Nations

Rosalind Mitchison

  • Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism by Benedict Anderson
    Verso, 160 pp, £5.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 86091 759 2
  • Culture, Identity and Politics by Ernest Gellner
    Cambridge, 189 pp, £8.95, June 1987, ISBN 0 521 33667 8
  • The Ethnic Origins of Nations by Anthony Smith
    Blackwell, 312 pp, £25.00, October 1986, ISBN 0 631 15205 9
  • Us and Them: A Study of Group Consciousness by W.A. Elliott
    Aberdeen University Press, 164 pp, £12.50, November 1986, ISBN 0 08 032438 X

What nationalism is, and how it came to exist, are topics of some significance today. One reason for this is practical: that a suitable answer to these questions would justify some states, sure of their own right to nationalism, in suppressing national claims by minority or neighbour populations. There are other, more intellectually respectable, reasons. We have to look critically at our own assumptions, of which national feeling is one, to understand, and perhaps govern, our behaviour. So long as nationalism is used as a reason for political or terrorist activities it is important to be able to understand just what it entails. Why do some groups of people claim to be nations while others, with perhaps as clearly formed a culture and even as clearly marked linguistic boundaries, do not? Why does national identity in some cultures require the repression of its manifestations in others? When does what we recognise as national consciousness become manifest, and can we draw any general conclusions about the settings in which this happens on which to base a theory of causation? How artificial must inevitably be the sense of cohesion and the vision of the national past which sustain nationalism?

The writers on nationalism here considered offer specific theories of the basic setting in which what they are prepared to admit as nationalism can emerge. These can be held to be descriptions of the necessary but not the sufficient conditions. To Benedict Anderson nationalism is the result of mass literacy and print. It is only, he argues, when people can imagine a nation that it can come into existence, and people will do this imagining only under the stimulus of common exposure to the same body of the written word. The book, he declares, is a different commodity from other articles of trade: it is complete in itself, the first modern industrial artefact. But much the same can be said about the gun. Both articles have been powerful instruments of cultural intrusion. It can also be argued that the book has now been overtaken as a means of communication and propaganda by the television screen. Anderson denies that it is important for a nation to have a language of its own, basing his view on the fact that the movements for independence in English and Spanish-speaking America were in no way impeded by having a common language with the rejected imperial power, and though he sees that linguistic unity within a country helps coherence, religious unity can in some cases be seen to have been more important.

This is one of several valuable insights in Anderson’s work. There are also some blanks. Common literature does not need to be read to be absorbed: societies relying on bardic culture get by with almost nobody, no even the bard, able to read, because the human memory can be developed to act with the reliability of a printed text. The enormous significance of the Authorised Version of the Bible in Britain provided a common literature for readers and for non-readers, yet the use of it in the southern rather than the northern form of developing English did not reduce the Scottish sense of a separate identity. Anderson quotes Hobsbawm’s assertion that formal institutions of education run hand in hand with nationalism, stressing that it is valid for 19th-century Europe, but does not seem to fit well with what was happening in Ireland or in Poland. Anderson sees that the nation and the literate are not identical groups, and that literacy in someone else’s culture, as for many upper-class Indians under British rule, if not accompanied by equality of opportunity, may foster a hostile nationalism.

You are not logged in