The schismatic view of nationalism III


Horace B. Davis sees a division in the origins of nationalism within Europe; one referred to by him as ‘nationalism of the Enlightenment’, the other that of ‘Herder and Fichte’. A similar dualism is played out even with distinctions based on the nature of nationalism, such as political vs. cultural. Kohn, for example, associates political nationalism with the West: “Its purpose was to create a liberal and rational civil society… English and American nationalism was in its origin connected with the concepts of individual liberty and represented nations firmly constituted in their political life.” As against this the Eastern society developed: “in lands which were in political ideas and social structure less advanced than the modern West. There was only a weak middle class; the nation was split between a feudal aristocracy and a rural proletariat. Thus nationalism became… a cultural movement… to oppose the ‘alien’ example and its liberal and rational outlook.”

Various shades of such distinctions have come under criticism even within the European discourse on nationalism. For example Anthony Smith says: The pedagogical narrative of western democracies turns out to be every bit as demanding and rigorous – and in practice ethnically one-sided – as are those of non-western authoritarian state-nations, since it assumes the assimilation of ethnic minorities within the borders of the nation-state through acculturation to a hegemonic majority ethnic culture.

Another dualist approach refers to civic and ethnic nationalism. As Anthony Smith defines it, civic nationalism is characterised by “historic territory, legal-political community, legal-political equality of members, and common civic culture and ideology; these are the components of the standard Western model of the nation”. In contrast to this, ethnic nationalism is “first and foremost a community of common descent.”

Many commentators on nationalism have pointed out the schism in the self-perception of nationalism and its perceptions by observers. Anderson talks, for example, about the paradox of “the objective modernity of nations to the historian’s eye vs. their subjective antiquity in the eyes of the nationalists.” Gellner observes: “Nationalism is not what it seems, and above all not what it seems to itself.” This, too familiar trope of dualism, leads Homi Bhabha to comment: “What I want to emphasise in that large and liminal image of the nation… is a particular ambivalence that haunts the idea of the nation, the language of those who write of it and the lives of those who live it.”

One of the dualisms in the definition of nation is what Hobsbawm terms as the objective and subjective approach. The objective attempt to define a nation may look for objective criteria such as language, territory, cultural traits, etc. Such a definition does not proceed far before encountering exceptions that contradict the rule. This is so because, as Hobsbawm observes: “the criteria used for this purpose – language, ethnicity or whatever – are themselves fuzzy, shifting and ambiguous.” Nevertheless, it is true that often nationalists employ such a vocabulary to mobilise support for nationalist programmes: something quite evident in a number of national anthems that combine references to territory, history, cultural traits, rivers, eco-systems and so on to evoke loyalty towards nationalist programmes.

Subjective definitions refer to collective will, common consent, voluntary choice, etc. That the will of a group of people to form a ‘nation’ does not necessarily engender one is indication enough that subjective definitions are inadequate to explain the concept of ‘nation’. Consciousness and choice as determinants of nation obscure the web of parameters that human beings employ in defining themselves. The partial explanations these two approaches provide and their inadequacies in defining nation are symptomatic. As Hobsbawm says, “Nor indeed is it possible to reduce even ‘nationality’ to a single dimension, whether political, cultural or otherwise”.

There has been a near consensus over the destructive power of nationalism, which is the context in which such classifications as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ nationalism are made. The duality between good and bad nationalism is stated in various ways. As Partha Chatterjee observes: “Seen as part of the story of liberty, nationalism could be defined as a rational ideological framework for the realization of rational and highly laudable political ends. But that was not how nationalism has made its presence felt in much of recent history. It has been the cause of the most destructive wars ever seen; it has justified the brutality of Nazism and Fascism; it has become the ideology of racial hatred in the colonies and has given birth to some of the most irrational revivalist movements as also to the most oppressive political regimes in the contemporary world.

Timothy Brennan has suggested that nationalism in Europe was a project of unity on the basis of colonial conquests and economic and administrative units; but in the ‘third world’ nationalism is mainly a project of consolidation of territorial units established by the coloniser. However, there is also another way in which this duality is played out. The travails of a postcolonial nation are offered as a proof of the debilitating effects of nationalism (see the opening pages of Anderson, 1991, Hobsbawm, 1992, Chatterjee, 1993, Mondal, 2003, etc.). At the end of a nationalist struggle to establish political freedom, why do postcolonial nation-states offer examples of the destructive power of nationalism? The answer is mired in the politics of representation of the ‘third world’ in the ‘first world’ discourse of social sciences. But that apart, it should be noted that what now appears to be skirmishes between the various groups within a nation-state need not necessarily be new, and that it is possible to see their origins in the nationalist struggle of those nation-states. That various conflicts are coming into view now is no reason to believe that they have their origin in the present. The conflicts are not necessarily the negative effects of nationalism that has a distinct positive effect in its emancipatory project.

I think such internal incommensurability cannot be distinguished from nationalism’s emancipatory energy (the good, the liberal nationalism, the positive effects and so on) and that they are integral constituents of the phenomena of nationalism. What it means is that nationalism in its programme of producing a nation is never a singular effort with a coherent end in sight but in its very structure it is constituted by conflictual projects. Howsoever small a community nationalism aims to produce through its identity politics, the nation produced is an ensemble of differing identity claims, which is why it is not a seamless singularity. This is also the reason why both nation and nationalism are plural and they do not escape the heteroglossia that characterises the interests they claim to represent.

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