09 September 2011

Eric Hobsbawm’s Analysis of Nationalism, Part 1

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

Juggling isn’t very impressive with only two juggling balls, so here’s another series to add to my ongoing ones on Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein.

In my post attacking immigration control I mentioned that I was going to study nationalism. I’ve begun with Eric Hobsbawm’s Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality, and this post will look at the introduction and first chapter, “The nation as novelty”.

Hobsbawm’s analysis, written in 1989 and updated in 1992, came on the heels of a number of groundbreaking studies of nationalism which began to appear in the 1970s and 1980s, most celebrated of which are Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities and Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism (I probably should have started with these, but I couldn’t help going with the Marxist first). Hobsbawm usefully summarizes some of these achievements in his introduction, and in doing so shows how surprisingly little attention was paid to the subject by scholars before this new spate of books. However, I should note that I am not too concerned right now with matters of historiography (the study of the methodology of the discipline of history, or the history of history if you like), partly because I am not remotely qualified. The important point to make here about Hobsbawm’s general attitude to the subject is that he believes one cannot be a good historian of the nation and a nationalist at the same time, because…

Nationalism requires too much belief in what is patently not so.

I am convinced that an understanding of nationalism is vital to any progressive or radical democratic politics. Despite Hobsbawm’s optimism, evident in his last chapter, it seems to me that the nation-state remains supreme in many ways. It is the basis of increasingly unaccountable state power and the intensified restriction of migration even while national control over capitalism is being eroded by globalization. Although Hobsbawm does not cover these things in the book, they are the phenomena that I am trying to understand, and despite my doubts about his conclusions I found his analysis to be an invaluable education.

Hobsbawm sets off from the definition of nationalism given by Ernest Gellner:

... primarily a principle which holds that the political and national unit should be congruent.1

He also supplements this definition, which is so minimal as to seem inadequate, with the notion of an overriding commitment to this principle. I think it also helps here to bring in Paul Gilbert, who described the “constitutive principle” of nationalism as the view that the nation is…

...a group of a kind that has a right to statehood.2

Hobsbawm’s approach is broadly chronological, beginning with the birth of modern nations in the bourgeois revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries and ending with some speculation about the fate of nationalism in the twenty-first century. My approach here is explicatory, taking the chapters one by one; I do not intend to fully assess the book at this stage, but rather just to note down the results of Hobsbawm’s analysis (otherwise I’ll forget them).

He begins the first chapter by arguing for the basic foundational premise upon which he builds everything else: that the nation is a relatively recent phenomenon. This is in stark contrast to the way we are often taught to think about it, and the way that commentators, politicians, statesmen – and historians – routinely talk about it. Indeed, appeals to nationhood and national feeling, that is, the basic ideology of nationalism which to a greater or lesser degree seems to frame our thinking about anything political and historical, most often depend on a conception of the nation as ancient and primordial.

What is a Nation?

But what do we mean by “nation” anyway? I have always been accustomed to think of a nation just as a sovereign state, the basic global political unit bounded by definite borders, administered by a single government, and having its own flag, capital city, and so on. I have come to realize that this is at the very least a narrow, idiosyncratic and new use of the word; it has more usually meant a people rather than a state, more specifically a culturally homogeneous group with shared history and language, or what we now call an ethnicity. Its newer use to refer to states is owing to the equation of nations and states that came to be endorsed by such things as the “United Nations”, an organization in which all representatives are those of sovereign states. In any case, it seems that today it still means a people, but one that controls a defined territory under one government — rather than the state as such.

My Oxford dictionary has two senses for the word, the relevant one being…

A community of people of mainly common descent, history, language. etc., forming a state or inhabiting a territory.

Thus the modern conception of the nation combines both ethnicity (“common descent, history, language”) and territorial power or sovereignty (“forming a state”). Hobsbawm addresses the question of how this came to be important, with a view to examining the social and political developments out of which nationalism would become a force to be reckoned with. In doing so he shows how the balance of the ethnic and the political elements of the concept of nation has shifted.

But essentially he follows Anderson in viewing the nation as a kind of “imagined community”. The relationships we have to other members of the nation are imaginary or constructed: they are based on ideas. Where the idea of nation came from takes up a large part of Hobsbawm’s book.

A Modern Phenomenon

To return to the basic premise, nations in the modern sense are not the primary, essential and eternal units of humanity; the modern sense coincides with a modern phenomenon. This might seem unsurprising, and an uncharitable reading of Hobsbawm’s very first sentence might lead one to accuse him of being tautological, or even begging the question:

The basic characteristic of the modern nation and everything connected with it is its modernity.

However, the point is that prior to the studies of Hobsbawm, Gellner, Anderson and others, the mainstream view among historians was that the nation as we came to understand it in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, i.e., the “modern nation”, was nevertheless natural and had an ancient heritage. Hence it is more important than it first appears to emphasize the modernity of the modern nation.

Hobsbawm argues that nations (and from this point onwards I am using “nation” in the modern sense just described) formed mainly in the 18th and 19th centuries. Prior to this, kingdoms, multicultural empires and polyglot city-states prevailed, and it is wrong to describe these as nations. It was taken for granted in medieval Europe, for example, that a king did not share the culture, history, genetic descent or even language of his subjects, and their loyalty or antipathy to him had little to do with these things. In fact, their loyalties and antipathies were most often aimed at their local feudal lords, those who exercised direct power over them. To see the contrast, recall that it was only when the modern nation had become a powerful force, in the twentieth century, that George V felt compelled by the nationalism of the British people in the First World War to change the name of his family from the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to the House of Windsor, demonstrating that royal families were an anachronism in the world of nation-states and that national feeling was something they struggled to come to terms with.

And if we look at the terms in which the stories of the age-old nation are told, namely appeals to geography, language, culture and history, we see that the claims for national continuity and ancient provenance are false. That is, nationalism is for the most part founded on lies (the big question might be, are we fed these lies by our rulers, or do we tell them to ourselves?)

Physical geography might be the first defence of nationalism that occurs to a person who takes nations for granted. This is the idea that nations are nothing but the organic attachment of a people to a land defined by natural barriers such as seas, rivers and mountain-ranges. Hence Britain and Japan, in contrast perhaps to, say, Slovenia and Croatia, might seem to have natural boundaries that we should expect to coincide with age-old political entities, as well as with common descent, culture and so on.

But it is obvious that this is not so. The history of the British Isles is one of repeated conquest, migration, division and alliance, and involves Picts, Scots, Romans, Britons, Anglo-Saxons, English, Welsh, Irish, Normans, Danes, Vikings, Highlanders and Lowlanders. And it is not as if there was a clear, coherent and stable nationality that those peoples took on. British? Danish? Welsh? English? French? Scottish? Caledonian? Physical geography is of no help in clearing up these confusions. In fact, where this has been significant it has not always been in the ways we might expect. For example, for many centuries there were closer political and cultural ties between the West of Scotland and Ireland, and between Southern Wales and Cornwall, than there were within today’s borders. For a long time after the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, if there was an “England” at all it was confined to a relatively small part of its current extent. And for a long period the divisions between highland and lowland, and west and east, were far more important than today.

All of this means that while physical geography can be important, the geography that matters now is not that which mattered then. It has not determined a continuous or ancient nation which could be seen as having led naturally to the British nation state, or even to English, Scottish or Welsh states. Hugh Kearney in his important 1989 book, The British Isles: A History of Four Nations, makes it abundantly clear that the habit of writing national histories – “The History of England”, “A History of Scotland”, and so on – is to a great degree illegitimate and misleading.

It is a similar story when we look at language, culture, ethnicity and history (to take one glaring example, very few Italians spoke Italian until television sets became widespread in the 1960s). We just cannot project present national borders into the past and expect to trace cultural and political groups accurately; to do so is to make myths.

Wherever we look, the modern definition of “nation” forces us to the conclusion that nations are modern, certainly if we emphasize the aspect of statehood. The important process that we need to explain is how the proto-national ideas of common culture and descent came to be aligned with political developments.

The Political Nation

The natural place to look for the beginnings of the nation is the French Revolution and the wider bourgeois ascendancy throughout Europe, which would lead to the establishment of modern nation-states and to the supremacy of capitalism. This, broadly speaking, was the period of nation-building, in which the political element of the nation, rather than the cultural element, was by far the more important, partly because the very things that it was designed to overcome were the smaller-scale ethnic and linguistic loyalties that stood in the way of progress. What this nationalism wanted was unification, in contrast to more recent forms of nationalism which seek separation. Thus there is an important difference here between social movements which both go by the name of nationalism but which seek very different things: one seeks to break down borders and collect people together in larger, transcending groups, and the other seeks to create more borders, on the basis of various kinds of small-scale particularities such as language and ethnicity.

Hobsbawm quotes the 1795 French Declaration of Rights:

Each people is independent and sovereign, whatever the number of individuals who compose it and the extent of the territory it occupies. This sovereignty is inalienable.

Insofar as this assertion of popular sovereignty, whereby people and state became one, was the pioneer of modern democracy, an attack on the divine right of kings, and an ambitious disavowal of tribal and feudal divisions, it is easy to sympathize with this kind of nationalism. It is even tempting – though I will no doubt be accused here of holding a crude, old-fashioned Enlightenment notion of Progress with a capital P – to see it as a stage of historical development beyond which we can envisage an even greater unification when the conditions are right. Incidentally, while such a development is by no means trivial or inevitable, I do believe in it, but whether it is an article of faith or a more rational kind of commitment I am not so sure.

But we might ask whether this revolutionary-democratic enthusiasm for the nation was a form of nationalism at all. After all, the ethno-linguistic element seems to be completely missing. My tentative view on this point is that nationalism is best seen as a principle of political group loyalty which might gain purchase with the help of ethnic attachments, but which can easily jettison these while still retaining the power to move people. This would allow us to understand the way in which anti-immigration feeling can be stirred up in places like the USA, which is as ethnically diverse as can be imagined. Naturally, this is not to say that ethnic and linguistic loyalties are never an element of this nationalism, at least for some people – many of those who advocate tighter control of the Mexican border and the harsher treatment of “illegals” are the same people who lament the increasing use of Spanish – but it seems clear that these are secondary to the political loyalty to the United States and the national pride that comes from being, first and foremost, an American citizen, that is, a member of an abstract political entity.

I am not sure where this leaves me with regard to the French Revolution: was it nationalist or not? Hobsbawm’s answer seems to be that these early revolutionary movements to establish popular sovereignty on a nominally national basis were not nationalist, because they did not explicitly found their principle of nationality on a pre-existing discrete community (invented or not) and an imagined legacy of cultural or linguistic homogeneity. Indeed, their nation-building worked against these ideas, at least in the beginning. Their concept of the people which was to be combined with the state was that of a citizenry. Therefore the definitions of nationalism given above do not quite work, because “a principle which holds that the political and national unit should be congruent” would depend on there being a pre-existing national unit, i.e., a people, independent from the political unit. In the French Revolution, there only came to be a national unit through political unity: people and state were born together and were virtually one and the same thing.

On the other hand, this national enthusiasm would quickly combine elements other than the political, for example the equation of French citizenry with the use of the national language. And it is obvious from the 1789 Declaration that the nation was henceforth to be the locus of power:

The nation is essentially the source of all sovereignty; nor can any individual, nor any body of men, be entitled to any authority which is not expressly derived from it.

Liberal Nationalism

And given the essential “congruence” here of the people and the state it seems pedantic to avoid the label of nationalism. At the very least we can say that the political importance of nationalism stems largely from this revolutionary period. This can be seen especially in the writings of Italian nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872), who explicitly took his cue from the French Revolution and epitomized the liberal nationalism of the nineteenth century. For him, one’s first duty is to the whole human family, but…

...what can each of you, with his isolated powers, do for the moral improvement, for the progress of humanity? God gave you this means when he gave you a country, when … he divided humanity into distinct groups upon the face of our globe, and thus planted the seeds of nations. Bad governments have disfigured the design of God …3

Thus at the same time as Mazzini’s nationalism is revolutionary and progressive, he also appeals to an original ethnic plan from which Europe had supposedly deviated, owing to the greed of a few kings, noblemen and warriors. The project of revolution and national unification was to restore the natural divisions between peoples, and banish the arbitrary ones imposed from above. In this curious mix of the progressive and the reactionary we perhaps see the first example of modern nationalism; unlike the French revolutionaries themselves, there can be absolutely no doubt that Mazzini deserves the label.

Mazzini is an important representative of a period which saw the growth of what came to be called “national economies”. The liberal nation-states had been established or, like Italy and Germany, were in the process of being established, and the important frame for economic activity was now a network of national economic entities. In the process of examining how the ideologists of liberalism conceived of nations and nation-states Hobsbawm looks at the curious blindness to the national character of capitalism which was built right in to British political economy, which formed its theories around the basic economic unit of the person (what Marx labeled as its “Robinson Crusoe stories”) or company, and had no place for the nation at all, despite the title of Adam Smith’s masterpiece. But outside Britain there was an increasing awareness of the intimate connection between the economy and the nation, most notably in the USA and Germany. The German economist Friedrich List wrote that the task of economics was to “accomplish the economic development of the nation and to prepare its entry into the universal society of the future”. 4

Thus the development of capitalism, which was then taking the form of massive industrialization, was at the heart of the nineteenth century national project. Another sign of this was that it was widely accepted that a nation must be viable, that is, big enough to support a growing economy. And despite Mazzini’s rhetoric, which comes close to an ethnic nationalism, the enthusiasm for unification, nation-building and national progress which dominated the nineteenth century generally did not depend on ethnic or linguistic identity. This is evident from the multicultural makeup of most of these nations, and is especially apparent at the end of the long nineteenth century, when in 1918 the Czechs and Slovaks, and the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, joined together to form Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.

Furthermore, while these developments did entail the loss of cultural traditions and dialects, the unifying nationalism did not usually aggressively suppress them, and even sometimes sought to keep them alive. Hobsbawm uses this fact to show that this nineteenth century “principle of nationality” was not chauvinistic.

From today’s perspective the general difficulty that should be kept in mind here, and which Hobsbawm has not solved so far, is nicely stated by R. J. B. Bosworth:

In one perspective, nations since 1789 have flourished in a world characterized by scientific and material progress, social cohesion and popular contentment … Yet, during that same period, nations have fostered exclusion, hierarchy, murder, genocide and local and world war. 5

Historical Evolution

But there were, in the period of liberal nationalism, uncertainties about which groups could be classed as nations, and which could legitimately rise to the rank of nation-state. Hobsbawm sets out three criteria which determined this:

1. The existence of a historic state. Thus the English and the Russians, for example, were natural candidates for modern nations.
2. The existence of a long-established cultural elite. This was the basis of German and Italian nation-building, where, unlike the English, they had no ancient sovereign state to rely on.
3. The capacity for conquest, proving a nation’s ability to survive the socio-evolutionary struggle for existence.

We can now see this nineteenth century phase of nationalism as an exemplar of the liberal ideology of historical evolution, in which the world is moving ever onwards out of darkness and ignorance into a bright new future of abundance, where only the strong will survive. By the end of this century the map of Europe had changed radically. It was to change again, but for quite different reasons.

In conclusion, I think Hobsbawm is right that nations and nationalism are modern, and I agree with his implied Marxist view that they were created largely under the class supremacy of the nation-building bourgeoisie. I have only two problems with his analysis so far. First, he contrasts these “imagined communities” with real communities, without ever explaining what these real communities are. And second, something I explored above, he wants to paint nationalism as inherently chauvinistic and harmful, and is therefore reluctant to apply the label to the revolutionary-democratic movements of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, or even the liberal nationalism of the bulk of the 19th century. I haven’t made a decision on this second point. Hobsbawm’s definitions might seem rather too convenient, internationalist that he is, but they might actually be the most historically useful, because there certainly are important distinctions to be made here.


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

sup>1 Gellner, Ernest, 1983: Nations and Nationalism, quoted in Hobsbawm
2 Gilbert, Paul, 1998: The Philosophy of Nationalism, Westview Press
3 Mazzini, The Duties of Man
4 List, Friedrich, 1885: The National System of Political Economy, quoted in Hobsbawm
5 Bosworth, R. J. B., 2007: Nationalism, Pearson

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