HS-107 Readings

NATIONS Professor West

A nation is an image of a community or group of people who share a common sense of identity. It is an image which exists in the minds of the members of the nation. It is similar to the tribe or to the city-state or polis, except that it is usually larger in area and in population. The nation does not necessarily have an organized leadership. It may even be dominated by a state which is not a part of the national community, but this is a very unstable political situation. A nation which has its own state is referred to as a nation-state.

Nations did not exist prior to the industrial era, although the terminology is sometimes loosely used in reference to pre-industrial communities. Industrialization creates the requisite degree of literacy, and the means of communication and transportation to hold together as one community a group as large as the nation. It is this greater size which is the essential difference between a nation and a tribe.

Nations, tribes, and the polis have, as their primary cohesive force, the feeling of kinship which is the most binding element in the fusion of any human group. Different kinds of nations may be defined in accordance with the depth of the feelings of kinship involved.

An ethnic nation is one whose ethnicity determines membership in the nation. Birth and blood define the membership and cause it to be very permanent. The group is more important than the individual. Hence, an ethnic nation also tends to be collectivistic.

A civic nation is one in which the individual may choose, through a civic procedure, to change his or her national identity, or the individual may be born as a member of a nation which is multi-ethnic, rendering ethnicity as largely irrelevant to membership. A civic nation tends to be individualist rather than collectivist.

An ethnic, collectivist nation tends to be authoritarian, while a civic, individualist nation tends to be politically liberal. (Greenfeld)

In any case, the sense of identity is so strong that it is an inseparable part of the personalities of most of the individuals in the group. People are born and raised to conceive of themselves as being a part of the nation, and rarely lose that self-conception in the course of their lives. There is a feeling of pride and a deep sense of loyalty associated with it. Under ordinary circumstances, the feelings are latent, but easily aroused when activities associated with the nation are brought into awareness. There is a feeling of pride when national activities are successful, and a feeling of fear when there is a perceived threat to national interests. There is a feeling of anger when the nation is attacked or injured. It is as if what is happening to the nation is happening to the individual himself. The flag, which is a symbol of the nation, stimulates all of those feelings when it is displayed on public occasions, or when it is attacked.

It is essential to an understanding of the motive of nationalism to recognize that it is primarily a feeling; an emotion, not a rational or intellectual process, although there are literary and intellectual connections. As such, it is more powerful as a motivation than any rational or intellectual process. This also means that it is difficult for an individual to be rational or objective in circumstances involving national comparisons or national conflict.

As a consequence of the strong cohesion binding a nation together, the nation is very powerful, strongly united in times of danger, and very enduring. Individuals will die, but the feelings of nationalism are passed on from generation to generation and the nation endures indefinitely. The nation may be defeated in war, its state destroyed, its land occupied by a foreign conqueror, but the nation will endure because its people will continue to have the same feelings of nationalism. Poland is an example of a nation whose state was destroyed and land overrun for more than a century (1795 to 1919), yet it survived to become the basis of a renewed nation-state.

The unified strength of a nation enables it to accomplish the goals of the group, both domestic and foreign, much more effectively than would otherwise be possible. To the extent that national goals are functional, the nation serves the best interests of its members. When they are dysfunctional, the nation can become the source of great destruction. The maintenance of civil peace, the protection of individual rights, the servicing of the needs of the populace can better be accomplished by and within the nation. On the other hand, the misuse of national power to oppress minorities within or to wage war on people abroad results in greater oppression and greater destruction.

The individuals who are members of a civic nation are citizens who enjoy certain rights, and feel an equality with other citizens by virtue of their citizenship. In an ethnic nation, the same sense of equality is provided by the common ethnicity, with or without the existence of individual rights. There is a world of difference between the citizen of a nation and the subject of an empire. Citizens of a nation identify with each other and are concerned about each other's fate. Loss of life of a fellow citizen conveys a sense of loss, whereas the loss of life of a foreigner lacks significance. Citizens of a nation are likely to be convinced they are serving a worthy cause when they serve their nation. A subject of an empire has no such feeling.

Nation-building is a gradual, centuries-long process. In Europe, the process began as the people of Europe were recovering from the l4th century decline of medieval civilization. As visitations of the plague became less destructive, as population began to grow, and as the economy recovered, new political institutions began to evolve. Circumstances for the recovery were most promising in western Europe where the economy began to experience the additional stimulation of trade with non-western areas of the world whose resources were beginning to be harnessed in overseas settlements. Alliances between feudal lords and city leaders formed the basis for the feudal monarchies developing around London, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, and Lisbon. During the 16th and 17th centuries, these feudal monarchies increased their authority, extended their territories, developed bureacracies, grew in wealth and power, and gradually became independent of their feudal origins. The relationship between the greater and the lesser nobility changed. The greater nobility, the monarchs, increasingly derived their support, not only from the lesser nobility, but also from the urban populace and city leaders. Works of art and literature produced by a literate elite for consumption by a literate elite, led to the creation of written, vernacular languages which provided regional alternatives to Greek and Latin.

While it was not possible for a sense of community to develop across all of Europe, it did develop around each of several, urban-based regional monarchies. Geographical separation, regional interests of the rising national monarchies, and the development of a sense of identity among regional elites determined the origins of the nations of Europe. The feudal monarchies grew, and coalesced into the national monarchies of 18th century Europe. A common literature, a common language, and an experience of shared struggle forged a common sense of identity among an aristocratic and urban elite. The great majority of the population were, however, excluded from the process. They were the rural, illiterate peasant, and the exploited urban worker, uneducated, struggling to survive at a bare subsistence level as their predecessors had done from time immemorial. There was not yet the basis for the creation of the nation.

The scientific revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries, the new technology of early industrialization, and increased productivity in agriculture and industry provided the foundation for an increasing dissemination of knowledge among an expanding aristocracy and newly important middle class. Both of these classes expected and demanded more privileges and rights. The monarchies of Europe, first in England in the l7th century, and then in France at the end of the 18th century, were compelled to surrender some of their powers to these new and increasingly influential interest groups. The transfer of power took shape in the form of sharing power with legislatures that represented the new interest groups. Typically the distribution of power was defined in a Constitution, and all the parties to the new arrangement, including the monarchy, were subordinated to the law. An ideology, known as political liberalism, was expressed by intellectuals as an explanation of the new system. At the center of the new ideology was the concept of the equality of the individual before the law.

The dividing line between a world organized on the basis of family and class, and one organized on the basis of the nation, were the great liberal revolutions which swept across European civilization, from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries. This is also the dividing line between the traditional and the modern world. It may be said, therefore, that the modern world is organized on the principle of the nation, just as the traditional world was based upon the principle of the family.

The elevation of the individual to a status of equality and citizenship was accompanied by a sense of identity with the national group. Feelings of kinship were aroused among citizens, and the national group was often referred to as the fatherland or the motherland. New governments came into being as a result of a traumatic revolutionary process, involving civil conflict, sacrifice, turmoil and war. The struggle emphasized and strengthened the national feeling as people associated the birth of the nation with a mythology of heroism. National symbols (the flag) and national anthems were created to focus the new sense of identity. The creative energies of large numbers of people could be mobilized in support of the new nation-state.

The 19th century is the era when the nation-state spread throughout Europe and was consolidated in the United States. After mid-century, after the American Civil War and after the unification of Italy and Gerrnany, it was clear that the nation-state had come into its own as a predominant characteristic of the modern era. Wherever the nation-state has been organized, it coordinated the activities and loyalties of its compatriots to create a uniquely powerful, internally stable group. Wherever a nation-state cannot be organized, there was ethnic conflict and instability. Empires, not based upon the aroused feelings of nationalism and often seeking to repress those feelings, are threatened with instability and upheaval.

Most of the early manifestations of nationalism were accompanied by the ideology of political liberalism. Concepts of equal opportunity were inseparable from the national concept of equal citizenship within the nation. A sense of involvement in the political life of society enhanced the sense of national identity. This was evident in England, France, Italy and the United States. After mid-century, however, it becarne clear that national feeling was also effective in gathering the support and loyalty of people behind illiberal or authoritarian forms of government. The sense of ethnic solidarity in support of the nation could be harnessed to repress individual rights and obtain obedience to arbitrary state power. There were elements of this in the empire of Napoleon III in France, and in the German Empire forged by Bismarck. The rise of fascism in the 20th century is the most extreme example of an ideology associated with the ethnic, collectivist form of nationalism.

The most serious drawback of nationalism and the evolution of the nation-state was the competitition and conflict which developed between the nation-states. Conflict was evident even before the nation-state achieved its modern (post-revolutionary) status. That is to say, ever since the national monarchies asserted themselves in the 17th century, they engaged in warfare with each other. The Dutch versus the Portuguese and Spanish, the French versus the Austrian and Spanish Habsburgs, the Dutch versus the English, and the long struggle between the French and the English in the 18th century are all examples. Although the nation-state was becoming increasingly effective in maintaining peace, order and stability within the boundaries of each nation, the wars they fought with each other were increasingly destructive.

Industrialization was not only the driving force behind the achievement of higher levels of education, cormmunication and transportation which linked the people of a nation together, it also was the means by which new technology, and improved organization of military forces were making war more deadly. This became very evident in the last half of the 19th century as the enmity between France and Germany spawned an arms race and a search for national security through a system of alliances with other nations. In other words, peace was maintained by a balance of power wherein each opposing bloc of nations increased their military capabilities as a defense against their opponent. That peace broke down dramatically in 1914.

The incredible loss and destruction of World War I was the cataclysmic circumstance which originated the first serious effort in modern times to establish an alternative to the balance of power as a means of keeping the peace. President Woodrow Wilson was the prime initiator of the League of Nations which sought to protect national security through a collective effort among nations to combine with each other to prevent aggression. The League was handicapped from the outset by the failure of the United States, then the most powerful nation in the world, to become a member. The United States Senate was unwilling to surrender a measure of U.S. sovereignty to an international organization. Hence, the aspirations of nationalism were a barrier to the achievement of a stable peace.

World War I had so thoroughly disrupted the established order and so thrown the European economy into turmoil, that instability and insecurity predominated. This was particularly true in central Europe where Germany and the peoples of the former Austro-Hungarian empire struggled against overwhelming odds to restore order, and in eastern Europe where Russia was in the throes of a civil war. As a result, the governments that arose to rule the area were, with few exceptions, dictatorships. Fascism, an ideology which exalted a single all-powerful leader and stressed the use of military might and a resort to war to achieve national objectives, became widespread. Fascism also exploited national feeling in order to consolidate unified support for the dictator.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the conditions created by the First war led in two decades to the even more terrible Second World War. Furthermore, the terror of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia underlined and dramatized the extent to which European civilization had collapsed into barbarism. That these events should have occurred in a world whose highest state of political organization was the nation-state is eloquent testimony to the bankruptcy and failure of the nation-state system.

*Greenfeld, Liah, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity , Harvard University Press, 1993

HS-22 Readings