The Schismatic View of Nationalism – I

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Bernard Shaw in Saint Joan sees the beginnings of nationalism in the legend of Joan. That would place its origins as far back as 14th century. Notwithstanding how far back or in the recent past we place the origin of nationalism, theorisation on the subject has had a long history. It is therefore remarkable how often the complaint that it is an area under-theorised comes up. Walter Bagehot, who in his 1887 book Physics and Politics views the nineteenth century as an age of ‘nation building’, confesses to some perplexity about nation: “We know what it is when you do not ask us, but we cannot very quickly explain or define it.” This finds an echo in the frustration of Hugh Seton-Watson who said in 1977, “I am driven to the conclusion that no ‘scientific definition’ of the nation can be devised; yet the phenomenon has existed and exists.” Tom Nairn acidly observes, “The theory of nationalism represents Marxism’s greatest historical failure.” Reviewing the field in 1990, Hobsbawm finds only eleven books on the subject worthy of consultation and hints at the clarity available from them when he comments, “Nation-watching would be simple if it could be like bird-watching.” Benedict Anderson observes, “In contrast to the immense influence that nationalism has exerted on the modern world, plausible theory about it is conspicuously meagre.” Partha Chatterjee calls nation “the one most untheorized concept of the modern world”. Even as late as 2003, Anshuman Mondal notes the “growing dissatisfaction with the theories or models of nationalism currently on offer.”

It is possible to find more thinkers who generally agree that nation and nationalism are inadequately theorised. Considering that the phenomenon is an everyday reality and has determined the social existence for the last few centuries, it is, to put it mildly, puzzling that theorisation of the subject should be found inadequate – that too when thinkers from a variety of ideological persuasions have written treatises on it. For all the diverse discussions, from sociological, political, economic, cultural and a host of other perspectives, there is very little coherent theorisation that is left unchallenged by some other, subsequent one. That is, there has been an amazing amount of scholarship that defines, describes and prescribes nationalism/ nation/ nation-state, most of which differ from the rest, though ever so slightly. Little concurrence can be observed across the spectrum on the origins, meaning, function and causes and effects of nationalism or nation. What is significant is that, here is an idea about which there is very little incomprehension, near nigh lack of experience and exposure, yet many feel that it remains inadequately defined. I disagree with the view that theorisation itself is lacking or that thinkers have generally failed to explain the phenomena of nations and nationalisms. Instead, the very dissatisfaction is to be seen as signifying something: nations and nationalisms are not universally similar entities though the phenomena are found all over the world. The implication of this common dissatisfaction is an important sign of their condition of being.

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