08 October 2011

Eric Hobsbawm’s Analysis of Nationalism, Part 2

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

Last month I posted my first article about Eric Hobsbawm’s book, Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality. This time I’m looking at the second chapter, Popular proto-nationalism.

Nationalism would not be of so much interest were it nothing but a self-serving ruling class ideology. It is much more than that: it is popular, and it became so very quickly. Hobsbawm seeks to explain how this happened. How could nationalism, the ideology of a new kind of political entity, have gripped the imagination of millions so suddenly?

From Hobsbawm’s point of view there are two kinds of answer to this question. One is about the various forms of popular group identification that may have grown into nationalism proper, and these proto-nationalisms are what concern him in this chapter (and me in this post). Another kind of answer, which is the subject of the following chapter (and my next post in this series), concerns itself with governments, with how they encouraged and directed nationalism to suit their needs. Hobsbawm’s analysis reveals that it was usually a complicated combination of the two, but he clearly sees the role of governments as primary in the last analysis: if he had to choose a causal direction, it would be top-down.

But for now he is concerned with the grassroots. He begins his examination of proto-nationalism by distinguishing two high-level categories: supra-local bonds, which go beyond the spaces in which people go about their lives, that is, which go beyond the family and the town; and political bonds, those which are felt to link people through states and institutions. It turns out that neither kind of bond leads inexorably to nationalism; there is no necessary connection to be found.

Before turning to politics, Hobsbawm looks at three kinds of supra-local bonds.


There seem few better candidates for proto-nationalism than language, which determines actual communities. It is jarring and alienating to hear people talking a foreign language, even if we might react positively to the experience, taking pleasure in the sounds whose meanings do not exist for us. It seems the very essence of community, the foundation of all of our social activity, and the most basic way that we divide “us” and “them”. What could be more natural than for linguistic groups to develop nationalist feeling?

But this inference is not just simplistic; it is downright false. A good example, one that I mentioned in the first post, is the Italian language. Italy’s unification in the nineteenth century was driven by a fervent nationalist movement, whose principles were put in terms that reverberated through the century, most famously by Giuseppe Mazzini, whose curious combination of progressive and reactionary politics I looked at in the last post. The relevance of Italian nationalism here is clear in the famous quotation from Massimo d’Azeglio: “Italy has been made; now it only remains to make Italians”. In other words, nation-building comes first, and common national bonds follow. This was seen most remarkably in language: it was only after the spread of television in the 1960s that Italian, already the official national language, actually began to be widely spoken. Until then people had spoken various languages and dialects, some of which were, and still are, mutually unintelligible.

This at least confirms that nationalism does not depend on linguistic proto-nationalism, but perhaps there were nationalisms elsewhere that grew from it? Well, not really. Before the widespread primary education that became a feature of nation-states – and which no doubt cemented national languages as permanent and fundamental features of the nation – there simply did not exist languages that were widely spoken across the large geographical areas that were to become national territories. When a national language was established it had to be chosen by those in power from the many available, after which all others were demoted to “dialects”. As Max Weinreich said,

A language is a dialect with an army and navy. 1

Where a language did go national without the deliberate efforts of nationalist politicians, it was a language of institutions and high culture, of administration and literature, and not a popular vernacular. Again this means that it was the growth of such institutions and cultural activities, that is, the growth of the bourgeoisie and the nation-building project, that was crucial, and not popular linguistic proto-nationalism.

National languages … are the opposite of what nationalist mythology supposes them to be, namely the primordial foundations of national culture and the matrices of the national mind. 2


Some nationalists have famously wielded notions such as blood, but biology is plainly not the real basis of cultural group membership, and when it comes to nations this is even more apparent: national populations generally do not share common descent to a significant degree. Hobsbawm thus quickly dismisses biology. Rather, ethnicity is about shared culture and history.

But even if we use this wider sense, there seems to be no pattern of ethnic proto-nationalism to be found, largely because what applies to language applies to ethnicity, if it is accepted that a common language is an important element of ethnic belonging. Ethnic groups did not develop into nation-states; the latter, in fact, most often brought ethnic groups together.

But what about race, the visible physical differences between people? Well, race has not been irrelevant, in much the same way that language has not been irrelevant: physical differences, as much as spoken language, can immediately separate “us” and “them”, and this has certainly been seized upon for various, sometimes nationalist, purposes. But again, we do not find proto-nationalism. Hobsbawm makes three points in order to show how race fits in to the picture:

First, race is often a horizontal divider rather than a vertical divider. That is, race functions more often as a form of social stratification than a division between states or communities. An example he gives is India, where light skin is traditionally associated with higher status.

Second, race is most commonly all about them. This is what Hobsbawm calls negative ethnicity: people do not identify themselves as what they racially are, but only as what they are not, with reference to a neighbouring tribe, enemy or minority.

Third, this negative ethnicity is not a reliable proto-nationalism, for this would require a positive and consistent group loyalty rather than a negative one that appeared only when confronted with the other.


The Christian’s country is not of this world … If the State is flourishing, he scarcely dares to enjoy the public felicity; he fears to take a pride in the glory of his country. If the State declines, he blesses the hand of God which lies heavy on his people. 3

So said Rousseau. The trouble with religions from a nationalist standpoint is that they are explicitly anti-national, at least if we are thinking of world religions such as Christianity and Islam. They transcend small groups and nations and often seek to encompass the whole of humanity. It is usually difficult, then, for nascent nationalist movements to use religion as a focus for national feeling. Therefore, where religion has been a factor in such movements, there have been special reasons. Serbs and Croats, for example, are divided not by language or culture but by their religions, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic respectively.

And take the example of the Indian subcontinent. The independent nation-states of India and Pakistan were formed along religious lines at the same time, but would it be true to say that Pakistan was a product of a nationalist movement among the Muslims of the Indian Empire? For only such a movement would amount to a popular proto-nationalism. This was by no means the case, because, firstly, the All-India Muslim League was not pushing for partition until very late; and secondly, there was no grassroots Islamic nationalism: the Muslim population of India did not think in terms of national self-determination; and in general, the Muslim political movement that would lead to partition was partly a reaction to an Indian independence movement which neglected Muslims.

Hobsbawm makes an interesting connection between one of the cases of a genuinely popular religious proto-nationalism, namely Russia, and nationalism in general. “Holy Russia” had the advantage of, if not a completely distinct religion then certainly a distinct denomination. The elements that fused into Russian nationalism were Tsar, church, land and the holy icons. Icons, Hobsbawm claims, are an essential part of any proto-nationalism or nationalism that has existed, whether religious or not. The most obvious example is flags. Such things…

... give a palpable reality to otherwise imaginary community. 4

Political bonds

So far Hobsbawm has not found much more than a scattering of peculiar local cases of proto-nationalism, which took their own peculiar local forms. A much more promising source of nationalism was political affiliation, especially the attachment to states that were associated with a people and which provided the framework of their corresponding modern nation-states. The best examples of such historic states are Russia, England and Spain, which had been political entities for hundreds of years leading up to 1800, and which were strongly associated each with a staatsvolk or state people – namely the Russians, English and Castilians.

Hobsbawm thinks that where this occurred it was by far the strongest kind of proto-nationalism. However, he reminds us that these political ties were most probably felt among relatively small numbers, that is, among political elites and the privileged. While the staatsvolk would eventually in some cases be expanded to include everyone, feudal peasants would hardly have identified with the political communities of those who literally lorded over them, because even at times when they were loyal to their own lords, they were not likely to also identify with any of the other lords. In other words, political proto-nationalism was not very often popular.


Hobsbawm’s conclusion is that popular proto-nationalism is generally neither sufficient nor necessary for nationalism.

The number of national movements, with or without states, is patently much smaller than the number of human groups capable of forming such movements by current criteria of potential nationhood, and certainly smaller than the number of communities with a sense of belonging together in a manner which is hard to distinguish from proto-national. 5

Furthermore, it is in any case difficult to find any cases of specifically popular proto-nationalism. The answers lie elsewhere.

But he warns us towards the end of the chapter that on this subject in particular, historians are largely in the dark. We do not know what the illiterate millions were thinking, and we never will.

My own thoughts on this chapter are largely in agreement, but being a stickler for logical structures and hierarchies I was troubled by Hobsbawm’s categories, supra-local and political. Surely political bonds are supra-local? In the end, this does not matter very much, but my take is that the proper categories here ought to be just popular and elite, and that this distinction runs through all of the specific kinds of group belonging: under ethnic, linguistic, religious and political we find cases that can be helpfully classed as either popular or elite.

That said, this distinction is precisely the one he makes between this chapter and the next, i.e., between proto-nationalism and “the government perspective”, but it seems to me that it runs right through both.

And I do suspect that there are other scholars who would not be so willing to dispatch with popular proto-nationalism so impatiently – that maybe the formation of national movements was bound up with it into a rich tapestry of feelings of belonging that ought not to be just written off.

Nonetheless, the direction of his analysis seems the right one. For one thing, he has a job to do, and cannot be expected to do justice to all of the multifarious local paths to nationalism. Secondly, he is being prudent: he does not want to say more than can be justified from the meagre information available. And thirdly, he has already established the relevant premise, in the first chapter, that the rise of nations and nationalism coincided with the bourgeois revolutions, i.e., with the ascendancy of a new elite, and therefore that the interests and actions of those elites are the most crucial.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3


sup>1 Attributed to Max Weinreich
2 Hobsbawm, E. J., 1990, Nations and Nationalism since 1780, Cambridge University Press, p. 54
3 Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book IV, Chapter 8
4 Hobsbawm, p. 71
5 Hobsbawm, p. 77

Part 1

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