Idea of a Nation

“What I propose to do today” so begins Ernest Renan in his 1882 lecture at Sorbonne, “is to analyze with you an idea which, though seemingly clear, lends itself to the most dangerous misunderstandings.” This idea of nation or nationalism to which Renan emphatically reminded his audience of ‘dangerous misunderstandings’, continues to be a hard topic for assessment and explanation. People have this general tendency to take the nation-state as something evolutionary political formation, and regard empires ‘as anomalies’. However, when we look at the general history it becomes quite clear that people have largely lived in empires, “with the nation-state the exception rather than the rule”. So what really triggered this certain shift from large empires (Hapsburg, Romanov, Ottoman etc.) to new entities now called as nation-states (France, Germany etc.)? And what factors influenced the course of their formation?
The debate on the idea of nation or nationalism has meandered through different intellectual spheres, from Giambatista Vico’s subjectivisation of the nations (Vico saw nation as a part of human history as opposed to the divine history) to the German Romantic notions as expressed by Herder ( his concept of Volk culture was the earliest accentuation of ethnic national identity ) or Meinecke ( who borrowed from Herder and gave a new concept of Kulturnation – “an extended family with one national characteristic”); From Fichte’s concept of a “natural law of divine development” or Hegel, Burke and Maistre’s emphasis on religiously and communally based norms – what Hegel called Sittlichkeit – as an essential element of national identity to the modernist concept of the “imagined communities”, the idea persists with its profound complexities and continues to be a subject of immense intellectual debate.
To answer our question we have to look at the factors that were responsible for the emergence of the phenomenon of nationalism, which according to sociologist Ernest Gellner “invents nations where they do not exist” (1964:168). Arguing under the modernist framework Gellner emphasizes on the ‘invented-ness’ of a nation which was possible by the imposition of a ‘common high culture’ on a number of different local folk cultures. This ‘invented-ness’ of the nation is thoroughly dealt with by Benedict Anderson in his seminal work Imagined Communities. For Anderson the rise of the ‘print-capitalism’, at the dawn of the 17th century, made possible for ‘rapidly growing number of people to think about themselves, and relate to others, in profoundly new ways’. The great communities of the past (Christendom, Islamic Ummah or Middle Kingdom), according to Anderson, imagined themselves ‘largely through the medium of sacred language and written script’. These communities ‘conceived of themselves as cosmically, through the medium of sacred language, linked to a super terrestrial order of power’. However, with the advent of the modern ‘print capitalism’ there occurred a rapid vernacularization of languages which, consequently, were elevated to ‘the status of languages-of-power’ and became a sort of competitors with Latin, and thus became a deciding factor for the decline of this sacred language – Latin – and ultimately ‘fragmented, pluralized, and territorialized’ the sacred communities. Moreover, their ‘unselfconscious coherence’ diminished gradually with the exploration of the non-European world. This discovery ‘abruptly widened the cultural and geographical horizon and hence also men’s conception of possible forms of human life.’ For Gellner, nationalism was instigated by industrialization – a determining feature of modernity. The transition from the pre-modern (agro-literate) to the modern period (the industrial era) was an outcome of rapid economic progress. Industrial society, in order to sustain itself, depends on perpetual growth and this can be achieved by perennial shift in the occupational structure. The changing nature of work demanded cultural homogeneity and in order to achieve that state emphasized on the development of education which defined the status of the individual. Therefore a major populace of the society was politicized, which ultimately gave rise to the phenomenon of nationalism – which was largely an interest of elite or people of ‘high culture’. In the period of industrialization a ‘high culture pervades the whole society, defines it, and needs to be sustained by the polity’. Hence history acts as a pivot around which the nationalist discourse is weaved; it is interpreted and remembered in a particular way so that “there is a uniform and unitary memory amongst the people of the nation”. This ‘unitary memory’ is indispensable for the formation of a ‘unitary consciousness’. Thus, time has a great significance which makes an important tool for nationalists for the promotion of nationalism. The memory of the past and aspirations for the future are entwined with a homogeneous ‘high culture’ which creates a concrete social bond within a population. As Tom Nairn writes:
“All cultures have been obsessed by the dead and placed them in another world. Nationalism re-houses them in this world. Through its agency the past ceases being ‘immemorial’: it gets memorialized into time present, and so acquires a future. For the first time it is meaningfully projected on to the screen of futurity”.
Thus, the dead are memorialized through monuments, cenotaphs and ‘tombs of Unknown soldiers’. National identity is cultivated through collective memory that helps in defining the national character and provides a main link to cultural pasts. For French, 1789 is the defining moment of their history, and thus it is a unitary ‘collective memory’; the memory of this selective past (French Revolution) makes it instant; therefore an identity is created which leads to the imagining of the nation. So we can say only after politics became an aspect of the larger society that nationalism was introduced, and this occurred with modernity. With the growth of capital industry there emerged a new middle class that became a predominant actor in the socio-political arena and consequently changed its nature.
Eventually, with politics becoming ‘non-elite, then a majority, concern’, these majorities could aspire for the common goals. This subjective transition in group imagination from considering themselves as community to a politically-aware and self-conscious society brought a structural change – the movement from ‘Gameinschaft’ (community) to ‘Gesellschaft’ (society). Gellner is of the view that it is in this ‘Gesellschaft’ (modernity) that nation-state and activities of nationalism were possible.
Primodalists on the other hand saw nation not simply a construct of modernity but as an entity that has formed through natural evolution from ethnic communities of the pre-modern period. The major advocates of this theory are Clifford Geertz, Walker Connor and John Hutchinson. According to these theorists culture is a ‘continuum transmitting ethnic groupings in history into the nations of modernity, and will continue in some form into the future’. Anthony D. Smith in his book The Ethnic Origins of Nations argues that the ‘unitary concept’ of a ‘natural nation’ is their ethnic make up. He identifies ‘three revolutions’ through which nationalism emerged. These are the transition from feudalism to capitalism; the ‘revolution in the control of administration’; and the cultural and educational revolution. The characteristics of nations and their nationalisms, however, exist in elements prior to these revolutions that are located in a group’s ethnie – embedded in the culture. Preserving the ethnie thus becomes an utmost importance if the goal of nation-state is approached via ethnicity. Germany during 1930’s and the Balkans in the last decade exhibited this extreme tendency by homogenizing culture with ethnicity, culminating into Holocaust in Germany or ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Johann Gottlieb Fichte in his Addresses to the German Nation (1806) had accentuated this notion of the German nation-state quite emphatically:
“Thus was the German nation placed-sufficiently united within itself by a common language and a common way of thinking, and sharply enough severed from the other peoples-in the middle of Europe, as a wall to divide races not akin ….”


Published in Greater Kashmir (March 25, 2009) 


Author: pasdarekashmir

A PhD candidate of Politics and International Relations in School of Law and Government, Dublin City University. Research interests: national movements, nationalism, media, framing, and discourses. Regular column: Yours Satirically (Kindle Magazine)

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