alone? Does nationalism engender the nation or does the nation precede the emergence of nationalism? Is nationalism inclusive or exclusive? Is nationalism civic or ethnic? Is nationalism particular or universal? Is nationalism progressive or regressive? Or is nationalism all of the above in variable admixtures? Given these ambiguities it is hardly surprising that so many important modern thinkers have had so little to say about it.
So where do we start our exploration? The dominant current in the general discourse sees the nation as a modern phenomenon. But how modern is modern? Depending on how one perceives the background conditions and causal factors that have given rise to the nation, the dating of the origins of the first nations ranges from the 16th century to the beginning of the era of industrialisation. Of course, a whole host of nations and nationalisms only emerge in the 20th century with the rise of anti-colonial struggles. Insofar as the nation is both cultural and political, what distinguishes the modernists – namely those who believe the nation is a wholly modern construct – is that they give much more weight to the political dimension. That is to say, the emergence of the nation cannot be understood separate from its connection to the effort to establish some political control over a territorial space, i.e. autonomy within the modern form of the state – the nation-state or the multi-national state; alternatively, to merge with an existing nation-state or to establish a new nation-state.
Nevertheless, even among modernists, there is a small minority that while acknowledging the modernity of the nation, believe that the more important things that have to be said about the nation really come from addressing its cultural dimension whose roots belong much more to the past. In this respect they are aligned with those who, because they emphasise the centrality of a cultural heritage of some sort to the notion of the nation, insist on tracing its foundations to a pre-modern, often ancient past. It is with this broad category of thought that we will start before coming to the modernist school.
The views of some important representative thinkers are taken up here – notably Steven Grosby, Anthony D Smith and Bernard Yack – each of whose views have powerful overlaps with each other and with various others subscribing in part or whole to this broad category of thinking, so much so that it is not necessary to pigeon-hole contributors as belonging to any single one of these three categories. Nonetheless, for all that is shared across these three classifications some do describe themselves as being a perennialist, a primordialist and an ethno-symbolist.1 Perennialism is a perspective that leaders of many contemporary nations have put forward, namely that their particular nation has in some essentialist sense been existing since time immemorial or at least beginning in some ancient past and surviving ever since through ups and downs that could include periods of submergence by ‘outsiders’ or by ‘foreign rule’, or once having a golden age but declining thereafter, but always capable in the appropriate circumstances of resurgence, revival, rebirth! For perennialists the nation of today is a ‘politicised ethnic-cultural community’ of common ancestry and thereby having qualities distinguishing it from all other nations each with its own unique ‘authenticity’ and ‘collective will’. In today’s world most but not all of those holding such a perspective would be adherents to and promoters of an organic nationalism.2 A few though might simply regard nations as perennial in the simple sense that they are persistent and recurring entities but not to be seen as ‘natural’ or organically distinct from each other. This minority might well accept that today’s nations are best understood as the legatees of immemorial ethnic or cultural groupings that have always existed in recorded history and it is this legacy that makes today’s nation immemorial. But all perennialists (and not just them) give much more importance to ethnic derivation than to modernist processes in explaining the emergence and character of the nation today.
For Grosby, the pull of the nation comes from its connection to the dilemmas of the human condition. There is a trans-historical need to locate oneself in time and space – the answer to the ‘Who am I’ question. The need for a national identity is related to a human given – the concern for life protection, procreation and generational transmission. The nation then is like a kinship structure, only wider, and created by ‘cultural commonness’ over a territorial space that in a sense is one’s ‘home’ and ‘parent’, hence the terms ‘motherland’ and ‘fatherland’.
So “the nation is a community of kinship” that is joined to what he terms “territorial descent”.3 It is a “social relation of collective self-consciousness” where that consciousness comes from inherited cultural traditions even if those traditions are selected and therefore vary as contexts change over time and space.4 This shared consciousness is embodied in myths/beliefs and symbols, some of which will be rooted in material objects like flags or particular buildings of historical significance expressive of that community’s unique history and culture. So the nation comes before nationalism, which Grosby understands as above all a more recent ideology that reinforces a “national identity” whose basic underpinnings are already there in that there is an existing “structure of familiarity” that keeps away anxieties of behaviour through generationally transmitted customs, norms, values and beliefs – a habitus that routinises behaviour and means one doesn’t have to choose how best to cope at every point of time. This provides necessary psychic health because it stabilises one’s sense of self, which in turn is not separable from being identified with some others.
For Smith also, ethnic identity and community is the key point of reference. Yes, he says, there are both nations formed from above before the era of emergent nationalisms, as well as later nations emerging because of nationalism as ideology and movement, e.g. so many of the Third World countries. But we must still recognise the “cultural and ethno-symbolic nature of ethnicity and nationalism” and the “recurring nature of ethno-symbolic ties”.5 The older nations (most European states) have “ethnic cores” residing in ancient or medieval times but this is also the case with nation-states like Israel, Egypt, Persia, Assyria, Greece, with their respective senses of distinctiveness kept alive and sustained by ethno-symbols producing and maintaining an “inner world” of national feeling.
Smith goes further. He argues that all nations today have four elements – community, territory, history, and a sense of destiny, that is to say, a futurist possibility of greater fulfilment as a nation that therefore requires devotion from its members. But the individual strength of these ingredients varies. There is a) “ethnic selection” – the idea of being special; b) a sacralised territory whose protection through the ages has meant that there are a pantheon of national heroes and saints to be remembered and honoured; c) the nation had a “golden age” of martyrs who sacrificed themselves for the nation and its future fulfilment/destiny.
Bernard Yack believes nationhood is old but adds his own twist to the reasoning behind this claim. All the above cited three (plus many more, including many modernists) want to understand why national affiliation arouses so much passion. Why does the nation as an imagined community cast such a powerful emotional spell that its members are willing to die for it? In this is it not like a family though writ wider? And insofar as kinship structures have long existed and are ubiquitous, surely the key to grasping its nature lies in its similarity to those cultural groupings of old? Unlike the modernists who insist that the nation is a modern social and political construct, perennialists, primordialists and ethno-symbolists, insofar as they accept that modern processes have had some role in shaping contemporary nations, will nonetheless insist that there is the ‘evolution’ rather than the ‘construction’ of nations.
For understanding the nation, Yack replaces the idea of the community as a form of “collective solidarity” or “collective identity” with the view that it is based on a stronger bond of “social friendship”, i.e. it is a form of collective loyalty based on “mutual concern”. Thus the nation is a moral community having a distinct moral psychology. It is an inter-generational community with inherited loyalties and because different communities have different things to share, they are different nations. Furthermore, modern moral concepts like popular sovereignty can arise with the advent of nationalism but they supervene on the essence of nationhood as an older form of community. For Yack it is the fact of being inherited, not agreement over cultural content, that is important. The nation is a “cultural heritage community” and “nations territorialise memory”.
The arguments put forward by those who insist that the nation is a pre-modern entity has more weaknesses than strengths. But the emphasis on culture and on some kind of common cultural continuity from the past, i.e. an inter-generational transmission of ‘feeling’, has two main strengths. The fact of mortality is an important source of culture, “that huge and never stopping factory of permanence”.7 For culture is the capacity for symbolic self-transcendence and can thus expand one’s sense of being across space and time. So communities of belonging – and the nation is one form of this – can exercise an extremely powerful emotional pull. They help situate one’s life, and more importantly, one’s death as part of a wider flow of continuity and belonging – an uninterrupted chain of being! No wonder then that even those most modern of nations that cannot invent an ancient or medieval past (e.g. the US) will nonetheless seek in symbolic ways to ‘immemorialise’ their existence, to present themselves as communities of fate and destiny worth dying for. One cannot fully comprehend the ‘passion’ that lies within the national identity (and national identification) without understanding the importance of the ‘cultural past’, even when fictitiously constructed. This then is the first strength.
The second is that at least for some nations of today, an older history of cultural commonness, an earlier ‘ethnic core’ of some sort, has fed into the construction of the modern national identity. Or, as many a modernist would acknowledge at least for this small subset, that the past has been the necessary but not sufficient condition for their emergence as nations created ‘from above’, e.g. England. For such countries many threads in the nationalist discourse may be old but the overall fabric that is woven is new.
But now to the problems in claiming that the nation is pre-modern. The political dimension of the nation is, as it has to be, either ignored or greatly downgraded. It is only in modernity that a mass politics comes about as a matter of routine; and it is only in the modern era that there emerges a new principle central to all nations in their marriage with the state, i.e. the nation-state – that of popular sovereignty. If once kings ruled, now nation-states govern. The ‘people’ (constituted as separate nations) are the legitimisers of public authority even if not the exercisers of state power.8
But even where the arguments for seeing the nation as pre-modern are supposedly the strongest – on the terrains of culture and identity – the problems are considerable. What distinguishes pre-modernity from the advent of modernity is that in the latter era, the rate, depth, scope and continuity of change is so greatly different as to create another world altogether. The world has changed more in the last 250 years than in all the centuries before and changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 200 years. By contrast, all pre-modern societies are more static and socially immobile. There is a basic separation between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture and the latter itself is so localised that one has to talk of low cultures in the plural, acknowledging its geographical dispersion and diversities of content. So how valid is the postulate of cultural unity in the past that is supposed to underlie the creation of the nation?
As for the claim that the nation is a wider community of ‘kinship’, can we ignore the fact that while the family and the clan are face-to-face groupings, the ethnie and the religious group are more imagined? According to one commentator, ethnicity has been defined in three ways: as a) shared kinship and common ancestry; b) shared occupation. These two are objectively precise definitions. The third is a looser definition open to subjective choice and means: c) any group having a shared identity because of one or more common cultural attributes.9 The ethnie of the past, whether understood as small in numbers and highly localised or as much larger in size and spread more widely, either way the ethnie is definitionally apolitical.
National identity and loyalty applies to a population and space much greater and wider than the older cultural groups that are supposed to lie at the nation’s heart. So how did the transmission of feeling from ethnie to nation take place? What particular traditions of and interpretations of the past get selected for generational transmissions? Who were the cultural guardians and interpreters among the elites? What were the institutions and mechanisms of transmission? There are two cultural attributes that have been more widely spread population-wise and spatially, namely religion and language. But here a ‘reduction’ of their influence is required if they are to be seen as key ingredients in the formation of the nation.
Is it not non-cultural factors like political continuity of state rule as in China or Persia that better explains a cultural or civilisational continuity? Yet despite a Han Chinese cultural continuity over the ages, this alone did not create Chinese nationalism. Elite Chinese self-consciousness was not that China was one civilisation among many and hence the progenitor of a distinct national identity but that it was civilisation itself, the ‘Middle Kingdom’ between the Heavens and the Depths. It was the 19th century encounters with foreign powers that led to the emergence of a spreading sense of Chinese national distinctiveness to be directed against foreign impositions.
As for culture so for identity: modernity’s impact on the structure of identities has been enormous and extremely disruptive. In modernity many more identities, not just face-to-face but also many more imagined ones, are created. Identities are sharpened and become more bounded. They are more fluid and dynamic. They can be intensely felt but are also more revisable. Identities combine and repel in new ways. There is identification with more impersonal entities – the nation, state, gender, race, humanity. This is the shift from closer relational identities to more abstract, imagined, categorical ones. Unlike the collective identities of the past that are mediated through particular groups and social stratums, the national identity is an unmediated, individualised, horizontal relationship. It is a new social imaginary. Just as the ethnie (here understood in the looser sense of a linguistic, religious, regional, etc., group) subsumes and abstracts from kinship, the nation – even when the ethnie is an ingredient in its formation – abstracts from the latter.10 Isn’t the modern personality a more self-reflexive one that more willingly adopts identities rather than having them handed down?
Insofar as modern processes create immense and unprecedented social upheaval, new social solidarities and new identifications emerge as psychic and social coping mechanisms. Yack’s notion of the nation as a community characterised by “social friendship”, i.e. fellow-feeling, is inadequate and far too sanguine. The content of nationalism is much more mixed and elastic. There is not just fellow feeling but because there are often competing nationalisms, there are strains of combativeness and even hostilities within particular nationalist discourses and sentiments. The reason why this is not perceived by those who see the nation as above all a cultural artefact is something they share with all those who give excessive and unbalanced weight to culture and see social order as decisively based on cultural consensus of some sort or the other.
It is precisely because of its political dimension, i.e. its relationship to the state, that the nation (as well as nationalism) must be understood as a modern phenomenon. Theorising must begin from this recognition. But depending on how one perceives the emergence of modernity – the weights to be assigned to the different causal factors – there will be correspondingly different approaches. Here the main divide would be between Marxists on the one hand and on the other, Weberians/Neo-Weberians/Liberals, some of whom may be unaware of their debt to the Weberian legacy. This broad group of thinkers is a much looser one having diverse views within. In explaining the emergence of dramatically new phenomena, Weberians/Neo-Weberians do not primarily focus on production relations/surplus value/marketisation. For them, changes in mentalities is the pivotal mechanism. Since this arises from prior material changes and dislocations, some would focus on this as a starting point for understanding nationalism; others would give greater explanatory autonomy to ideas or identity transformation for understanding nation or nationalism. Marxists can certainly appreciate the rise of the Enlightenment (of which Marxism and Liberalism are the principal legatees) and of the Protestant Reformation as contributory factors to the emergence of modernity, first in Europe then spreading elsewhere, but pride of place would nonetheless be given to the rise of capitalism and its operative laws of motion. Where Marxists would speak of a capitalist modernity where the adjective is of greater import than the noun, Weberians/Neo-Weberians and others would speak of a modernity that is also capitalist.
But there is no straight line from Marxism to the nation and nationalism, nor any specifically Marxist theory of the nation and nationalism as distinct from later Marxists providing valuable insights, theoretical and political, for grappling with these modern developments. What is germane is that given the diverse understandings of the emergence of modernity, there are different starting points from which different attempts at theorising have launched themselves – changes in social structure, changes in political structure, changes in political consciousness, changes in social consciousness.11 Once again, partial insights are to be derived from the partial theories of the best thinkers no matter which have been their initial starting points of exploration.
For Ernest Gellner, the nation is a political entity that is functional for the rise of an industrial society where social mobility is much greater than in the past, where work is much more the organisation of people and of messages (semantic work) than of things and therefore must rely on a context-free form of mass communication, which in turn means a dominant standardised language of a created “garden culture” (a “national high culture”) so a centralised bureaucracy can properly operate. Mass literacy and the development of an education system that makes this possible becomes a must. There is a great deal to commend in Gellner’s materialist explanation. Eric Hobsbawm for example, accepts Gellner’s definition of nationalism as meaning the process whereby the political and the national unit become congruent. So nationalism can take the pre-existing cultures and turn them into nations; it sometimes invents cultures and turns them into nations; or it can destroy pre-existing cultures and yet form nations. Language becomes standardised when there is printing, mass schooling-mass literacy. Nationalism and the nation are modern. Nationalism starts off being elitist but then develops a mass character to create political loyalties to an existing or aspiring state. It is nationalism that engenders the nation.12
But of course, in some cases like Serbia, Ireland, Japan, Finland, Mexico, nationalism pre-dates industrialisation while in the era of anti-colonial struggles nationalism emerged in agrarian and even tribal societies. Given this diversity among nations and nationalisms, and given Tom Nairn’s once Marxist orientation, he saw the unevenness of capitalist development and its industrialising processes as a major causal factor behind the rise of nationalisms. But the “human material” of this diversity was an ethnicity preceding modernisation and so different theories would provide differing emphases on the old and the new. That is to say, modernity and all that comes with it, is the necessary but not sufficient condition for developing a comprehensive theory of nationalism.13
In stressing the political nature of nationalism (and nation) one can go in any of three directions even as there will be overlapping concerns and some shared arguments. Nationalism can be seen (i) as mainly an ideology/doctrine, namely as a set of political principles; (ii) as an institutionally oriented movement where the key political structure or institution is the state; (iii) as a matter of sentiment/identity/consciousness when it becomes difficult not to give due weight to the role played by cultural processes.
If understood as doctrine, then tracing the origins of nationalism becomes an exercise in the history of ideas and their impact. The intelligentsia appears front stage and there will be an exploration into different types of nationalisms like liberal nationalism, integral nationalism, an organic nationalism, and so on. The contrast between ethnic and civic nationalisms comes in for scrutiny. Here nationalism is seen as a belief system of considerable shaping power over peoples’ lives. It is something like a surrogate religion.14 Elie Kedourie saw this doctrine as emerging from the philosophical tradition of the Enlightenment and invented in Europe in the early 19th century. Colonialism then dislocated the colonies in various ways, creating among other things a clash of cultures wherein ‘marginal men’ became attracted to western notions of independence and self-reliance, thereby adopting and adapting the doctrine of nationalism to suit their purposes.15 If Kedourie’s approach ignored the earlier formation of nations as in England, France and the US, his generally more idealist approach to the fairly momentous historical changes that led to the rise of nationalism has made this starting point the least inviting of the four.
An exemplar of the second of the three approaches outlined above is John Breuilly. Like Kedourie, Breuilly emphasises the importance of ideas not in themselves but in their connection to, and stimulation of, political action. That is to say, Breuilly highlights movements seeking state power that rationalise this search with claims of cultural distinctiveness that then require that an independent state be formed, or that the collective in question be united with some other state to which it should belong. Nationalist ideas and politics spread by imitation and are appealing because of the desire for self-rule and material progress by different ‘peoples’. What is more, for Breuilly nationalism demands that the nation-state be the site of primary loyalty. The nation for many reasons must not be confused with an ethnie because beyond having cultural myths themselves transformed for contemporary purposes, it has a legal, political and economic character that is very much modern. That presumably most cultural of group attributes – language – is no longer just a repository of myths, memories, etc., but now serves the nation by becoming institutionally significant for law, polity and economy. In contrast, the “Pre-modern ethnic identity has little in the way of institutional embodiment beyond the local level.”16
But though Breuilly does say that the appeal of nationalism comes from being a salve of sorts for the alienation that arises from the split between state and society itself coming from modern conditions of state sovereignty, bureaucratic centralisation and capitalism, he does not source this appeal in nationalism’s cultural dimension. Yes, nationalism must be seen as having a political thrust while an ethnic group unified by some cultural commonality does not in itself have this thrust. But that is no reason to ignore or even minimise the importance of that cultural dimension. Even a civic nationalism is not purely political for it does not require adherence to some specific set of political beliefs. So in countries like the US, France, Canada with a seemingly strongly civic-political form of nationalism, one can be a nationalist and a fascist or racist or a religious bigot. As one commentator has rightly said, “All nationalisms are cultural nationalisms of one kind or another. There is no purely political conception of the nation, liberal or otherwise.”17
The reason why changes in social consciousness should constitute one’s theoretical point of embarkation is simple enough. Given the diverse contents of nationalism, there is only one thing that is common to all nations/nationalisms. It is not religion, language or any other cultural ascription. Nor is every nationalism based on shared history or undivided common territory. New nationalisms or the desire to form new nation-states suddenly emerge, and if some were more predictable given longstanding tensions, there are others whose past realities of equable coexistence internally precluded such prediction. The fact that new nations then ‘look to history’ to present some characteristic as unique and therefore defining themselves as a distinct ‘people’, is itself reflective of a modernist outlook and sensibility. This postulating of a cultural unity all too often involves getting that history in some way wrong. The initial point of analytical departure then is national identity and consciousness.
Nationalism being a modern construct replaces the ‘subject’ by the ‘citizen’. What constitutes the nation above all is that a ‘people’ come to believe that they are a distinct people and the factors giving rise to this collective self-belief are immensely varied. There is no common check-list of attributes or any irreplaceable or unshakeable ascription bar the belief itself. A nation emerges when a significant number of people see themselves as constituting one, and seeks political control over a territorial space. Since one is using the word ‘significant’ there is on occasions an inescapable vagueness in recognising the emergence of a nation. This number may or may not be, quantitatively speaking, a majority. Its aspiration for nationhood may or may not politically succeed. A former nation-state may break up (Czechoslovakia) or merge itself in another (East Germany with West Germany to form the German Democratic Republic).
The nation is a state of mind but one with a political thrust. Since it is a state of mind, the nation can die out, it can be newly born, and is historically contingent. But how long it will endure one cannot say. The anti-modernist critique of the modernists is that the latter must assume that the nation would fade away quickly and since this has not happened, the modernist case for the nation is seriously flawed. But this is not so. To insist on the nation being modern and historically contingent does not necessarily mean that an early timetable must be put forward for its lifetime though it is true that many a Liberal thought nationalism would give way to universalism while early Marxists of the 19th and first half of the 20th century, being highly optimistic about the imminence of socialism worldwide, did think that nationalism would soon be succeeded by an ever expanding internationalism.
This recognition of the fundamentally subjective character of the nation and nationalism is why Benedict Anderson called the nation not just one imagined community among many others, each distinguished by the particular “style in which they are imagined”, but that the nation was an “imagined political community”.18 Quite the most accurate single line definition of the nation however, would be to see it as a cultural entity lodged above all in consciousness striving to become a political fact.19 As mentioned earlier, this could be a striving for political autonomy or for separate nationhood, usually the latter.
Even among the modernists who have made identity and consciousness the starting point for their theories of the nation and nationalism, the divide between Weber and Marx remains. And it results in different understandings of how nationalist sentiment and feeling arose and spread, of its relationship to capitalism and modernity, and in the identification and assessment of nationalism’s virtues and vices. The two thinkers inspired more by Weber than Marx are Charles Taylor and Liah Greenfeld.20 The two more inspired by Marx are Benedict Anderson and Neil Davidson.21
Of central importance to both Greenfeld and Taylor is the way changes that pave the way for the rise of modernity disrupt the human psyche and one’s prior sense of identity. The national identity is a kind of salve that provides psychological wellbeing and a new sense of self-worth for the ordinary individual because there is greater public recognition of this identity that increasingly displaces the older stratified and fixed hierarchy of the complementary set of orders where the priests pray for the Lord God, the nobility fights for the Lord, and the peasantry works for the Lord. There is in place of the older notion of ‘honour’ and of ‘behaving honourably’ within your particular station in life, the growing acceptance of the principle of equal dignity of all. For as Greenfeld insists, central to the notion of nationalism is both the principle of fundamental equality of members and of popular sovereignty. The latter becomes the key legitimising principle of the authority enjoyed by whoever now rules. The source of this new thinking must then be related to the rise of the Enlightenment and its expanding impact. How did this new sense of dignity arise?
For Taylor a stronger sense of religious individualism first emerged especially with the advent of the Protestant Reformation which had to, and did, affect Catholicism as well. This was later followed by a more secularised (de-sacralised) individualism that would give greater priority to the pursuit of human flourishing in this life. A new sense of time emerges. Time is linear because a new notion of progressive change emerges. It is secular because God’s ‘higher’ time is no longer so prioritised. It is homogenous because events now are seen to happen simultaneously across the now much wider imagined community of ‘people like us’. 22 So Taylor sees the rise of cultural nationalism first among modernising elites as a result of their desire for dignity in and through a broader identity because modernisation disrupts the narrower social categories of lineage and clan that elites earlier connected to for their sense of self-worth. This generalisation by elites of a new nationalist sentiment to create what (borrowing from Anderson) Taylor calls a “social imaginary” comes about in different contexts. It can come about by a) charismatic leadership (Taylor’s example here is Gandhi in the Indian national movement); b) modern processes of communication to generalise elite concerns, hope, beliefs, etc.; c) divisive action by minority groups motivated by physical fear against a hostile other.23 The new social imaginary is no longer a hierarchical society where one’s relationship to that social order was ‘mediated’ by some inter-personal web of relationships, i.e., the group or class to which one belonged. It has become a horizontal one with a direct relationship to the ‘nation’ as an individual and equal citizen alongside other individual members. This individual connection also means an investment of oneself in the national identity, giving it a stronger hold in one’s psyche. Taylor then, dates the emergence of the nation and nationalism somewhat later than Greenfeld, for whom it is the emergence of the national identity that leads to modernity!
Like Taylor, Greenfeld says one must first historically reveal how the elite comes to have a sense of dignity and to see itself as a “nation”, and then how this sentiment gets extended to include a “people”. But she is distinctive among all modernists theorising about nationalism in claiming that it is nationalism that is the real spirit of capitalism, the key factor in reorienting the economy towards the pursuit of growth. Nationalism “provided a new set of ethical considerations and social concerns that invest economic growth with a positive value….”24 Moreover, if for Gellner, the true subject matter of modern philosophy had to be the “steam engine” (i.e., industrialisation), for Greenfeld, the true subject matter of modernity should be nationalism. Identity provides a “social map of reality”. It situates the bearer and gives direction for action. It shapes expectations for the individual and of others towards him or her and thus provides order in a chaotic human world. “Both nationalism and religion are order-creating cultural systems.”25 Among the multiple identities of the self, the one that is widest in scope can encompass the others and organise them within a more overarching and comprehensive framework. It is therefore the most fundamental and self-stabilising of all the identities. This most important identity used to be religion but is now the national identity that bestows dignity to each member of the nation.
However, it is in her later 2006 study that she develops more fully her understanding of culture and identity and of the process by which nationalism surfaces. Here, she argues that what distinguishes humans from animals is culture, which lies between the environment and neurophysiology. It is the process by which external stimuli are symbolised in the brain to create agency (will) and identity. What we can call the ‘imaginative capacity of the brain’ is really the cultural capacity to symbolise and it is this that creates the mind. “Culture creates the mind.”26 Unlike animals, which are biologically programmed to behave in set ways in their species collectives, humans must search for cooperative models of group behaviour. Order and status, she says, is basic to human nature and culture-identity is the key stabiliser and ordering principle of a society whose primary role is to ward off anomie, which comes from inconsistency in a human collective between different values, norms, perceptions of reality. An ordered society rests on cultural consensus and it is one’s fundamental identity that provides that vital “social map”.
Cultural change comes about when new sources of anomie emerge in different contexts and times. Anomie is caused by status disturbance among elites when social conventions that legitimise and prevent challenge to the existing order break down. The English and French revolutions reflected this decisive breakdown leading to the emergence of nationalism, which in due course as it unfolded worldwide took three forms. There is an individualistic nationalism – an association of free and equal members. There is a collective nationalism expressing a unitary will of some sort, which can take either a civic or an ethnic form. What distinguishes each from the other are the different interpretations of the two core political principles, namely popular sovereignty and equality of membership. Authoritarian rule can claim to express the popular will, and equality of membership rights does not necessarily mean democratic rule.
But Greenfeld has also become more critical of, and disillusioned with, the supposedly healing qualities of the national identity. Her growing uneasiness with modernity now leads her to move away from seeing nationalism as the resolution of anomie to now seeing that “nationalism inhibits the formation and normal functioning of the human mind.”27 It can no longer provide a “clear social map”. It is not a strong source of identity stability because it does not grow “naturally” from one’s environment such as those identities that would be connected to cultural “givens” like one’s birth, home, language, religion, and so on. “There are far more people who are made deeply unhappy by the openness and pluralism of modernity than those who are made happy.”28
What are we to make of all this? Because Greenfeld reverses the proper relationship between modernity and nationalism (and national identity), she has to place principal responsibility for the former’s failings at the door of the latter. But the disorientations caused by the enormous flux of modernity, as compared to the much more static character of society and therefore of self in pre-modernity, are due above all to its capitalist character, for it is capitalism that unleashes a dynamic of change that is permanent, rapid and exceptional in its power! What we find then is a new and deeper form of disorientation – a capitalist alienation. Given their frameworks of thinking, Greenfeld and Taylor respectively will place primary blame on nationalism in the first case, on modernity in the second. The result is a kind of shared nostalgia paradigm, a longing for the certainties of the past that presumably better secured the psychic and mental health of humans. For Taylor, religious belief is the necessary palliative today even as the multicultural nature of the world probably means that a system of nation-states will endure and the best we can perhaps hope for is a humanised and ecologically sensitive modernity. For Greenfeld the dilemma is deeper for it is unclear what other identity can replace the national as the stabilising “central mental process” or “central ‘organ’ of the mind”.29 Neither sees transcending capitalism as the way forward.
Both these thinkers fuse culture with society and see the former as the more important term. Society is seen not so much as a nexus of economic, political and cultural-ideological relationships as above all a “meaning system”, which can be best deciphered by grasping its principal cultural code. This kind of approach to understanding the sources of social order makes cultural consensus the key organiser and stabiliser. This is, in my view, an unbalanced culturalism. The search for the sources of order or stability in a society must be conducted at the level of the social itself, or in the socio-cultural system as a whole, and not purely or primarily at the level of the cultural system. Social order is not a simple or straightforward function of meaning. It has as much, if not more, to do with issues of power, and therefore with matters of social tension, dominance and conflict, as it has to do with issues of cultural and moral norms, values and beliefs.
There are four sources that combine in variant ways to maintain social order – culture/custom, exchange or rational choice, coercion, and finally, the lack of unified dissensus where the case for seeing widespread and pervasive dissensus is as strong as the claims made for perceiving a cultural consensus. It can be argued that in modern societies there are many more options of all kinds and that which keeps a society in some sense together is not consensus but the lack of a unified dissensus, i.e., the absence of a counter-consensus challenging the social order. For normal functioning, active agreement is not necessary. Passive acceptance of the existing order of things is enough. The weakness of negative factors is more relevant to the explanation of social normality and order than the strength of positive ones.30
The original spur to Benedict Anderson’s 1983 study, Imagined Communities (subsequently extended in a 1991 edition) was the outbreak of fratricidal wars between ‘socialist countries’, above all in Indochina. The practice by these states of ‘socialism in one country’ was bad enough and self-serving in the political-diplomatic arena of geo-politics, but waging actual wars against each other was something else! This led Anderson to see nationalism as a sentiment and sense of loyalty somewhat akin to an extended kinship but more like a religion that is generally more inclusive than any extended kinship even. Marxists, he felt, had not grasped the importance of the “sacred” and its connection to the problem of finitude and mortality. Nationalism had in some sense become a replacement for religious loyalties. There was a decline of the great unifying belief systems of Christendom and Islam while the elite self-absorption of the ‘Middle Kingdom’ was being shaken by the widened horizons resulting from the explorations of the non-European and Arab worlds. The ‘sacred’ languages of Latin and Quranic Arabic, which were supposed to give access to ‘religious truth’, were being demoted in importance, while Chinese encounters with more powerful outsiders were eroding the self-confidence of the Chinese imperial bureaucracy whose internal coherence was based on the ‘Mandarinate system’. In addition, other cultural destabilisers were the emergence of a) new concepts of social equality and growing questioning of the view that social hierarchy and complementarity of functions was natural and God given; b) a separation of cosmological and human historical time with concern over the latter becoming increasingly important since there was available a new awareness of possible cumulative progress in this life. That is to say, there were new ways in which fraternity, power and time could be linked. For Anderson then, the nation is the modern secular version of the ‘sacred’ community.
As a modernist and Marxist, Anderson sought to connect the rise of nationalism to capitalism. Here, he highlighted the importance of print-capitalism and standardised print-languages of the non-sacred vernaculars in explaining the spread of the idea of nationalism from elites to masses. The “horizontal comradeship” of the nation is created by all kinds of artefacts in the form of symbols, poems, plays, stories, pictures, buildings of the new “collective”. State activities also contributed to the forging of this national consciousness through censuses, maps, museums, and through its administrative routines.
Though Anderson is emphatic that the nation is very much a political community, his is primarily an exploration into the culturally imagined character of the nation. Valuable as this is, it leaves a great deal out. The “emotional unification” of the imagined nation is not just a product of cultural activities but there also has to be a constructed separation from other nations where the political and the extra-national must come in. Cultural-emotional unity alone does not a nation make. That group has to be politicised; there has to be a striving for some specifically political end. It is a grouping operating in those “political fields” concerned with the “conditions and transformations that created modern nation-states.”31 One such field is that of external conflict and war and therefore nationalism is connected to the study of the economic and social history of the nation-state in a wider context of transnational processes of inter-nationalism.32
Like Anderson, Neil Davidson also sees the nation as subjectively defined but nationalisms for him are differentiated more by their differing relationships to “external social reality” than by different “styles of imagining”. There is a difference of emphasis between these two Marxist thinkers. Davidson insists that sharing a cultural attribute of some sort does not alone make for a distinctive sense of the collective-self. For that there has to be a contrast with some other group, community or nation. This is a sensible enough caution but more debatable is his insistence that national consciousness must be separated from having a national identity. The former is an “internal psychological state”, while the latter is necessarily an external relation or contrastive state that has to have some signs or markers showing to oneself and others that one holds to a particular identity. This is unconvincing. One can with as much plausibility argue that a ‘national’ consciousness is also a contrastive state. But by making this separation Davidson wants to claim that while a national consciousness may have emerged earlier, it is capitalism that “crystallizes” a national consciousness from prior disparate elements. This then allows him to argue that national identity and therefore nations and nationalism come about as the capitalist mode of production becomes stronger and then dominant. So a national consciousness emerges unevenly across Europe (1450-1688) among certain elite groups; it spreads to other parts of Europe and to North America (1688-1789); and then there is diffusion to the masses (1789-1848). On the one hand Davidson wants to tie the rise of the early nations in Europe (England and France) as strongly as he can to the rise of capitalism as the main mode of production. On the other hand, he insists that the emergence of capitalism must be tied to the bourgeois revolutions in England and France.
The dating of the origins of capitalism thus becomes important for Marxists because they seek to connect the first nationalism in England to this origin. Greenfeld, though a modernist, says national identity/nationalism first arises in the very period of the 15th and 16th century that for Davidson designates the time when national consciousness emerges. Robert Brenner, and the school of ‘Political Marxists’ he inspired, provides a way of reconciling the partial claims of both Davidson and Greenfeld. Political Marxists can agree with those who trace the rise of a sense of nationhood in England to the early 16th century and yet insist that this was tied to the rise of capitalism precisely because capitalist social relations first arose in the first half of the 16th century. Political Marxists reject the argument that the bourgeois revolution of the 17th century in England was the necessary precondition for the capitalist mode of production to make the crucial breakthrough to becoming the dominant mode.33
Where Davidson and other Marxists are on strong grounds is in arguing that the rise of capitalism created a much more complex society in which the rising class, the bourgeoisie, needed a new social glue, namely nationalism, to sustain its rule over the lower orders. Industrialisation and urbanisation create new and highly disruptive life experiences resulting in new psychological needs where nationalism provides a form of psychic compensation in the face of growing uncertainties and newer and more generalised forms of alienation. The particular merit of Davidson’s intervention into the debate is that he highlights the functional importance of nationalism for class domination! Nationalism provides psychic compensation for alienation not assuageable by consumption. It mobilises working classes for ‘our’ ruling classes against ‘other’ ruling classes. He does well to remind us that while there are limits to how radically progressive nationalism can be, there are no limits to how reactionary it can be.34
(To be continued)
Courtesy Society for Marxist Studies, New Delhi