The Schismatic View of Nationalism – II

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Literature on nationalism is replete with the trope of duality. Somehow everyone seems to find one or the other schism in the nature or meaning of nationalism. Thus, we have good and bad nationalism, Western and Eastern nationalism, nationalisms of the oppressors and the oppressed, original and pirate, liberal and illiberal, civic and ethnic, etc. The grounds on which these classifications are made are different but in much of the scholarship on nationalism, an urge to employ a schismatic view is common. Even when some of the scholars go on to further sub-divisions, they begin with a duality.

Partha Chatterjee in the opening chapter of his book Nationalist Thought and the Colonial Word: A Derivative Discourse? refers to the two types of nationalism characterised by John Plamenatz. One type, according to Plamenatz, is ‘Western’ and has its origins in Western Europe and the second type is ‘Eastern’, which originated in Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America. The strange mingling and division of continents for labelling the two types of nationalism is in itself noteworthy. Plamenatz was not alone in employing the vocabulary of ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ types of nationalism. Hans Kohn also employs similar terms: ‘western’ and ‘non-western’, which are later termed as good and evil nationalisms. For Kohn, Western nationalism developed out of Enlightenment and suggests the bourgeois individuals’ attempt at rational pursuit of legitimate interest. Contrarily, Eastern nationalism for Kohn is primarily based on the Western model and is a reaction to it.

Marx and Engels, despite maintaining that ‘the working men have no country’, distinguish between ‘historic’ and ‘non- historic’ nations. They contrast the ‘large and well defined historical nations’ with the ‘ruins of peoples…’ which are ‘no longer capable of a national existence…’ This line of argument receives greater clarity in Lenin when he makes a distinction between oppressor and oppressed nations. Isolating Lenin’s comments which is related to his theory of imperialism may not be very useful but the tendency to divide nationalism is noteworthy. Attending to the ‘Janus face of nationalism, Anthony Smith says, “despite the capacity of nationalisms to generate widespread terror and destruction, the nation and nationalism provide the only realistic socio-cultural framework for a modern world order.”

Tom Nairn’s suggestion is that “all nationalism is both healthy and morbid. Both progress and regress are inscribed in its genetic code from the start.” Spencer and Wollman list thirteen contrasting distinctions to be found in the literature on nationalism, mostly along the lines of Western and Eastern nationalism. Generally, Western nationalism is seen as political, liberal, rational, historical, etc. and Eastern nationalism is seen as cultural, ethnic, illiberal, non-historic, etc. It is true that not everyone is totally Euro-centric in prescribing these definitive divisions, yet the propensity for finding dualism in nationalism itself speaks for the divergences in the phenomena. Ernest Gellner’s typology of zones also seems to suggest an East-West divide with his notion of the different nationalisms moving towards the western models.

The foregoing discussion has exemplified the schismatic view of nationalism in relation to its origins. Next post I will turn from the ‘where’ to the ‘when’ of the origins of nationalism.

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