Is this what makes us go 'here we go'?

June 25, 2004

Natural feeling versus political programme, modern versus ancient, the historians can't reach agreement on what causes nationalism. Karen Gold reports.

"More than 1,000 years before the arrival of Slavs, in the 6th century AD, the lands east of the Adriatic were the home of peoples known to the ancient world as Illyrians, the precursors of the present Albanians." So runs the history of Kosovo on the web pages of the Albanian Liberation Peace Movement. The Serbian Ministry of Information's website tells a different story: "The Serbs have been living in the territory of Kosova and Metohija since the 6th century. That territory was the centre of Serbian statehood, an inalienable national treasury, indispensable for the identity of the Serbian people."

Nationalist feeling comes as naturally to us as breathing, according to Gottfried von Herder, the German philosopher. At the end of the 18th century, full of Romantic sentiment and liberal politics, he coined the terms Nationalismus and Volk and put forward the argument that nationalism was an organic entity in nations, embodied in language and culture, and existing, consciously or unconsciously, whether anyone wanted it to or not. We have Herder to thank for the Brothers Grimm, whom he inspired to collect fairy tales and folklore, the cultural expression of the Volk .

It was really only in the 20th century that historians began to suggest that a belief in nationalism as a natural state was useful to political leaders and/or elites who wanted to persuade people to act in a unified way. Historians have focused on key periods and episodes to argue this case, pointing, in particular, to the French Revolution, whose leaders purveyed notions of La Patrie and a standardised French in the hope of uniting a scattering of peasants speaking different dialects across the newly liberated land. They have traced the way the 19th-century Napoleonic and British empires aroused resentment while, in Europe at least, failing to fill the faith gap vacated by religion and divinely appointed rulers.

Resistance leaders in an unbroken line from Italy's Guiseppe Mazzini, through Ireland's Daniel O'Connell, to India's Mahatma Gandhi, this argument goes, all saw nationalism as a way of uniting and inspiring the disaffected masses to reject their oppressors in the name of creating, or recreating, a nation.

Some historians, such as Elie Kedourie of the London School of Economics (the LSE has been rich soil for nationalism theories), have argued that the main reason why nationalism spread in these circumstances was because it was an ideology that appeared in the right place at the right time.

Alienated peoples were shown it, and they bought it. Marxist and proto-Marxist thinkers, in particular Eric Hobsbawm and Ernest Gellner, pre-eminent nationalism theorists for the past 20 years, were more sceptical. (Marx himself virtually ignored nationalism as a horizontal distraction from vertical class conflict.) The anthropologist Gellner argued that nationalism arose out of pressures created by the Industrial Revolution, when people from different backgrounds, speaking different dialects, converged on the city and had to be welded into a literate and retainable workforce. So the state created a common language, a common past and a common culture for them.

This view of nationalism as originating from above was criticised by Hobsbawm as inadequate, even though true. The artefact of nationalism cannot be understood without understanding the assumptions, hopes, longings and interests of ordinary people under capitalism, he argued. The myths and histories that nations created, about themselves and each other, spread only because the working class needed to believe in them.

Why did they need to? Answers to that question take us into an entirely different realm of explanations. Sociobiologists have argued for a genetic predisposition to nationalism: members of a group who believe they have a claim to their own territory are likely to defend it more successfully than those who doubt it, or even hold high-minded principles about sharing it with others. Cultural primordialists, such as the US anthropologist Clifford Geertz, hold a similar position, arguing that territory and kinship are inescapable cultural givens. Psychologists have also put forward related theories, positing a universal tendency for people to consider other groups less important than their own and to form stereotypes about them. Horror stories that circulate about other nations - from competing cruelties in Kosovo, to unsubstantiated rumours of mass rapes and killings attributed by both sides in the First World War, to the ancient blood libel believed of the Jews - seem to substantiate this argument.

But historians have criticised it as problematic. Anthony D. Smith, professor of nationalism and ethnicity at the LSE, says: "The trouble is that psychologists tend to equate nations with groups. But there are many groups in the world, and they are not all necessarily nations... And there are some nations where everyone doesn't even speak the same language, like Switzerland. Ideas about groups really don't get to the specificity of nationalism."

Much of the debate about nationalism's longevity, and therefore what causes it, depends on definitions. Should it be defined as a specific political programme or a more cultural movement? Smith believes that nationalism's roots are in culture. That makes him a "perennialist" - someone who believes that nationalism precedes the 18th century, though in less sophisticated forms. He suggests that foreshadowing the modern nation are "ethno-symbols", constructed on language and a vernacular literature, but also on less obvious elements: memory, value, myth, symbolism and landscape. The idea of nationalism may be modern, but its roots are in a distant shared past, he argues.

Another perennialist, Adrian Hastings, the late Leeds University theologian, pointed to 14th and 17th-century England as periods when national identity was particularly strong; others argue that the Jews and Armenians sustained powerful national identities over millennia. Mazzini, formulating 19th-century Italian nationalism against Napoleonic France, passionately defended the cultural roots of his movement: "They (Italians) speak the same language, they bear about them the impress of consanguinity, they kneel beside the same tombs, they glory in the same tradition, they demand... to contribute their stone to the great pyramid of history."

Ironically, there was virtually no public or academic interest in the roots of nationalism before and after its florid expression in two world wars.

Instead, peak times for academic exploration of nationalism's causes have been the 1960s, prompted by African and Asian independence, and the late 1980s and early 1990s, after the break-up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. The argument here has been whether nationalism is the cause or the product of the break-up of old states and the creation of new ones.

Rogers Brubaker, the US sociologist, for example, has argued that the organisation of the Soviet Union into component parts was what taught people to think of themselves as Lithuanian or Ukrainian. In contrast, Michael Hechter, in Containing Nationalism , and Miroslav Hroch, the Czech political theorist, point to social and linguistic ties and to a memory of a common past as the trigger for claiming nationhood - though still prompted by historical circumstance rather than any organic drive.

Recently, sociologists, particularly on the left, have debated to what extent a new nationalism is appearing in Europe, expressed as anti-immigrant feeling, and how far it is driven by identity or by class interests. The fundamental issue is the same as that between Kedourie, Gellner and Hobsbawm: to what extent is this nationalism attributable to a shared ideology, to frustration among individuals who seek an identity having been disappointed by what the 20th-century state offers them, or to pressures from above to stand together and conform.

Whatever the case, this is nationalism within identified nations.

Nationalism among people who are not yet nations has another modern cause, historians argue, which is that today's world structures will hear people only through the representation of a nation-state. "Once almost the whole world is organised into nation-states then if you want to be recognised as a legitimate entity you have to be a nation-state," says David Bell (see below). "So it is almost inevitable that nationalism will follow."

It is almost inevitable but not entirely. The urge to create, or recreate, nations in the dismantled Soviet Union was not uniformly strong, he says.

The Russian Federation remains a federation. In central Asia, religious forces seem to be exerting a more powerful pull than nationalist ones.

So are we about to see a decline in nationalism across the world, to be replaced by globalisation or religion? The way people see the future of nationalism depends very much on the explanations they credit for its past.

Smith says: "If you think nationalism is a given in history, then you will think it is going to be around for a long time. If you think it is a completely modern phenomenon, then you might or might not think it is going to pass more or less quickly away."

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