Dating the Nation: Anthony Smith Challenges the Modernist View of Nationalism That Traces Its Origins to Revolutionary and Post-Revolutionary Europe

By Smith, Anthony | History Today, March 2008 | Go to article overview

Dating the Nation: Anthony Smith Challenges the Modernist View of Nationalism That Traces Its Origins to Revolutionary and Post-Revolutionary Europe


Smith, Anthony, History Today


Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the French Revolution has been, not liberty, nor equality, but fraternity--the bond that unites a population as citizens of the nation. It was for the patrie of citizens that so many oaths were sworn, starting with the celebrated Oath of the Tennis Court taken by the deputies in June of 1789, an oath that Jacques-Louis David later immortalized in his unfinished but detailed drawing of the scene. In this solemn enactment of a secular contract, the nation was born anew, and in its name, the revolution of progress was inaugurated in France and then exported to all the lands that the revolutionary, and later the Napoleonic, armies conquered.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In short, nationalism, the ideology central to the modern order of nation-states, made its first appearance in the Revolution, only to be taken up by the Romantics who attempted to give it philosophical underpinnings. If we define nationalism as an ideological movement to attain and maintain autonomy, unity and identity on behalf of a population deemed by some of its members to be a real or potential 'nation', we may say that from 1800 onwards few areas of Europe, and later the world, were left untouched by its revolutionary political influence. From a world ruled by transterritorial empires and churches, the modern epoch has been transformed into a system of national states; and much of this transformation must be ascribed to the appeal of the national ideal that nationalist movements everywhere aim to establish.

So, at least, runs the conventional view. For most scholars of the subject today, nations and nationalism are both recent and novel. They mark the great rupture or divide between the premodern and modern worlds. It is nationalism, born of this transition, as Ernest Gellner put it in Nations and Nationalism (1983), which enables populations to cross the divide. The same is true of the realm of ideas. Nationalism, according to Elie Kedourie in his 1960 book of that title, is the progeny of modern philosophers--Kant, Herder and Fichte, more than Rousseau or Montesquieu--and partakes of their radically secular revolution of ideas. Its material basis is to be found in the advent of capitalism in the West, but a capitalism that was increasingly forged through the armed might of the modern, centralized state. As a result, nations and nationalism are essentially nineteenthand early twentieth-century phenomena. Their zenith was reached, and for many fittingly embodied, in the carnage of the two world wars. But, as we move into a 'post-modern' globalizing world, we can expect, as Eric Hobsbawm avers (Nations and Nationalism since 1780: 1992), to witness the decline and demise of nations and nationalism.

At the heart of this 'modernist' view of nationalism is the assumption that the nation is a Western invention, one that embodies the civic-republican ideals of the West. After all, the concept of the nation in its modern manifestation emerged in the late eighteenth century to summarize a territorial, mass, co-cultural, autonomous legal-political community of citizens, one that was sustained by the ideology of nationalism and hence a member of the inter-national 'concert of nations'. But this is clearly an ethnocentric, partial, view. Not only is it tied to the peculiar Western experience of the last two centuries, it assumes that that experience is the yard stick by which all conceptions and definitions of the nation are to be measured. As a result, it rules out any other conception, non-Western and/or pre-modern, of the nation, on the grounds that only the Western conception can be the 'genuine' one.

Even on its own ground, the modernist conception of the nation and nationalism, modelled, after all, on the eighteenth-century experience of (mainly) England and France, is partial. It fails to do justice to the ethno-cultural, and to the religious, aspects of even the ideal of the civic-republican nation. …

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