02 March 2012

Eric Hobsbawm’s Analysis of Nationalism, Part 3

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

In this post I’m looking at the third chapter of Eric Hobsbawm’s influential work, Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality.

To recap, in the first chapter Hobsbawm showed that what we call the nation is something modern, that its rise to dominate the world stage took place from around the French Revolution until the twentieth century. In the second chapter he tried to identify the particular group allegiances that held sway among the populace and which formed the basis of the national identity and nationalism which became widespread in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries — and found little to fit that description. Thus he moves on to the third chapter on “The Government Perspective” having done a pretty good job of convincing us that nationalism is a product not of popular feelings of belonging but of a growing elite, namely the bourgeoisie, and therefore that it is to governments we should look.

So the question is, during the formation and growth of modern nations, what was the relationship between governments and nationalism?

It is clear from the second chapter that governments were not simply servants of nationalist general will, because that general will hardly existed. Rather, as national governments, the loyalty of the newly enfranchised people was central to establishing the unification necessary for the task of building the nation economically and politically on the international stage. Given this premise, which itself follows naturally enough from the previous chapters, we need to explore how governments went about this task, and then try to work out how loyalty to the state developed into later, more destructive forms of nationalism.

A Changing Relationship

Hobsbawm sets the scene by describing the innovations of the modern nation-state:

Territory: The area over which a state governed was strictly defined by borders, and everything within those borders was the jurisdiction of that state’s government.

Direct Rule: Rule over the people was not through autonomous intermediaries as it was in earlier empires, kingdoms and principalities.

Uniform administration: Laws, regulations and administrative functions were applied consistently everywhere.

Democratic Pressures: Rulers had to start listening to the people, because the new political and administrative structures gave them a voice, and because they relied on them as tax-payers and soldiers. At the same time, the changing class structure of society meant that the masses did not “know their place” as once they had.

Through the post office, the police, the school and the railways, just about everyone would henceforth come in to regular contact with agents of the national state; and use of censuses, records of births, deaths and marriages, and innumerable forms of legal documentation — all of the paraphernalia of the rationally organized state — bound the state with the individual, indeed with every individual, in a more intimate relationship than ever before. The technical decisions that administrations had to make in this process, combined with the democratic pressures, pushed everything national to the top of the political agenda. How the average citizen felt about the nation became a close concern of those in power, and states had yet to fully establish their legitimacy following the plummeting legitimacy of rule by divine right which the rulers of the recent past had relied on.

The key point here is that the government and “the people” came to be seen as necessarily bound together. If we remember Gellner’s definition of nationalism as “a principle which holds that the political and national unit should be congruent”, it seems clear that nationalism was in the first instance a preoccupation of national elites, or was to a great degree a consequence of their preoccupations.

State Patriotism: A Civic Religion

But everything in the third chapter is based on a distinction that Hobsbawm makes between state patriotism and nationalism proper, and this is an attempt to solve the puzzle of the first chapter. In the first part of this series I was uncertain if, in tracing the modern nation back to the age of democratization and revolution, Hobsbawm wanted us to think of those movements as nationalist. In the present chapter he more explicitly sets out a distinction between those movements and those which came later and which we more commonly associate with nationalism.

The combination of changes that took place in the formation of the modern nation-state was politically explosive. People were empowered, both for structural reasons and because political rights had become an issue for everyone (both described above). It was vital for rulers to claim the loyalty of the people, which was a loyalty that had become untethered from traditions of rule by divine right. The “civic religion” that fulfilled this function was state patriotism, a term chosen by Hobsbawm specifically to contrast it with nationalism.

The distinction, then, is the one indicated by the term “nation-state” itself — between ethnic or linguistic loyalties (bearing in mind the older sense of “nation”) and the requirements of the state. Hobsbawm is not so simplistic as to describe nationalism as a top-down ideology forced on a brainwashed populace. He is sensitive to the tension between, on the one hand, progressive and inclusive forms of state patriotism, which were fostered by governments; and on the other hand, the enthusiastic ethnic chauvinism of the nationalists. Thus the bourgeoisie is not exactly the villain of the story.

But bearing in mind the previous chapter, in which Hobsbawm does not find anything much to fit the description of popular proto-nationalism, we might wonder where nationalism proper actually came from, if there was nothing of the ethnic or linguistic in the concerns of state patriotism.

But first, it is worth describing this state patriotism in a little more detail. Recall that the French Revolution appealed to an identity between the state and the people, asserting popular sovereignty as the principle of the state’s legitimacy. Such a radical innovation demanded that ethnic and cultural divisions at smaller scales be broken down; a resident of France was now a citizen above all else, and this itself did not depend on any ethno-linguistic mythology; it was purely political. It is useful to note that this early concept of the nation-state lives on today in the USA, where, at least ostensibly, one is an American first, and an Italian (for example) second.

The turning of “subjects into citizens”, “gave them a stake in the country and thereby made the state to some extent 'our own’ “. But this had an effect that points to a possible source of nationalism proper. While state patriotism may have obliterated some of internal variations that might otherwise have been expected to form their own independent movements for national sovereignty, it also produced a popular consciousness of exclusivity with respect to other nation-states. A country that is mine is consequently preferable to all of the others.

The Tragic Paradox

Hobsbawm makes a connection between this popular national consciousness and the growing class consciousness of the working class. This politicization was partly a consequence of national democratization, but the connection is not something that had occurred to me before, because I had unthinkingly always associated working class movements with internationalism. In fact, internationalism by no means held sway among politically active working class groups. Hobsbawm gives the example of the Chartists, who were “both against the rich and the French.”

He calls it a “tragic paradox” that such politicization was, in the First World War, suicidal. Without democratization and working class consciousness, there would have been no scope for a propaganda drive to war, because only when people felt that their opinions were important, that they had a voice, could they be made to care. On top of that, it was in the national context that their concerns had begun to be heard, so even if they were antagonistic to their rulers, their identification with the state, or with a people defined by that state, was deeper. As a result, European elites were surprised, even shocked, to witness the nationalist and xenophobic passions of the populace.

Nation State or Nation versus State?

Already we can see how state patriotism could transform into something we can easily now recognize as nationalism, with its destructiveness and chauvinism. But Hobsbawm is careful to continue to distinguish the two, and not just as temporal phases of the same phenomenon. He says definitively that the state “confronted nationalism as a political force separate from it.” Given the general tenor of the book, this is perhaps surprising. A longer quotation will illustrate just how emphatic he is about the difference, although here he does describe it as a phenomenon that came later than state patriotism.

...the type of nationalism which emerged towards the end of the nineteenth century had no fundamental similarity to state-patriotism, even when it attached itself to it. Its basic loyalty was, paradoxically, not to 'the country’, but only to its particular version of that country: to an ideological construct.

There is a lot packed into this passage; unpacking it might help in understanding his position, which in this chapter seems rather difficult to pin down. First, in referring to a late-nineteenth century nationalism, is he referring to something distinct from those nationalisms that previously competed with state patriotism, or did one lead to the other? I suspect that he wants to say that the balance of forces in which state patriotism and competing nationalisms confronted each other finally fell in the direction of the latter, and that explains its late nineteenth century emergence. But we are still left with the question, where did those competing nationalisms come from?

And what is the difference between the “construct” of the nationalist version of the country, and the construct of the nation-state? After all, Hobsbawm is already committed to Benedict Anderson’s description of the modern nation as an “imagined community”. Here I suspect the answer is in his use of “ideological”. The bourgeois democratic nation-state depended to some degree on an ideology or ideologies. Just as previous forms of rule promulgated an ideology of rule by divine right, bourgeois democracies developed in concert with liberalism, which enshrined private property as the essence of liberty. But at the same time, the period brought real structural and political changes that transformed the relationship between state and people. In contrast, the emergent nationalism, with its focus on ethnic and linguistic distinctions, attempted to conjure up a community with a claim to those structures, and in this respect it was more purely ideological. This goes some way towards straightening out a possible contradiction in Hobsbawm’s account, but in closing one door, another one opens: is a modern nation-state an “imagined community” or not? Should that term only apply to purely ideological nationalisms, or should it equally apply to state patriotism?

Hobsbawm’s answer must surely be that state patriotism is an attachment to something real, whereas nationalism is the false ideology. But perhaps there are no strict demarcations here at all.

In any case, the picture he is painting seems to be of an essential confrontation between state and nationalism, but one that could be resolved were the state able to integrate nationalism into the civic religion — into state patriotism. But this is only the negative reason why ruling classes came to encourage nationalism. There were positive reasons as well, which boil down to the fact that if it became possible to focus feelings of chauvinism, xenophobia, or ethnic and linguistic assertiveness into a loyalty to the state, then that loyalty would be as strong as could be. In these cases, state patriotism came to be liberally spiced with, even supported by, nationalism proper. This is perhaps the key. It is not that nationalism was a concoction of the ruling classes, but rather that it was only in the new conditions of bourgeois-democratic capitalism that it could really take hold and change the world.

Nationalism as Ideology: Where Did It Come From?

But yet again we are left wondering where ethno-linguistic nationalism came from in the first place. To answer this, first we should recall that the previous chapter, though it failed to find any proto-nationalism that could stand, on its own, as the source of modern nationalism, there did exist ethnic, linguistic and other group loyalties. If Hobsbawm can show that in the circumstances of the nineteenth century these group loyalties came to be intensified by mass politicization and the requirements of (or even opposition of) state patriotism, then it looks like we have an answer.

In my opinion he does a decent job of showing this, by describing the following three features of the nineteenth century.

Racial theories
The period in which state patriotism became vital to the legitimation and survival of regimes was also the one in which the pseudoscience of racism began to grow. With the added intensification of war this would lead in the end to the most extreme and racist nationalism of all.

Language Wars
What linguistic nationalism there originally was exploded with the advent of primary school education and with the decisions by administrators about which languages or dialects were fit for public business. Census takers, in taking language to be an indicator of nationality, made it inevitable that linguitic nationalism would intensify. And Hobsbawm points out that prior to the nineteenth century language had never been used to justify a state’s territorial claims, as it was over Schleswig-Holstein between Germany and Denmark.

The Principle of Nationality
Mazzini, quite early in the nineteenth century, had already formulated the principle whereby the world was naturally divided up into nations, and this continued to be a widespread and underlying assumption, and a starting point for insecure governments.

Given these conditions, extant ethnic loyalties became either national or counter-national, the latter separatist movements existing where the government had been unable to absorb all of the ethno-linguistic claims of its people.

That is, all group loyalties had a tendency to become nationalist.

The Nature of Historical Explanation

As an answer to the problem we should probably not expect much more than this. We can never trace an ideology back through a chain of causation to a single source. To see this, it might be worth looking briefly at the Marxian mode of historical analysis, because it is one that avoids causal explanations. Naturally this should also shed light on Hobsbawm’s general approach, Marxist that he is.

In Allen Wood’s book, Karl Marx, he shows that Marx did not intend historical materialism as a causal theory. This must be the case because he repeatedly and clearly states that productive forces determine social relations, yet describes capitalist social relations as preceding the development of the capitalist mode of production. Instead of causal explanations, Wood claims that Marx is offering teleological explanations. Now this is apt to mislead, but in crude terms it simply means that Marx is concerned with how specific historical developments fit into a system that has tendencies in definite discernible directions. It is not that the cause comes after the effect, but that phenomena become important and long-lasting if they contribute to a persistent tendency, that tendency determining which phenomena will do so. In the classic case just mentioned, the social relations of capitalism were determined by the development of productive forces in that the latter, as a persistent tendency in human society, directed the development of social relations.

Applying this loosely to nationalism, then, we can say that nineteenth century capitalism, and in particular the administrative and political concerns of its ruling classes, determined the coalescence of group loyalties into nationalism, even though we should avoid saying that they caused them.


This third chapter is quite a short one, and fairly neutral and descriptive, so perhaps we will find some more definite conclusions later on. But things have become clearer, at the same time as getting more complex (curiously). The question I have been asking — where, if it was so very different from state patriotism, did nationalism itself come from? — seems to dissolve, because what concerns us is not any particular seed, but what mixture of seeds, what soils and climatic conditions, and what tendencies of growth all combined to produce nationalism. And that can be summarized as burgeoning liberal democracy, in which the bourgeoisie and its state machinery, as the most powerful elements in society and with definite political, economic and military goals, determined the growth of nationalism.

But what does that mean? Is it any more than a truism? After all, using similar logic one can describe any historical development under capitalism as being determined by capitalism. Well, I’m going to just close that can of worms again and save it for another time. It might be more appropriate for an article on Marxism anyway, rather than in this series.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3


Hobsbawm, E. J., 1990, Nations and Nationalism since 1780, Cambridge University Press

Wood, Allen W., 2004, Karl Marx, Routledge

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