The Politics and Economics of Power

By Samuel Bowles; Maurizio Franzini et al. | Go to book overview

11

The coming of nationalism, and its interpretation

The myths of nation and class
Ernest GellnerThis is a theoretical essay. It purports to offer a general, theoretical account and explanation of a very major social transformation, namely the coming of nationalism in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The claims made are the following:
1 A very major and distinctive change has taken place in the social conditions of humankind. A world in which nationalism, the linking of state and of 'nationally' defined culture, is pervasive and normative is quite different from one in which this is relatively rare, half-hearted, unsystematised and untypical. There is an enormous difference between a world of complex, intertwined, but not neatly overlapping patterns of power and culture, and a world consisting of neat political units, systematically and proudly differentiated from each other by 'culture', and all of them striving, with a great measure of success, to impose cultural homogeneity internally. These units, linking sovereignty to culture, are known as nation states. During the two centuries following the French Revolution, the nation state became a political norm. How and why did this happen?
2 A theoretical model is available which, starting from generalisations which are eminently plausible and not seriously contested, in conjunction with available data concerning the transformation of society in the nineteenth century, does explain the phenomenon in question.
3 Most though not all of the relevant empirical material is compatible with this model.

These are strong claims. If sustained, they mean that the problem under discussion-nationalism-unlike most other major problems of historical social change, does have an explanation. Most of the other major transformations which have occurred in history have also repeatedly provoked attempts at explication. But the explanations offered only consist of specifying interesting possibilities, or provide plausible partial contributions to a final answer. They are seldom definitive and sufficient and convincing. By contrast, a cogent, persuasive explanation of nationalism is available.

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