Nations and nationalism
The French Revolution brought into sharp focus a cluster of ideas about freedom and rights that had been bred in seventeenth-century England and nurtured in eighteenth-century France. Unsurprisingly, it is far from easy to disentangle these ideas – to be clear about causes and effects. Notions of freedom and rights were no doubt promoted by the mode of production of an emergent capitalism in the seventeenth century. But they were promoted too by the Protestant reformation and its influential ethos; and by the philosophical empiricism cultivated by English thinkers. How is one to define a relation between these levels? A (broadly) Marxist position claims that changes in the polity, as also in the cultural and intellectual domains, are invariably motivated by changes in the socio-economic base. Yet this is in competition with the claim (by, for example, Max Weber) that ideas can change the world.1 Then again, more recent critical theory takes refuge in dialectics, a seductive solution to the chicken and egg problem, but one that may on occasion amount to a failure of nerve. Whatever the underlying causality, it is clear that on a political level strengthening notions of popular sovereignty were given practical meaning and propaganda by the Revolution in France, as earlier by the American War of Independence. These events effectively inaugurated an age of revolution and of liberalism, though it should be noted that from the start liberalism involved a dimension of contractualism as well as of freedom.
It was from this same cluster of ideas that nationalism took much of its impetus; indeed my pairing of French and American histories in the late eighteenth century already says as much. At the same time the relationship of nationalism to a parent ideology of liberalism was bound to be problematical – and turned out to be tragically so in twentieth-century history. The egalitarian premise that fed into and enabled the nationalist enterprises of the nineteenth century was inevitably compromised by the reality of the nation-state. 'Liberty,____________________