Nationalism: Hymns Ancient and Modern

Nationalism: Hymns Ancient and Modern

Mini Teaser: Why can't the world seem to settle down into nice well-ordered democratic nation-states on the Western model?

by Author(s): Robin W. Fox

In western Europe, the unity of the EC seems to be unraveling. The
Balkans are being re-balkanized. In the Middle East, "national"
identity compounded by sectarian Islam asserts itself in wars that
drag in the whole world. In Africa, the "nations" that were the
legacy of arbitrary colonial boundaries are riven with tribal strife,
and the constantly ingenuous West is shocked to find the Zulus
killing their fellow black South Africans to retain their own
distinct "national" status. India, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia are
repressing local nationalisms, and the "unity" of China is one of the
last engineered by centralized totalitarian force, after the
dissolution of the Soviet Union into its component nations. And so
the sorry tale--from the Western progressive liberal point of
view--continues. Why can't the world seem to settle down into nice
well-ordered democratic nation-states on the Western model?

This is not the first time these questions have been raised. My own
interest in nationalism was sparked early by the internationalism
with which I grew up from the thirties through the fifties. Its two
forms--of international socialism, and the idealistic hope in the
League of Nations or United Nations--both seemed, from the start,
doomed. The workers of the world just flat did not unite. On the
contrary, they seemed very happy to get a chance to dish it out to
the workers of other nations. And again, the sorry history of the UN
(following on the League) showed that governments of the nations of
the world would not unite either. The UN always seemed to me to be
killed by its own premise: that world peace and good governance could
come about by the cooperation of independent nation-states.

United Nations was almost an oxymoron. Nations existed to be
disunited from each other, only coming together in temporary
alliances out of self interest. Here it seemed that the utopian
internationalists had the better idea, in that they wanted to abolish
nations and achieve a "brotherhood of man" that refused to recognize
artificial national boundaries. Theoretically, that made more sense,
except that the boundaries just were not artificial; they were very
real. And the UN by adding to its councils ever more self-declared
"nations" (even if they were islands smaller than most small towns)
constantly compounded its problems.

Internationalism of all varieties then seemed to be an idealistic
failure. People at large just didn't think globally. But nationalism
itself had major problems, not least that many "nations" and
especially (but not exclusively) "new nations" were indeed artificial
entities: the creations of colonial map makers (Kuwait is a nation?)
or the Versailles Treaty carvers-up of eastern Europe. Many of these
"nations" cut across more ancient racial, religious, ethnic, and
linguistic boundaries, especially in Africa where whole tribes were
split in this way, or forcibly incorporated with traditional enemies.
This raised the issue of the relation of "nation states" to these
other units. For what seemed to be required of nation states was that
they behave like homogeneous tribes, even if this was plainly a
fiction. The problem continues to plague modern "new nationalisms."
The Scottish nationalists, for example, have to plaster over the
tremendous differences between the lowland (Presbyterian, mercantile,
urban) Scots, and the highlanders: Gaelic, Catholic, of Irish origin
and only recently emerged from territorial and kinship dominated
tribalism. (There were more Scots fighting against Bonnie Prince
Charlie at Culloden than for him.) And the Republican Irish
embarrassment over their northern Protestant brethren needs no

Back To Fundamentals

Instead of endlessly multiplying examples, we need to get back to the
fundamental questions about nationalism: When has a "nation" reached
the limits of its integration? What are the sure signs that its
various ethnic, racial, territorial, religious, linguistic, and
interest groups no longer feel a common bond or purpose? Most of the
modern debates on "nationalism" don't begin to answer these
questions. One opens a new, very large, and much-hyped book like Liah
Greenfeld's Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity, hoping for fresh
insights, and finds only the same dreary catalogue of facts. Most
books on the "nationalism" issue are written by political scientists,
sociologists, historians, politicians and other peddlers of ephemera.
The psychologists occasionally have a crack at it, but they are
prisoners of their schools and disagree as loudly as the nationalists
themselves. Ever since Freud assured us that the Russians would never
rebel against a Czar they regarded as a "little father" and whom they
had incorporated into their superegos, we have learned to be wary of
psychological advice in this field. It could be true that devotion to
national causes is be one way we escape Eric Fromm's "fear of
freedom"; but that doesn't tell us "why nationalism?"

The question, of course, assumes that there are some fundamentals:
some features of the human creature that predispose it to
"nationalistic" behavior. But this is dismissed by the
"nationalism-is-modern" school, for whom the phenomenon starts not
with Nature but with Herder (or a bit before in the precocious cases
of England and France.) Proponents of this dominant mode of thought
regard "nationalism" as co-terminous with the modern nation-state,
and indeed a creation of distinctly post-feudal, even industrial,
social conditions. Even the most diehard of the nationalism-is-modern
school, however, admit that "national sentiments" are very real. Thus
E.J. Hobsbawm admits that "what is in doubt is not the strength of
men's and women's longing for group identity of which nationality is
one expression." "What skeptics doubt," he continues, "is the alleged
irresistibility of the desire to form homogeneous nation states..."
Note the slippage here--from an admittedly "natural nationality" to a
definitely resistible "nation state."

I doubt anyone would want to argue that we have inbuilt
predispositions to form nation states. Natural selection would have
to have been remarkably (and teleologically) prescient to have
provided for that one--or even for states! But nations (if not
states) are formed out of something, and as Hobsbawm recognizes,
"longing for group identity" is one basis, if not the only one. Even
more noticeable is the slippage between "nationality" ("sense of
group belonging") and "nationalism"--which can only be some kind of
doctrine of nation-state primacy. Truly the state can exist without
the nation and the nation precede the state (or vice-versa), and some
kind of doctrine to justify, glorify and rationalize it all need only
arise well after the historical fact (England), or alternatively
precede and create that fact (Germany.) Commentators have made us
familiar with, not to say sick of, all the permutations. But what the
"nationalism-is-modern-not-natural" school are asserting, slyly
confounds these distinctions. Nationalism and the nation-state are of
course "modern." By the same token, appeals to human nature do not
explain them. For Hobsbawm they are blatantly historical epiphenomena
overdue for obsolescence. But as he too realizes, that naggingly
persistent "national feeling" is somehow independent of all this
historical jiggery pokery.

Let us put it this way: Whatever the origins, historical, social,
geographical, economic, military or whatever, of nationalism and the
nation-state, the one uniformity is the relative ease with which
"national" sentiments can be aroused and sustained in the populations
of these "modern" entities. This gives the theorists of nationalistic
"modernity" a deep sense of unease, since we are clearly dealing here
with deeply atavistic sentiments and motivations. It is obviously
disturbing to have to argue that a social phenomenon is "modern" and
a "construct" but at the same time to have to admit that it derives
its emotional energy from some unknown archaic dark corners of the
human psyche.

This would only be strange, however, to a theory that insisted that
sentiments and emotions themselves were solely the creations of
historical conditions; unfortunately that is the prevailing paradigm
for the social and historical sciences. If, however, one accepts that
man carries a baggage of evolutionary dispositions--mental as well as
emotional--then there is really no problem. The only problem is
empirical: What social conditions "fit" these dispositions and what
do not? I have spent a great deal of time complaining about the
conditions that fail to satisfy these paleolithic motivations and
mentations, but it equally follows that, often serendipitously it is
true, modern conditions will evoke and reinforce ancient
(paleolithic) sentiments. Thus bureaucracy will rarely ever work
since the attributes it demands are so implacably anti-paleolithic.
Sociologists too have noted the persistent failure of bureaucracy,
but are frustrated in their explanations since they can only look for
reasons within the historical conditions of bureaucracy itself.

Nationalism, at least in its form of real and obvious national
sentiments, creates the same dilemmas. Here is something that taps
and indeed thrives on atavistic motives and satisfactions--some
benign, some generous, some horrible, which cannot be explained as
creations of nationalism (and the nation-state) itself. The
historical contingency school is left only with various forms of
manipulative or conspiracy theories, by which the gullible masses are
somehow brainwashed into various ecstatic states. Hobsbawm to his
credit avoids this extreme nonsense, but equally he never comes to
grips with the problem raised by his vision of a non-nationalist
future: what will happen if you remove this source of human

Essay Types: Essay