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.

Anderson is sometimes led away by trivia, or by the desire to present a paradox. ‘There has not been an English dynasty ruling in London since the 11th century,’ he states: yet if we are to accept that migration to the United States can make a Ukrainian an American, surely Windsor and St James can be considered to have Anglicised our monarchy once it had abandoned affection for ‘that despicable Electorate’. A more serious puzzle which he propounds is why it was easier for common nationality to become established in Indonesia than in Indochina: in so far as we can accept that this did happen, for Indonesia is not a part of the world readily open to foreign-based opinion polls or questionnaires, the length of Dutch domination, compared to that of France in Indochina, may be of significance. But there remains a puzzle in the fact that the system of different languages for different social ranks apparently did not prevent cohesion in Java.

What is welcome in Anderson’s book is the recognition that some nations can claim a long past, even if his theory implies that most of it was a past without nationalism. Ernest Gellner, who has written before on nationalism, and here adds a short but concentrated essay, together with related pieces, has attributed its rise to the capitalised industrial economy of the modern world. Those movements of the 19th century that thought they were nationalist will have to think again. But so will many 20th-century ones, because in one short definition he destroys most of them. Nationalism is the worship of one’s own culture, he says. Worship? Surely many people do not get beyond the two cheers attitude towards their own culture, holding that it has serious flaws but that any other is even worse. Some people can get to respect, or even admiration, but how many in Europe, the cradle of nationalism, can be said to offer worship? The statement suggests that Gellner is looking only at the rabid end of the opinion spectrum, and probably in states such as Iran where devotion to the state is based on religious sectarianism, as well as a police force. Gellner has some other drastic qualifications for the achievement of nationalism: universal literacy and a high level of numerical, technological and general sophistication are necessary, he states, for industrial society. In that case industrial society is having to live on educational aspirations rather than on facts, even in the last quarter of the 20th century.

The virtue of Anthony Smith’s book is a range of evidence even wider than in Anderson’s, and much more serious attention to a long time-span. He sees a sense of the past, even if based on fiction, as an important element in the transition of an ethnic group to a nation. He also stresses the importance to many such groups of a sense of religious uniqueness, and the memory of some sacred place. A good example of this is the Armenian consciousness. He does not enter, though, into the fact that there may be considerable gaps in the consciousness of the past. To many Israelis the early years of our era are more vivid than anything that happened between the second and the 19th century, and even the earlier canon of ethnic significance is known to be highly selective.

Smith’s main emphasis is on the ethnic component of nationalism. He sees the enlargement of a social group with ethnic consciousness by geographic growth, by the absorption of others and by the development of some sort of central political authority. When such a group has become what we might call a state, nationalism can emerge. This view forces nationalism into the role of a late addition to the nation state. It does not deal with nationalism which has not got a state, nor does it fit well to the historic development of much of the world outside Europe. Again we have a writer with high claims for the quality of citizenship. ‘Legal equality of common rights and duties is an essential part of citizenship,’ and the concept of citizenship is an important component of nationalism. Citizenship, he states, was a key feature in the creation of national consciousness in the French Revolution. But the revolutionary legislators did not hold to a unifying citizenship: ‘active’ citizenship, with the right to vote, was there for those who could pay a fair amount of tax, ‘passive’ citizenship, duties without rights, for the rest. And anyway inconvenient voting had to be ironed out by force. In Britain ‘active’ citizenship extended to all adult males, except those in prison, asylums, workhouses or the House of Lords, only in 1918, to females ten years later, and many parts of Europe took even longer to extend citizenship to women. Yet the excluded groups were expected to show loyalty long before they got the vote, and at times this loyalty went to the lengths of jingoism. Can one feel that ‘active’ citizenship was possessed by blacks in the United States as that country entered on the wars of the 20th century? The timing set out between citizenship and nationalism seems back to front.

A powerful line in Smith’s book is its emphasis on the force of salvation religions to impose wider bounds on ethnic communities. The conspicuous example here is Islam, and its creation of the Arab sense of community. The Christian world has not been so successful in making a sense of identity, and though Christendom has entered into ventures such as the Crusades, it has never thrown up the group loyalty of Islam. This is surprising, because Christendom achieved much more in the way of standardised and general institutions within its bounds than did Islam.

All these books tend too much to associate nationalism only with the 20th century. Yet there seems little difference between the dislike of French imperialism expressed by Sicilians in the 13th century and by the Vietnamese in the 20th. A similar parallel attitude to English control can be seen in Scotland in the 14th century and India in the 20th. It is of course possible that in both countries in the latter group the sense of national identity was created by the English presence: it nevertheless preceded modern capitalism, mass literacy and the historical myths about the past. In the 16th century it was loyalty to a monarch rather than patriotism which European governments demanded, but it was possible for such loyalty to be an expression of nationalism.

There are further puzzles concerning present-day national consciousness which none of these books fully explain. There needs to be recognition that many people have dual allegiances – a fact which comes home to some only with the advent of civil war. A Scot has an allegiance to Scotland and to Britain, an early 19th-century Virginian to his State as well as to the United States. Without its being a full national allegiance, many Jews have a consciousness of special obligation to Israel and to the international Jewish community, as well as to the country where they live and work. These facts are well-known, but not enough emphasis is placed on the absence of difficulty or tension for most people with dual allegiance. Even an age of rampant nationalism is not one of monolithic national identity.

These books do not answer some of our puzzling negatives. Why is there not a nationalism in Protestant Northern Ireland, where the ethos is very separate from either neighbouring community? Why has there been no movement for a Caribbean nation? And there are puzzling positives, which will not be solved without sophisticated historical research. How did China achieve national identity in spite of vast areas, poor communications, foreign dynasties, low literacy and miscellaneous languages? The United States supplies a puzzle in the mental changes which have enabled immigrants to accept a new national identity even before they have learnt English, and with no acceptance of a common religious dogma. Indeed, one of the interesting features of the United States is the replacement of the European bases of snobbery, landownership, ancestry, titles, with a snobbery of the date of family migration. We might ask why the democratised expression of national identity in many parts of Europe took over from preceding dominant aristocracies the habit of repressing other peoples: and not only in Europe, for this was the programme laid down for English-speaking Canadians by Lord Durham. The existence of ethnic shrines, traditions, sacred places, mythical heroes – none of these fully explain the tendency of nationalists to wish to do down other nations. Can we call it nationalism when the ethnic consciousness, as for instance in Afrikaner society, is recognised as a minority consciousness?

Elliott’s book fills in some of the gaps left by the more direct studies of nationalism. He is concerned by the tendency of the human race to create two categories of people, ‘us’ and ‘them’. His interest is first of all in the smaller social groups, and he gives a particularly vivid description of how British regiments have deliberately set up mechanisms to enhance the sense of ‘us’ so that a body often of haphazardly collected men can be expected to show fierce group loyalty. The regiment like the nation has its myths, the main one being that any present member has a real relationship to the earlier generations who have provided the battle honours. He also discusses the development of more ‘natural’ groupings which arise from the socialisation of the young. The enormous input of devices needed to turn adults into devoted adherents of a regiment brings to the fore the work of families, particularly of mothers, in indoctrinating the young. This thought inevitably forces a criticism of the intensely masculine language and assumptions of the other books. It is only in the very modern world, and even then selectively, that genuine if limited citizenship has been made available to women: yet by the time children become exposed to male teachers and male indoctrination most have acquired a strong ethnic, even a national, sense. Language is an important part of ethnic identity, and not for nothing is a child’s first language called the ‘mother tongue’.

Elliott also takes the trouble to explain some negatives. He spends some time showing how little there has been of any mechanism for inculcating imperial identity, so that the various colonial empires broke up under relatively slight national pressure. He might also have noted this in the case of the early Byzantine Empire: once strong traditions of deviant interpretations of Trinitarian doctrine had become generally held in provinces of the Empire, the process of being politically cut off from Constantinople by Persian or Arab conquest was markedly painless, since there had been a sharp weakening of conscious identity with the Empire.

The cheering aspect of all this is the reflection that there is a waywardness of human response, once groups under consideration cease to be small, that can make their reactions unpredictable. There is just enough free will, or bloodymindedness, in the system for indoctrination not always to work as intended. Even if outward compliance is achieved, societies may contain many with mental reservations. Big Brother may be watching, but he hasn’t got X-ray eyes.