Why has Nationalism become such a powerful force in the modern world?
The question of the continued power of nationalism in the modern world has long been the subject of debate amongst sociologists. One could define nationalism as a set of beliefs which asserts that a particular community of people constitutes an actual or potential nation, or desire for an advancement of that nation and projection of its virtues and powers. In a world of interdependence, trade agreements and the increasingly inter-reliant nature of the European Union, many have questioned why nationalism is still so relevant, especially when considering how little attention the so-called founders of sociology paid to it.
Although Treitschke and Weber both locate the state in the arena of the constant struggles between nations, Durkheim believed that ‘patriotism’ would be replaced by ‘world patriotism’ and Marx could not fathom the idea of ‘the people’ aligning themselves with the ‘elites’ above the ‘masses’ of other nations, and promoted ‘universal emancipation.’ There have been various theories regarding nationalism in the present day, although it seems necessary within the confines of this essay to concentrate on three of the most prominent and interesting analyses. The first of these is the ‘modernist’ theory outlines by Ernest Gellner, who argues that nationalism was uniquely a theory of the modern world and was crucially interlinked with industrialism and culture. The second is the social constructionist theory of Benedict Anderson in ‘Nationalism and Imagined Communities.’
This idea again places nationalism firmly in the modern era, but points to social changes such as print capitalism and the increase in literacy to explain the rise and maintenance of nationalism. Finally, I will concentrate on Smith’s ‘ethno-symbolist’ theory which places nationalism in the more historical setting of ethnic communities. He concentrates on the psychological effects that continued, created and transforming symbols and rituals of nations and nation states have had on communities and how they allow for the continued importance of nationalism in their minds.
In ‘Nations and Nationalism’ Gellner attempts to answer the question of why nationalism is so pervasive in the modern world. He believed that the economies of industrialized states depend upon a homogenizing high culture, mass literacy and an educational system controlled by the state. In a sense, a Marxist ideology can be found in such theories, exemplified by Nairn, who believes that nationalism is the product of the uneven development of regions within a world capitalist economy. ’As capitalism spread and smashed the ancient social formations surrounding it, they always tended to fall apart along the fault-lines contained inside them. It is a matter of elementary truth that these lines were nearly always ones of nationality.’# Gellner places much importance on politics in relation to nationalism, asserting that ‘nationalism is primarily a political principle, which holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent.’# In terms of citizenship, Gellner believes that citizenship rights were launched by the French Revolution, and that the unpleasant and degrading conditions of the proletariat brought about by the Industrial Revolution provided both opportunity and a motive for a growth of political consciousness, exemplified by the formation of organizations such as trade unions. Gellner emphasis education as an extremely important feature of modern nationalism. It was industrialism, he argues in ‘Nations and Nationalism’, and the importance of an advanced division of labour which prompted a different education system which provided people with the basic tools for employment; language and literacy. In his view, this produced a ‘standard culture’ which needed a centralized state to sustain it. Marx and the liberals both predicted decline of national feelings over time, however, Gellner considered it to be a necessary consequence of the very focuses described by them; being the ‘increase in trade flows across frontiers’# from the liberals, and the identification of the proletariat with other exploited masses rather than the ruling classes, for Marxists. Thus, the modernist theory claims that one can explain nationalism with relative ease as a consequence of high divisions of labour and a common culture through globalisation and constant cultural connections. However, if Gellner had been correct, we would surely be witnessing a tendency towards a single uniform world nationalism in the present day, when it would seem that, in many cases the opposite seems true. It is thus necessary to investigate the problems with this modernist train of thought.
Although Gellner succeeds in analysing nationalism within the broad scope of the rise of modern society, there are some important weaknesses to the argument. Firstly, his functionalist argument, in which he equates society to an organism, and thus concluding that, like bodies, societies have certain needs, is undermined by the fact that, unlike bodies, which die if starved of oxygen, for example, societies do not die, they change and adapt. Furthermore, and perhaps more significantly, Gellner conceptualises nationalism and, in a sense generalizes it in a way which belies its complexity and many different forms. In Gellner’s view ’it is nationalism which engenders nations.’# According to this theory the state will favour nationalism as a means to increase links among citizens.
Thus a nation is only created once the state has made not only a political connection, but also economic, territorial, religious, linguistic and cultural connections. However, this theory does not account for ‘peripheral nationalism’ and the fact that when a state attempts to impose its culture, the existence of minorities is threatened which, in turn, can inflame the nationalisms of these minority nations. For example, in Europe, some nations were assimilated into large nation states whilst others developed strong nationalisms that, in some cases led to the formation of new states, such as in the case of the Treaty of Versailles of 1919. In terms of Gellner’s comments on the importance of education and literacy, Guibernau has argued that in the early stages of industrialism, which correspond to the first expressions of modern nationalism found in the late eighteenth century, literacy was only important amongst managers and clerks. Thus Gellner’s description of the role of the state in education only reflects the situation in the mid twentieth century, though it claims to apply to the earlier establishment of the industrial societies of late nineteenth century Europe.
One could also find other ways to explain the increasing role of the state in, and the general rise in, education at the time of the industrial era, such as the need to train citizens or conscripts for the mass politics and mass armies of the modern age, humanitarianism or the need to occupy childrens’ time when they were excluded from the labour force. Gellner’s assumptions about industrialism can also be criticized. Nationalism exists, and has existed in many non-industrial states, and, furthermore, most nationalisms claim to be historically rooted in traditions formed long before the industrial era. Finally, one must address the reasons behind why so many different nationalisms have emerged in the modern world, contrary to what Gellner may have predicted. It would seem that people are less willing to give up their national identities, even if their nation is oppressed, to adopt a more ‘successful’ one, than Gellner may have supposed, as was exemplified in the Kosovo conflict. Recent history has taught us that many are willing to sacrifice personal gain, such as inclusion in the labour market or even their lives, in order to sustain their dignity as members of a particular culture. Furthermore, Gellner fails to contemplate the role of culture in the creation of identity, which, in Guibernau’s view, is the main explanation for the ’loyalty’ of individuals to their nation.
The second explanation for nationalism in the modern world is laid out by Anderson, in ‘Imagined Communities.’ He believed that nations were social constructions or cultural artefacts which came into being when traditional ways of thinking crumbled. This can be exemplified by the demise of sacred languages such as Latin, which had led to the decline in the belief that societies were naturally ruled over by separate rulers. Anderson thus believed that there was a fundamental shift in the way people thought about time, resulting in them having no sense of history, with chains and events being linked by causes and effects. In his eyes, the crucial point in the development of nationalism thus came with the development of printing, or what he called print capitalism, and the expansion of modern languages. There were three ways in which Anderson believed print capitalism laid the basis for national consciousness. Firstly, by creating unified fields of exchange which, whilst being more diverse than Latin, were less diverse than the multiplicity of locally spoken dialects. Secondly, it gave a new fixity to language, and an image of antiquity which was central to the subjective nature of the nation.
Thirdly, he believed that print created languages which differed from the older administrative vernacular which was not accessible. Thus people became aware that they were connected to others virtually via the medium of print, whilst the language spoken and thought by the people was also the language used by the intellectuals, clergy and other elites. Anderson argued that although many were illiterate at this stage, the few could, as it were, read to the many, exemplified by the common nineteenth century image of one person reading to a group. This, he argues, also increased the idea of forming a community in which members were easily identifiable through their capacity to communicate amongst themselves. This also allowed for the idea of the ’foreigner’ as somebody who could not communicate with them and was thus isolated from their culture. In France, for example, translations were stopped in 1792 and literature only in the French language was published, even though in 1789, six million citizens relied on so called ’foreign languages’ such as Flemish, Celtic or Basque. The idea behind this was to create ’one people, one nation, one language.’ This virtual communication, of printed language, thus, in Anderson’s view, formed the basis of an imagined community of nations, because members of the nation will never know many of his fellow members but each believes he belongs to the other. This, in the understanding of Anderson, is why, despite many differences, the nation is thus perceived with deep comradeship and fraternity and explains why so many are willing to fight and die for their it.
Anderson’s account has, however, been criticized on two main points. Firstly, his alleged connection between the development of printing and the rise of nationalism is not spelt out or empirically argued in any from. For one to understand his argument, it would have been necessary to explain why, when reading and print became widespread in the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries, the rise of nationalism did not emerge until the late eighteenth to nineteenth centuries. To give so much significance to print capitalism, one would imagine there must be sufficient explanation of why it took so long for this embryo to develop. Secondly, the emotional appeal of a community which is imagined in an abstract way is questionable, and one must surely ask whether it would be influential enough to make people die for it. It would thus seem that Anderson’s approach, whilst interesting and perhaps holding some truth, needs to be supplemented with the emotional and effective dimension of nationalism and an account of factors other than shared language. It is also possible to argue that peripheral nations with high illiteracy and an inability to understand the common language of the state are more likely to keep alive their indigenous culture and language, and could, as a result form a stronger sense of national consciousness and identity through their difference to the majority of the state. This is exemplified by the Catalonians in Spain.
The final influential understanding of why nationalism is such a powerful force in the modern world is that of Smith, in ‘Nations and Nationalism in a Global Era.’ Smith believes that one must trace nations and nationalisms back to underlying ethnic and territorial contexts and set them in a wider historical intersection between cultural ties and political communities. He asserts that as these influenced, and were influenced by, the process of administration, centralization, economic transformations, mass communication and the disintegration of traditions which we associate with modernity, they are crucial to any understanding of nationalism. In a period when other forces, such as worldwide organizations and globalisation are attempting to put a halt to nationalism, it is crucial to use a longer term framework to understand the hold of national ideals. For this purpose, Smith analyses ethnies, or ethnic communities, in great detail. He argues that the ideals of popular participation and autonomy pioneered by middle class intellectuals in the late eighteenth century must be fused with a pre-existing sense of origin and identity. Smith does assert the differences between pre-modern and post-modern culture and thus rejects the perennialists’ point of view, by describing modern nations as ‘mass nations’ which are different from the ‘small elite groupings known as “nations” in antiquity and the middle ages.’ He also acknowledges the modern nation as a ‘legal political’ community as well as a ‘historical culture-community.’ Smith also describes modern nations as ‘legitimated through the universally applicable ideology of nationalism’ whilst they are all part of a wider international system related to each other by common ideas and practices. Thus, for Smith, the nation in the modern world is ’a named human population which shares myths and memories, a mass public culture, a designated homeland, economic unity and the equal rights and duties of all its members.’# However, crucially, Smith asserts that we find ethnies in pre-modern epochs, and that we need to locate the different routes by which pre-modern ethnies gave rise to the modern nation. An ethno history, argues Smith, is characteristic of most cultural communities, whilst scholarly dispassionate history is a ‘minority phenomenon.’ Such ethno-histories have concentrated on key figures and stories of origin which serve to glorify an ‘ethnie’s’ past, with certain events and heroes elevated into national icons by nationalists. Smith describes this as the first step to nationalism, which is followed by the politicisation of the culture and purification of the community. At this point, intellectuals can use the symbols of their ethno-histories and transform them by ‘retrospective nationalism.’ This politicisation is accompanied by purification in the form of the jettison of all ‘alien cultural traits.’ The hardening of attitudes to foreign elements and ethnic minorities and a desire to preserve a unique cultural heritage leads, in Smith’s eyes, to a ‘fanatical hatred of everything alien.’ Such purification can be seen in Eastern Europe and Russia today, where movements for national regeneration such as ‘Panyat’ in Russia and ‘Vatra Romaneasca’ in Romania use ethno religious metaphors to show their ideal of a purified community. Smith does acknowledge the relevance of the economy in nationalism, but only so far as to acknowledge that trends and crises often account for the timing of ethnic nationalisms, whilst the contribution of the long run economic trends to nations and nationalisms should, in his eyes, be viewed in the context of class formation and wider class roles. Of the uppermost importance, therefore, are the myths of common ancestry, historical memories and a shared culture and the ability of the ‘intelligentsia’, to use and manipulate them in a way that will inspire nationalistic instincts most successfully.
Smith’s theory seems very convincing as it not only explains the rise of nationalism, but also roots it in a historical past. He does also highlight the uneven nature of nationalisms and ethno-histories and the idea of ‘periphery’ nationalisms. Gellner has however claimed that his analysis conveniently excludes examples of nations or countries created from no individual cultural background or history, such as Estonia. It would seem, however, with all of the theories mentioned, that a thorough examination of the differences between types of nationalism must be investigated further in order to gain a true understanding for why it is so powerful in the modern world. Guibernau, in ‘Nationalisms: The Nation-State and Nationalism in the Twentieth Century’, distinguishes between ’legitimate’ and ’illegitimate’ states, with the former being a state which corresponds with a nation, and the latter being a state which includes in its territory different nations or parts of other nations. In ’legitimate’ states, therefore, nationalism is favoured by the state as a means to homogenize and increase the cohesion of the population. The idea of forming a nation, being a community whilst also sharing culture, territory, economy, language and perhaps religion, gives the state some kind of personality, argues Guibernau, of ’English-ness’ or ’German-ness.’ Thus this form of nationalism uses pre-existing elements of the culture of a nation and revives, invents, or transforms its traditions. Nationalism, thus only appears on the surface in specific situations in which the integrity of the nation state is in danger, perhaps exemplified by Americans placing flags outside their houses following September 11th. By contrast, the illegitimate state holds the predominance of one nation above the others and attempts to instil a common culture, thus creating a nation state. If these attempts are successful, an annihilation of many pre-existing small cultures takes place followed by an integration into the main culture. However, there is a danger of ‘estrangement’ where the dominant nation can be seen as a ‘usurper’ and this thus provokes a strong sense of community within members of a minority nation in opposition to the state’s attempted homogenisation, and thus nationalism appears in the form of ‘counter-strategies’ of cultural resistance or armed struggle. These two extremely different forms of nationalism indicate that it is possible for each of the three described theories to have some relevance, but in different situations, with Gellner and Anderson’s models adhering to ‘legitimate’ states, and Smith’s theory to that of the struggles of smaller nations in ‘illegitimate’ states.
In a world of globalisation, where nation states are in webs of economic and political relations, it would seem that nations and nationalism should be crumbling, however, to the contrary, there has been a resurgence of ethnic nationalism exemplified by conflicts in Europe, Asia and Africa. Gellner has argued that nationalism is a product of the modern nation and that industrialization will serve to constantly enhance nationalism, whilst suggesting that increased communications between nations will create a form of global nationalism which we are yet to see. The extremely significant advances in technology and the mass media in recent years has certainly gone hand in hand with a resurgence in nationalism, perhaps hinting that Anderson’s concentration on the role of the printed word in creating imagined communities and placing elites on the same level as the ‘people’ was, to an extent, accurate. It also seems clear that many twenty first century nationalisms remain rooted in ethnic and territorial conflicts which have a long history, thus lending support to the ethno-symbolist approach.
One must also ask if globalisation itself precipitates nationalism, as it may leave people to feel helpless and confused with little or no control over their own fate, and thus attempting to identify more closely with shared ethnic or national communities. Such arguments have been used to explain the increasing support given to nationalist European politics, such as Le Pen’s surprising success in France, and the worrying increase in support for the BNP in Britain. However, there is no evidence to prove a causal link between globalisation and the continuation of ethnic conflict and nationalism. However, the fracturing of former nation states, such as Yugoslavia, does seem to have created fertile ground for ethnic nationalisms in a, perhaps, unsurprising way. The very fact that nationalism does occur when one least expects it, and that it can take such a wide variety of forms, means that each of the theories analysed is able to produce examples to support it. However, it would seem that in questioning how such a complex phenomenon is so powerful in the modern world, it is necessary to produce an equally complex and broad ranging answer, which can include different theories in different situations and for different forms of nationalism.