Nationalism Research Paper

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Most theorists are agreed that in the specific form in which we know it today, nationalism is closely related to the modern state and modern politics. Its rise and spread is linked to the need in modern industrial societies for a standardized language, a homogeneous national culture, and an imagined horizontal community. The modern idea of popular sovereignty was expressed in the identity of the people with the nation-state. This in turn legitimized the rise of anticolonial movements as a necessary unfolding of modernity. But at the turn of the millennium, the relations of nationalism to the new global order, on the one hand, and to the particularisms of ethnicity, gender, and class, on the other, are facing new challenges.

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1. The Modernity Of Nationalism

There is a debate about nationalism’s age. Some argue that nations are old, built as they often are around histories of ethnic, linguistic, religious, or dynastic solidarity going back several hundred years before the modern era (Armstrong 1982, Smith 1986). European countries such as France, Portugal, Denmark, Sweden, or Russia and Asian countries such as China, Japan, or Korea are often portrayed as having old and continuous histories in which a well-defined national identity can be easily perceived. The Jewish people are said to have been a nation, distinguished by ethnicity and religion, since Biblical times. Other analysts hold that even when nations claim ancient lineages through such ethnic and cultural histories, the particular combination of elements that gives to a people the distinct form of a nation is always a product of the modern era (Gellner 1983, Hobsbawm 1990). Various dates have been suggested as the point of emergence of nationalism as a modern phenomenon. Some say it was the French Revolution, others the independence movements in Latin America, while still others think that it was the German Romantic movement which supplied the crucial ingredient. But it is generally agreed that by the early nineteenth century, most of the elements that would characterize nationalism were in place within the emergent discourses of politics and society in the Western world. Henceforth, nationalism would be a constituent aspect of modernity itself.

One of the doctrines that nationalism has turned into a feature of our ordinary common sense is that the world is divided into nations, so that every person, under normal circumstances, is born into a nationality. This common understanding is bolstered by such everyday visual representations as multicolored maps of the world, identity documents such as passports, and international gatherings such as the United Nations or the Olympic Games. These representations are built on another modern doctrine that has become a truism—except for Antarctica, the entire landmass on earth is divided up into national territories, each of which is under the unique sovereign jurisdiction of a state. The two doctrines together add up to a moral claim—that the proper form of modern politics is to be found where the political unit of the state coincides with the cultural form of the nation.

It is not difficult to see the strong connections between these doctrines of nationalism and some of the basic tenets of modern political theory. The definition of national sovereignty as the unique jurisdiction of a single state authority over a territory clearly demarcated on maps and recognized by other state authorities had emerged in Europe in the seventeenth century. What was added in the eighteenth century was the revolutionary idea that the true locus of this sovereignty is the people. Following the course of anti-absolutist thinking in the period of the French and the American revolutions, just as there emerged the idea of the citizen as the autonomous bearer of rights, so also was it asserted that the people, self-constituted and self-determining, are autonomous. This doctrine would supply the moral justification for the nineteenth-century democratic national movements in the territories of the Habsburg, the Ottoman and the Czarist empires. In the twentieth century, with the rise and success of anticolonial movements in Asia and Africa, this would become recognized as the right of self-determination of nations.

2. The Morality Of Nationalism

Although nationalism shares its genealogy with the modern state and its politics, it has not always found moral approval. The grounds of criticism, however, usually lie in ideological debates that are part and parcel of modern politics itself. A common criticism is based, for instance, on the distinction between those nationalisms that are more voluntarist in their membership, built around institutions that are more like civic associations, and those that are more organic where membership is ascribed by birth into a collective bound by historic ties of cultural community. The former is said to be the more desirable type, since it respects the right of the individual to choose his or her nationality; the latter is likely to place greater value on the community than on the individual and could thus easily lead to xenophobia and authoritarian politics. This is a distinction that is at the heart of liberal theories of nationalism and usually classifies nations like France, Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, and the USA as belonging to the first type and those of Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, the Middle East, and most of Asia to the second (Kohn 1944).

Civic nationalism is meant to think of the political community of the nation as a voluntary fraternity of citizens whose rights of equality and liberty find fruition in the nation-state. The organic idea of the nation, on the other hand, seeks a more natural basis of community, such as, very influentially, in the German Romantic notion of a folk united by the historic associations of a common language and shared myths. The former, the liberal would say, tends to be universalist and inclusive in its political vision, the latter particularist and exclusive (Greenfeld 1992, Tamir 1993).

In actuality, of course, even liberal states subscribing to the universalist values of civic association have gone through much conflict before extending their citizenship to those who were not regarded as part of the ‘original’ political community—Catholics in the UK, for instance, or Afro-Americans in the USA—and the debate still goes on in many Western countries over the status of the new immigrants whose race, language, or religion marks them out as different from the ‘normal’ member of the political community. Of modern political ideologies, Marxism in its early years strongly upheld the universalist idea of the political community and regarded nationalism as a limited and transient phenomenon which, if espoused by the working class, would impede the truly emancipatory path of proletarian revolution. The emerging democratic movements in the territories of the Austro-Hungarian empire, however, impelled the Austrian Marxist Otto Bauer to the view that social democrats should support the demand for independent nationstates. Later, in the context of the nationalities question in Russia and the discussions in the Communist International on the colonial question, Lenin argued for the right of self-determination of nations and Stalin proposed a set of objective criteria such as shared territory, language and history by which nationalities were to be identified (Nimni 1991).

3. The Sociology Of Nationalism

Quite apart from the doctrinal terms in which nationalists describe their project, sociologists have tried to provide an account of the sociohistorical conditions that produce nationalism. Ernest Gellner has identified these as the conditions of modern industrial society which requires free movement of labor and goods throughout the national economy, a general and universal schooling in a standard national language and a rhetoric of equal access to social mobility. The complexity, interdependence, and mobility of industrial life places an unprecedented emphasis on complex, precise, and context-free communication. This tends to destroy both the exclusiveness of premodern elite high cultures and the provincialism of local peasant cultures and to produce in their place an increasingly standardized and homogeneous national culture. The transition to some form of modern industrial society, Gellner argues, is unstoppable. Consequently, nationalism too is an ubiquitous feature of our contemporary world (Gellner 1983).

If nationalism is indeed the product of certain structural features of modern industrial society, why is it that its particular cultural content is so often the focus of such intense ideological passion and contestation? Benedict Anderson has sought to supply the link between the material and the ideological. The nation, he says, is an imagined political community. It is imagined, first, in the sense that although no single member personally knows all of the other members of the nation, yet in their minds they all live in community. It is imagined, second, as a sovereign community, in line with the modern political idea that the emblem of freedom is the sovereignty of the people. It is also imagined, third, as a limited and particular community, because humankind is divided into many nations. And finally, it is imagined as a community— one that creates a deep, horizontal comradeship. This imagining of the nation, however, becomes possible only through certain specifically modern technologies and institutions. The most crucial is the technology of printing which, in combination with the new production system of capitalism, gives rise to a publishing industry that produces, through newspapers, textbooks, novels, and bureaucratic documents, a national literature in a standardized national language. Newspapers and novels, in particular, make possible the imagining of lives lived in simultaneity with other real and fictional members of the community, convert events happening to other people at other places into events in the shared life of the community, and thus transform an imagined solidarity into the homogeneity of everyday lives. Censuses, maps, museums, and memorials are other important institutions that contribute to the imagining of nations (Anderson 1991).

4. Nation And State

The modern form of the nation is both universal and particular. The universal dimension is represented by the notion of ‘the people’ as the original locus of sovereignty in the modern state and of all humans (‘man,’ in the original eighteenth-century revolutionary declaration) as bearers of rights. If this was held to be universally true, how was it to be realized? By enshrining the specific rights of citizens in a state constituted by a particular people, namely, a nation. Thus, the nation-state became the particular, and normal, form of the modern state. It has been argued that if the basic framework of rights in the modern state was defined by the twin ideas of freedom and equality, the often contradictory pulls of these two ideas had to be mediated by two further concepts: those of property and community. Property sought to resolve the contradictions between freedom and equality at the level of the individual in relation to other individuals. Community was where the contradictions were sought to be resolved at the level of the whole fraternity. Along the dimension of property, the particular resolutions might be more or less liberal; along the dimension of community, they might be more or less communitarian. But it was within the specific form of the sovereign nation-state that the universal ideals of modern citizenship were expected to be realized (Balibar 1993).

It needs to be emphasized that, just as the sovereign nation-state was a sign of the fulfillment of the universal moral values of modern citizenship, so also was it a concrete entity defined by the practical considerations of viable statehood. The former provided the ideological force in the nineteenth century to the revolutionary democratic movements in many regions of the Habsburg and the Ottoman empires as well as to the movements for German and Italian national unification. But the latter became operative when judging the claims of groups that were considered too small or territorially dispersed or politically immature to have viable nation-states. Thus, the Welsh or Sicilians or Bretons, or the many small ethnic groups in the Balkans, or a European colony such as Ireland, were considered unfit for independent statehood. This highlights the fact that no matter what the specific cultural content that defines nationhood in a particular nation-state, the requirement of undivided and viable territorial sovereignty will always produce national minorities within that state. It also points to another feature that developed through the nineteenth century to become a basic principle of the modern political world: Sovereign statehood depended crucially on recognition from other states within an international states system.

The late nineteenth century was a period of the democratization of politics in the Western world, with the expansion of the suffrage and a wider sense of involvement of the working class in national politics, even if in a role of opposition to the ruling classes. Alongside, there also operated a process of producing national citizens, through a rapidly expanding system of schooling, the imposition of standardized forms of the national language, and not the least, by inculcating a popular sense of patriotism by celebrating the achievements of its state leaders and armies. There is little doubt that at the turn of the century, popular nationalism in the UK, France, Germany, Russia, Italy, Japan, and the USA—regarded as the great powers—was deeply implicated in imperial ambitions, colonial expansion, and military glory.

5. Anticolonial Nationalism

The emancipatory appeal of modern nationalism lay in its association with the universalist moral claims of the modern state. But, as we have pointed out before, it was also necesarily conditioned by particular claims to viable statehood within an international states system. The anticolonial settler and creole nationalisms of North and South America in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were, in many ways, of the same type as the democratic nationalisms of nineteenth-century Europe in that the antiabsolutist element was far more predominant and unambiguous than the anticolonial. The interesting and tragic contrast was the failed Haitian revolution of the 1790s, launched by Black slaves and ex-slaves inspired by the emancipatory message of the French revolution, and crushed under orders from the revolutionary regime in Paris (James 1963, Trouillot 1995). The world was not yet ready for the real wave of anticolonial nationalism.

That would begin a hundred years later. Many of the apparatuses characteristic of the modern state, including its bureaucracies, legal and judicial systems, economic institutions, censuses, communication networks, etc. were introduced into European colonies in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean as technologies of colonial governance. In some British and French colonies, this even included limited representative institutions in which native elites could participate. Equally significant was the introduction into these countries of modern education in European languages which opened up for a new group of indigenous intellectuals the possibility of imagining a modern nationhood for their peoples, free from colonial bondage. Curiously, the emancipatory claims of modern statehood were used in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by colonial apologists to justify Western rule over the rest of the world: those backward regions, they said, had to come under Western tutelage in order to introduce them to modernity and to prepare them for responsible government. The nationalist movements of Asia and Africa, by contrast, argued that it was precisely colonial rule that stood in the way of their becoming modern and self-governing nations, fully responsible for their own destinies. Not only was self-government demanded, in accordance with the universalist modern doctrine, as a natural right of every nation, but a new economic argument was added to assert that modern colonialism was inevitably accompanied by the economic exploitation of the colony, and hence, political sovereignty was a necessary condition for the removal of poverty and economic backwardness.

By the time of World War II, anticolonial nationalism had become a significant political force in many countries of South and South-East Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. While aspiring to fulfill the project of modernity in their own countries, anticolonial nationalist leaders also launched powerful movements of social and cultural reform, but away from the supervision of the colonial state, attempting to assert their sovereignty over an inner sphere of national life even before the political battle over the economy and the state had been won (Chatterjee 1986, 1993). This was the period when standard national languages were institutionalized and national literatures created and canonized, national histories constructed and archives assembled, and religious doctrines and social practices submitted to a thorough modernist scrutiny and reform. The political process of decolonization became rapid and unstoppable after the end of World War II. In many colonies of Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, independent states were created through negotiated transfers of power; in others, national liberation was won after armed struggle. It was often argued that independence achieved by peaceful negotiation produced socially conservative and politically reformist regimes, whereas when it was won through armed struggle, the structures of colonial rule, themselved founded on violence, had a greater chance of being socially and politically transformed (Fanon 1963).

6. Nation And Culture

One of the consequences of the new theoretical understanding of nationalism, introduced especially by Benedict Anderson, has been the explosion of scholarly interest in the deep involvement of nationalism in areas of culture that apparently have little to do with the political contest over nation-states. The histories of language, literature, historiography, art, music, theater, cinema, sports, and such other modern forms of cultural production are being examined for their many connections with nationalist projects—in their formal properties, their changing contents, and in the institutions that promote and foster them.

Alongside, there has emerged a new literature on family, gender, sexuality, religious practices, food, clothes, and other aspects of everyday life that can be shown to have been shaped and transformed by nationalist cultural projects. A recurrent theme in many of these studies is the active role of the nationalist imagination in the gendering of numerous institutions and practices of modern life. Thus, a common feature is the identification of the inner, the domestic, and the spiritual as the domain of the feminine and that of the outer, the public, and the material as that of the masculine. Another is the imagining of women as the bearers of national tradition. There are interesting variations in these structural relations of gender in the case of anticolonial nationalisms (Sangari and Vaid 1988, Abu-Lughod 1998).

The other aspect of the relation between culture and nationalism that has received much attention in recent years is that of ethnic politics or, in some descriptions, the politics of identity. A distinction has been made, most notably by Anderson (1998), between national- ism in its classical version and the politics of ethnicity. The former, he argues, imagines community in the form of ‘unbound serialities,’ i.e., the everyday universals of modern social thought such as nations, citizens, workers, bureaucrats, intellectuals, etc. This form of imagining of universal community is potentially liberating. Ethnic politics, on the other hand, is produced by the ‘bound serialities’ of governmental classification, such as censuses. They operate by integers— one can be counted only as one or zero, for example, Black or non-Black, Muslim or non-Muslim, German or non-German, and all partial or mixed affiliations must be ruled out. Such serialities are constricting and inherently conflictual. Others argue that the supposed distinction between classical nationalism and ethnic politics is once again a version of the liberal distinction between good and bad nationalism and that they represent not so much a difference of type as the inadequacy of the classical nation-form to properly represent within itself the full range of aspirations for community in modern political life.

It has also been said that the apparent proliferation of the politics of identity, occurring in the era of economic globalization, is a symptom of the historical demise of the nation-state. The breaking down of trade barriers between nations, the global spread of the new communications technology, and the unprecedented flow of international migrants are making the nation-form largely redundant (Appadurai 1997). This is accompanied by the increasing assertiveness of a global civil society that often considers the sovereignty of existing nation-states as impediments to the realization of universal ethical goals such as human rights or development. These conditions, the argument goes, are producing new postnational formations that may well supplant in future the nation-state as the normal form of the modern political community.


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