The recent death of Benedict Anderson is worth noting, as he was one of the key thinkers who shaped modern understanding of the phenomena of nations and nationalism.
Tom Nairn has famously quipped that inability to understand nationalism is Marxism’s greatest failure. In a sense he is correct, that not only Marxists but the broader political left have often tended towards an instrumental and unreflective relationship with nationalism, as if the consciousness and political dynamics unleashed by nations are somehow less authentic and fundamental than those based upon class and economic exploitation.
This is dangerous because it underestimates the degree to which the passions of nationalism are rational and derive from actually existing social relationships, but of course we also need to understand that nations are not unchanging, they are the product of a particular stage of human development.
As Hobsbawm argued in his work, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780
the ‘nation’ [is not a] primary nor … an unchanging social entity. It belongs exclusively to a particular, and historically recent, period. It is a social entity only insofar as it relates to a certain kind of modern territorial state, the ‘nation-state’, and it is pointless to discuss nation and nationality except insofar as both relate to it. Moreover, with Gellner I would stress the element of artifact, invention and social engineering which enters into the making of nations. ‘Nations as a natural, God-given way of classifying men, as an inherent … political destiny, are a myth; nationalism, which sometimes takes preexisting cultures and turns them into nations, sometimes invents them, and often obliterates preexisting cultures: that is a reality.’ In short, for the purposes of analysis nationalism comes before nations. Nations do not make states and nationalisms but the other way round.
An important insight from both Benedict Anderson, in his book “Imagined Communities” and Ernest Gellner in his work “Nations and Nationalism” is that industrial society created a new form of collective consciousness, whereby modes of face to face relationships were replaced by economic relationships with strangers.
Gellner stresses how the horizontal class loyalties that crossed national boundaries in European feudal society became fractured, and replaced with national traditions; and he points out how state sponsored education, and standardised languages developed segregation between nations. Anderson points out that printing accelerated the linguistic standardisation, trade standardised the legal system, and modern cartography created a new mental conception of borders.
Industrial societies require that the population should be socially mobile, and atomised, so that no job becomes restricted to a particular caste or family, and individuals owe their primary loyalties to wider society, rather than to family, faith group or tribe. Gellner attributes the growth of national consciousness to the state sponsored universal education system of industrialised societies, and with a complimentary insight Benedict Anderson describes the role of mass produced printing as creating an imagined national community of shared culture. It is worth also praising the insight of Neil Davidson of how this relates to the psychological theories of consciousness from Voloshinov, that national consciousness is collectively developed, and individuals interact with the forms of collective social consciousness that are available to them.
National consciousness is therefore by necessity participatory, and this supports the argument from the Austro-Marxist Otto Bauer, that shared communities of fate develop shared communities of character (or consciousness). Bauer argued that people who share a common community of experience, develop a common community of culture. Even where there is a contested class struggle within a nation, the specificity of that class struggle provides a common frame of reference to the contending classes. The French revolution was a bourgeois overthrow of monarchical absolutism, but it was also specifically French. That is, unique and nationally specific forms of consciousness develop, whereby people share collectively developed signifiers and social performances which mark themselves as belonging.
Therefore we can see how the development of the early industrial societies, the eclipsing of feudalism led to a new form of consciousness, where people felt themselves as belonging to a nation, in a way they previously had not.
It is no surprise that this process was accelerated among colonists, in fresh lands where feudal legacies were weak, and where the colonising mission gave a sense of new identity and collective purpose; Benedict Anderson drew attention to the fact that the explicit political projects of modern nationalism arose mainly in the new world of the Americas.
To take a lesser known example, on 16th September 1810, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a Roman Catholic priest from the small town of Dolores, near Guanajuato in Mexico, issued the famous Grito de Dolores (“Cry of Dolores”):
My children: a new dispensation comes to us today. Will you receive it? Will you free yourselves? Will you recover the lands stolen by three hundred years ago from your forefathers by the hated Spaniards? We must act at once… Will you defend your religion and your rights as true patriots? Long live our Lady of Guadalupe! Death to bad government! Death to the gachupines!
It is worth looking at this, because Hidalgo himself was a creole (born in the Americas but of European descent), a similar background to Simon Bolivar and George Washington. This was more than a coincidence, it was a pattern.
As Anderson explained, the creole populations of the Americas suffered a social and political disadvantage compared to citizens born in Britain, France or Spain; this was highlighted by the slogan of the American Revolution, “No taxation without representation”.
In Hidalgo’s proclamation, he calls for death to the gachupines , another name for peninsulares born in metropolitan Spain; this reflects the social and political clash between the creoles and the colonial elite. However, he also explicitly identifies the creole revolt of Mexicans of Spanish heritage with the historical plight of the indiginous population. Hidalgo was a political visionary who saw mestizos and indigenous peoples as fellow Mexicans, he was not seeking to replace an elite of peninsulares with an elite of creoles, rather he was seeking to unite a nation around their common history and specific mix of cultural peculiarities.
However, the arising of national consciousness was not itself sufficient to lead to political nationalism. It was also necessary for the idea of nations to establish itself at the ideological level, to bind the concept of nation to the realities of state power. The extraordinary book by Hans Kohn “The idea of Nationalism”, written by an academic historian and Zionist theoretician, details the development of a new ideology which matched the developing new form of collective consciousness in Europe, and how the old intellectual classes vigorously opposed what they saw as a vulgar patriotism that was undermining their pan-European outlook. Gradually national identity became the dominant ideology, and national consciousness became the dominant form of collective awareness, as a necessary corrolary of the growth of industrial society. Anderson argued that the advocacy of the form of a nation state as a political project in the rest of the world was shaped by the prototype nations that arose in the Americas.
Ernest Gellner explains the phenomenon very well of how in pre-industrial societies, populations are neither culturally homogenous, nor socially or geographically mobile. They have laterally isolated face-to-face communities of direct agricultural producers, and only the clerical, administrative and economically dominant classes communicate on a national basis and develop a high culture.
We can see how this works by looking at the example of the historical Czech populations of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia. In the Middle Ages Bohemia and Moravia were among the most economically developed areas of Europe, with a prospering Czech nobility, chivalry and burgher classes, but they were struck by a number of catastrophes. Their defeat in the fifteenth century Hussite wars led to the nobility being deposed and replaced by the mercenaries of different nationalities who had fought for the Kaiser, and who adopted the German language and culture; the loss of Constantinople changed irrevocably the patterns of European trade, leading to a disastrous decline in prosperity, and the counter-reformation meant that the remaining protestant burghers migrated north.
The result was the eradication of Czech as a written and cultural language, and it became the preserve only of peasants living in a German state. Under early feudalism there was no requirement for the peasantry to speak the same language as their rulers, and as Gellner observes such a cultural/linguistic underpinning of social inequality promoted rather than impeded stability in pre-industrial societies.
But later feudalism, in the eighteenth century saw the arrival of a new phenomenon of the Absolutist state, which in both France and Austria developed a mass army directly employed by the state, and therefore required taxation to pay for it. So even though these absolutist states were run exclusively by the nobility, they consciously adopted mercantilist policies to develop capitalism, in order to increase national wealth. They also sought to eliminate the mediating feudal classes, and deal with their subjects direct.
In Austria, this meant the deliberate policy by the Kaiserin Maria Theresa of reviving the Czech language in the state bureaucracy, in order that the state could deal with the peasantry without intermediaries. Growing prosperity also created professional classes, such as schoolteachers and doctors who need to speak Czech, and a revival of interest in Czech folklore (originally writing about Czech culture in German, in the same ways that the early meetings of the revivalist Finnish folklore society spoke only in Swedish), this led over quite a short period of decades to the revival of Czech as literary language, firstly with the publication of a translation of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The growing Czech speaking middle classes became increasingly confident.
In the democratic revolution of 1848, the Czechs sided with the Monarchy against the democracy movement because the democracy movement expressed the economic interests of the German speaking bourgeoisie. The decision of the Reichstag to only allow speeches in German was a class measure designed to exclude the peasantry and small businessmen. Big manufacturing in the Czech lands was in German hands, (Bohemia had a 40% German population) and the economic interest of these Germans was closer integration and creation of an Empire wide market that eliminated local protectionism, whereas the economic interests of the agrarian areas in the Czech lands, and the smaller Czech manufacturers was to have federal provinces in the Empire, that protected and developed local production.
The emergence of a national Czech culture changed the nature of the Austrian part of the dual Monarchy from being a German state into a multinational state, because developing capitalism empowered the Czechs to participate in national life. Interestingly, the only socialists who aspired to nationalist secession from the Empire were from the most economically under-developed areas, and which bordered parts of the Czarist empire where there were bourgeois national movements of their co-nationals, the Poles and Ruthenians (Gallician Ukranians)
As one famous Russian accurately described it: “A very peculiar situation was thus created—a striving on the part of the Hungarians and then of the Czechs, not for separation from Austria, but, on the contrary, for the preservation of Austria’s integrity, precisely in order to preserve national independence, which might have been completely crushed by more rapacious and powerful neighbours! Owing to this peculiar situation, Austria assumed the form of a dual state, and she is now being transformed into a triple state (Germans, Hungarians, Slays).”
But more specifically, following Otto Bauer we can observe that whereas the illiterate and isolated Czech peasantry had not been part of the nation, but merely its tenants, the development of capitalism created a national culture, and with the event of universal male suffrage in 1867, the political parties strived to draw every individual man into national life, because it wanted their votes. The growth of national life drew people out of the perspective of their own village or workshop, and introduced them to high culture and politics.
Anderson describes the process where industrialism promoted growing literacy, and the invention of the concept of the modern novel coincides with the growth of the concept of the “everyman” figure, and identification with the interest of strangers based upon shared nationhood.
The feeling of identity and belonging are powerful ones, and the left ignores them at its peril. Indeed, there is an argument, following Bauer, that the growth of nations has been an emancipatory project bringing the benefits of democracy and participation in cultural life to the whole population, rather that the nation being the property of the privileged dominant classes. What is more, whereas historical nations were based upon shared ethnic and cultural legacy, the growth of civic nationalism has allowed modern nation states to be porous and multi-cultural, open to newcomers.