The nation State and nationalism - Oiseau-tempête (André Dréan)

The nation State and nationalism - Oiseau-tempête (André Dréan)

During this end of the century, it is hard to ignore the flood of nationalistic expressions. Nationalism appears to have become the world’s most shared mass ideology.

All States are today recognized as nations even when, as it shows, they do not correspond to the nation State model they claim to incarnate. There are no signs showing that the growth of nationalisms and States will end any time soon. It is not in the least paradoxical to our era: more than ever capitalism tends to free itself from the limits that hamper it, in particular regarding limits constituted by national borders. But the crisis of the nation State model which accompanies the affirmation of capital’s supranational character, far from crumbling the foundations of nationalism seems to on the contrary have consolidated them. At the same time, today’s nationalism, in many ways, is not simply the renewal of yesterday’s. To oppose ourselves to the poisoned call of the nationalists, regardless of what stage costume they don, we can but please ourselves with the generic bases of critique. It is necessary to think for ourselves about this situation without precedent we are confronted with. In this vein, Hobsbawm’s study, “Nations and nationalisms since 1780”(1) is one of the rare books that may give us clues. Even if he sometimes flirts too much with the conceptions of historical materialism’s maestros, centralized States as found in the USSR would have according to him at least have had the merit of restraining themselves from separatist dances – it is not merely their harping on about this separatism-inhibiting quality where the question ends. Here, we have chosen to remove certain tangents, indispensable for our own thoughts.

The upside down world of the nationalist ideology

Hobsbawm’s achievement is to have inverted the nationalist perspective. For the nationalists, nations are entities, immutable, nonetheless universal, which express the general need of human beings to be associated and identified by distinguishable historical communities. From this seeps the notion that it would be impossible to give general definitions of the national phenomenon, communities from whichever historical human phase. The nation could be defined by objective criteria (territory, language, culture, even economy…) and even by subjectivities (the conscience of sharing such and such identitarian values, the desire to realise them…). In short, for nationalists, the nation is defined a priori and the formation of the nation State will but a posteriori sanction the popular aspirations it must constitute. Hobsbawm shows that there is nothing left after this. There is nothing in common between, for example, the nation of scholars from Sorbonne from the Renaissance period of the 16th century, synonymous expression of corporation, and the nation that appeared, during the time of the 18th century revolutions. In reality, nations are recent historical phenomena. The real world of nations has nothing to do with the inverted world of the nationalists. Recorded history shows that, as a general rule, nations are shaped by the States and the nationalists and not the other way around. In history, the coming of the State precedes that of the nation but the notion of nation State, more recent, shows the intimate connection between the two. Disassociated from the State, the nation loses all consistency no matter the attempts of the pretend-nationalists at trying to show otherwise. From the historical character of the national phenomenon, it is obvious that the famous criteria are subjected to almost constant revisions. In reality, through every crisis that the history of nations traverses, it is the prerogative of the State which cuts through.

The nation State and the Jacobins

The nation, in the modern sense of the term, appeared for the first time during the time of the French revolution. It is there that was thought of and put in place the work of the nation State as crafted by the bourgeois Jacobins, in particular when it comes to notions of territory and borders. For the Jacobins, the definition of the nation was tied to that of the State, territorial State, non-fragmented and invisible. It rested on the sovereignty of the people, which was supposed to have taken State power away from the sovereign individual, the monarch, to instead exert power through the method of having delegates at the Convention. The criteria for nationality was thus citizenship. Hobsbawm underlines with good reason that the conceptions the sans-culottes had of the nation barely exceeded that of the Jacobin definition. This because the revolutionaries of the sections were hostile to not just the aristocrats but also the bourgeoisie, hoarders of feudal property, speculators of army goods, etc. They considered themselves spearheads of the European revolution and aspired to extend it beyond its borders. The Jacobins inherited the centralization of the State, well-furnished under the monarchy which defined the State as territorial entity, limited by frontiers which already no longer covered the aristocratic domains. They completed the centralist work of the monarchy. They in a sense made the nation State the general community, to which the older communities were seen as roadblocks towards the realisation of citizenship. In their spirit, the social pact rested upon the collectivity of individuals presumed emancipated, the citizens, with the values of the republican State. Afterwards, for the foreigners, obtaining the French nationality was possible, but only through the adoption of similar values. The cultural criteria, linguistics, economics, etc. which took importance were present in the Jacobin era. The lack of homogeneity among citizens, in all domains of their political lives, could but slowly build, in the long term, the strength of the central State. But they were subordinated to the political criterion: citizenship.

The nation and the liberal economy

Nonetheless, even in France, for the bourgeoisie of the end of the 18th century, the possession of State power was but a prelude to the consolidation of the power that was its own: the economy. Since the dawn of industrialization, the apostles of political economy, in England, did not hold into account national phenomena. Among their most dogmatic, even the existence of territories limited by State frontiers appeared as antagonistic to free trade, primordial condition for the free accumulation of capital. In their spirit, the territory global capital operated on was the world market in building, battlefield between proprietors. Nonetheless, they were well obliged to recognize that the accumulation of capital, as concrete phenomenon and not as abstract idea, worked on predetermined poles, in large part from the European nation States that were being formed. Ultimately, none of them denied the advantages which could provide the States and colonies that were attached to them, advantages inherited from mercantile wars between European monarchies over control of the world market. The centralizing States thus constituted greenhouses under which could shelter the proliferation of capital under the condition that they stimulated the accumulation through appropriate measures. Even the most fanatical of the free traders never wanted to destroy the economic functions of the State. From this the invention of the concept of national economy to keep track of the existence of the State. Hobsbawm is right to affirm that, underdeveloped zones of capitalism, the constitution of the nations which rested on combining nation and economy were an essential phenomenon of the 19th century. But the nation was recognized as viable entity on the condition that it were compatible with progress, the progress of capital’s accumulation and progression. At the time, the principle of liberal nationalists was thus not unconditional. It excluded many zones not yet touched by capitalism and, in Europe especially, regions which were already partly integral to the centralized States.

Nation and culture

It is little known that cultural criteria, linguistics and races of nationality appeared rather late and only became definitive around the second half of the 19th century, in Europe. Hobsbawm underlines that national identification through language only originated in the literate who, like in the Germany fragmented into principalities until the constitution of the Reich, had in common only a literary language, principal vector for the diffusion of culture and national pretences, languages which served them then to invest into the State apparatus. In a general way, languages, which later needed to access the status of national languages, could but be modestly relevant, if not at all, in the conscious national formation of the illiterates, barely fresh out of the Middle Ages in most parts of Europe. It’s the same for culture. It is certain that the nationalists, to obtain the support of the people they courted, attempted more and more to speculate on the traditions, customs, languages, religions, etc. to which they could at times identify with. From the nationalist myth of the cultural community, including religious, stable and even estranged brewing of populations and cultures. And whatever type was pre-established, it would but wait that the conditions were favourable to appear under the form of nation State. Hobsbawm recalls then that, among the principal inventors of cultural and linguistic nationalism, some came from the French customs house, the languages, religions, etc. to which they could often identify. From the nationalist myth of the cultural community, including religious and stable and even to the brewing of alien populations and cultures. In a sense pre-established, they needed but wait for the conditions to be favourable to show themselves to a Marxist confronted with the problem of the nationalists in the Austro-Hungarian empire in full decomposition at the end of the 19th century. But, there was not, as a general rule, any continuity between the heterogeneous factors of popular proto-nationalism, as he calls them, and those, homogeneous, belonging to the State. In reality, the national languages were semi-artificial creations, which at times had only distant relations with the vernacular languages they pretended to represent and standardise. Their diffusion was unthinkable without the generalisation of the instruction of the masses, in short, without the intervention of the State. It is then, when homogeneity in matters of language and culture under the aegis of the State began to become effective, that they became central criteria for the definition of the nation.

Nationalism as mass phenomenon

For Hobsbawm, it is not a matter of denying that nationalism, in the period which goes from the Commune to the Great War, could have, little by little, have affirmed itself as mass phenomenon, in Europe, and elsewhere. The enlarging of the base of nationalism, in particular of the cultural, linguistic and racial variety, was by evidence related to the modification of societal class structure. The industrialization of the European States, national and multinational, dislocated what remained of outside society, accelerated the depopulation of the countryside and the growth of cities, engendered migrations and mashings of populations without precedent, etc. In Europe, nationalism, since the end of the 19th century, appeared more and more as a reaction of the pauperised rural middle strata, menaced by disappearance, and the urban middle strata destabilized by the Great Depression of the last century’s end. Such strata were terrorized by the rising of dangerous classes looking for scapegoats to explain their misfortunes: these strangers assimilated at times to dangerous revolutionaries. Nationalism found refuge in the arms of the monarchists, clericals and racists who, all, communicated through a hate of the revolution. But the dangerous classes, in particular the proletarian class, were not senseless to the call of nationalism. Hobsbawm notes one of the primary paradoxes of the epoch. The proletarian class was certainly hostile to the bourgeoisie. But it claimed also to be recognized as integral part of the State. The proletarians aspired to benefit from the status of citizen. Thus, the idea of citizenship was tied to that of nationalism, particularly in France. Democratisation could thus aid the States to resolve the problems of legitimacy in the eyes of their citizens, including when the latter contested them. Nationalism to be republican was nonetheless nationalism. The contradiction exploded when, after the declaration of war, the same proletariat that had at times fought firmly the bourgeoisie was appropriated of its patriotic fervour for the defending of their respective countries. At the beginning, at the very least.

Wilsonism and the principle of nationalities

According to Hobsbawm, the first World War and the Versailles treaty constituted decisive landmarks in the history of nationalism. First, the mornings of Versailles offered the occasion to apply the principle of nationalities defined by Wilson, principle otherwise shared by Lenin and the inheritors of Marxism-Leninism. The Wilsonian principle differed not from the old liberal principle. It also demanded that State frontiers and the frontiers of the nationalities, cultural and linguistic, coincide. But they abandoned the notion of threshold: whatever their size, the communities, as such defined as potential nations, needed to have the ability to form their State territory of choice, that which could let them exert their sovereignty. Hobsbawm remarks with finesse that Wilsonian self-determination only but aggravated the situation. In Europe, it was only put in place with the accord of the victorious States, as a general rule to the title of buffer States against the revolutionary push from the East. But, looking at the establishment of communities and their dispersion on non-connected territories, the coincidental-territorial principle between State and nation can but be realized through intercommunal violence, often pushed through paroxysm, associated to that of the State. Once realised, the nationalism of the European minorities appeared as reactionary as those of the multinational States which they had been an integral part of. Then, the mornings of Versailles revealed the extension of zones of influence of nationalism in the colonies. All those who pretended to act in the names of oppressed people in the colonial empires talked like nationalists. Hobsbawm showed thus that through this, they now adopted the same language of the oppressive States they claimed to confront. In reality, the future leaders aimed to reconstitute States from colonized zones. The territories they presented as potential national entities, following Wilsonian criteria, if not Marxist-Leninist, were recent creations in global conquest, in particular towards the partitioning of the world between European colonizer States, with as sole notable exception China and some other Antediluvian States in Asia. The colonial zones could but be identified with the territorial model of nation State. The nationalist elites, western-educated, were themselves almost half conscious of this because, as recalls Hobsbawm, they deplored the indifference, if not hostility, towards the national idea of the people which were object of their propaganda. They attributed their loss to the politics of the colonizers which used the millennial tribalism of colonized people. But the relative success of “divide to conquer” proved on the contrary that the attaching of the diverse populations did not yet lead to the imagined national community of the elites but to multiple forms of traditional communities. Nonetheless, with the penetration of capitalism into the colonies and the concurrent decomposition of such communities, reactions, often insurrectionary, against the foreign oppressors and the buyer locals began to appear. Nationalists now had the possibility to utilize the potential of revolt on the condition that they modify their program and language a little. It became indispensable to take into account the confused aspirations of the populations if they wanted to make them play the role of cannon fodder as per the national idea.

Marxism-Leninism and radical nationalism

For Hobsbawm, the apparent victory of the Russian revolution proved decisive for the trajectory of nationalism. The participation of the USSR in World War II and the parties subservient to them afterwards, presented as liberatory war against fascism, the assimilation of fascism to the treason of the nation, in particular in France, etc. accelerated the reunion between nationalism and Marxism-Leninism. In fact, the nationalists that aspired to create independent States could but miss seeing in the so-called socialist States, which affirmed being defenders of all oppressed nations by the imperial States, their privileged allies. Even in Europe, the separatists came to adopt the Marxist-Leninist ideology which paired with their genealogy, marked by their association with clericalism, royalism and even fascism. It allowed them to barter their outmoded costumes for those of nationalist revolutionaries, more apt at capturing the attention of disoriented populations in the way that it let them combine national as well as social liberation. Even those that were not partial to Moscow appeared as such on the scene of the struggle against American hegemonism, although, in reality, they never wanted anything but the adaptation of the nation State model based on the local conditions through which they operated. What followed proved obvious. Decolonization, even when it wasn’t realized with the benediction of the colonial States, but following stillborn revolts, such as in Algeria, showed what was truly the sense of their revolutionary phraseology: taking State power and attempting to build through the local ladder, on the basis of nationalizing key economic sectors, something in principle fairly close to the European model of national economy. In most cases, such measures did not even let the situation of the concerned populations improve and escape the tutelage of the world market. For the rest, since the States issued of decolonization were sitting on mosaics of cultural, linguistic and ancestral-religious communities, they inherited from all their contradictions, in particular the struggles between clan chiefs to monopolize power, without counting on the multiple frictions between States connected to the rectifying of colonial frontiers.

Nationalism today

At the dawn of the third millenium, marked by the implosion of the Soviet State and the satellite States, it appears strange that Hobsbawm insists on the decline of nationalism. It is that, faced with the multiplication of States with national pretences and the exacerbation of national hatreds, he maintains the underlining of the impasse that constitutes the nation State model. The nation, which always passes for something very concrete, yet is in reality always very abstract. The identification with national representation is more and more imaginary and nobody, neither citizen or head of State, can explain what national membership signifies, much less the exclusion of others. The nation State and nationalism are in crisis, in particular in their Wilsonian and Marxist-Leninist versions, a crisis then half confessed by national leaders who abandon bit by bit, at no matter what latitude, the prior references, in particular the couple of national economic State, to speculate on identifications, more or less effective, to ethnicity, culture, language, religion, or even race. Because, considering the catastrophic and without precedent mutations of world capitalism, the traditional components of nationalism, the economic component first, which favour the identification of populations to their State lose by their own force even when they don’t disappear in their totalities. Accelerated globalisation of capital, on the background of rapid disintegrations and transformations of social structures, allows the latter to transgress the limits of the nation States. It even favours the same multiplication of mini-States, even city-States like Singapore, which are poles of accumulation and circulation of capital. Following this, there is not much left of the nationalist program if only very vague references to communities and traditions more or less invented where sometimes the illusion of power thinks it can reconnect them with the pre-Wilsonian model. Here is then what distinguishes the religious fundamentalists and the secular nationalists. The fundamentalists have today the wind in their sails as ideologies of substitution of the bankruptcy of myth and progress, including in their Marxist-Leninist version of emancipatory progress. The fundamentalists have the pretence of returning to the frozen values of mythical origins, at least in principle. They thus pretend to have a precise answer to the anxious questions of the epoch. But, as indicates Hobsbawm, today, the absence itself of a precise program for the diverse varieties of nationalism plays in their favour. To the point where, in Europe itself, any claim to the local, regional, even sectorial against the central State, is susceptible, whenever it can, to endorse the national costume, by preference in the cultural and linguistic version. In reality, nationalism is the catalyst of much deeper phenomena. It is without cease fuelled by popular disorientation, traumatised and sometimes cornered by simple survival through capitalist catastrophe's evolution, atomised and uprooted, greedy for points of identification with which it can give meaning to their lives, or at least make them a little less insufferable. Here, the antique familial relations, clan-based, tribal, etc. can play a role in identification while, in reality, they nonetheless before long become ravaged by the economy, absorbed into it and even serve as a basis to create mafias as shows the example of separatist groups in the ex-Soviet empire. National identification, national fundamentalism even, whatever the lunatic justifications it can invent, including religious, has thus as essential function to design emissary scapegoats, strangers who, as strangers, are enemies in power and who, in our hereditary epoch of fanatical industrialization of the Trente Glorieuses, camp even in the heart of the European States. Therefrom comes the common crux of all varieties of nationalism today: xenophobia. All States thus have the easy part of persecuting foreigners, chasing them, closing their borders, etc. even if, with the acceleration of globalization, they are losing entire sections of their traditional functions.

France and nationalism

We cannot conclude this brief approach without assessing the situation with which we are faced in France, a situation which Hobsbawm only brushes. In today’s France, it is of good tone, faced with the push of xenophobia of the fascistic type, with racist connotations which are its own, to assimilate nationalism and fascism. To struggle against xenophobia, sanctioned and aggravated by measures of State power, which accentuated the antagonism between presumed nationals and presumed strangers, one would have to affirm the intangibility of democracy’s principles. Such is the creed of the spectacular opposition to the fascist menace, fascist menace which by the way is reduced to the party of Le Pen. But this is forgetting, or to make one forget, that the famous values of citizenship, matters of assimilation included, are in reality singular characteristics of the nation State as it is constituted in France over the passing of recent history. They are national values. It is thus forgetting that their realization has always been very elastic, subordinated with priority to the necessities of the national economy and the State’s reason. They are thus always very restrictive, with the exception of brief periods in history such as the Trente Glorieuses, where the national capital needed the force of foreign labour, coming from the colonies and neo-colonies. Brandishing the faded flag of the pretentious universal republic against such and such party, such and such leader, even as demagogic as Le Pen, which affirms also to represent republican values, is, at best, to not understand a thing about the nation State and the sources of modern nationalism, it is, at worst, sharing the same fundamentalist values. As proof, one needs but look at the influence of demagogic ideas not just among the farmers and shopkeepers, habitual base for the ultranationalists in France, but also at what remains of the proletariat. The community of the proletarian class, which constituted itself with the industrialization of the country, is in the process of being dislocated, on a crux of a labour crisis relatively tied to de-industrialization. Or, in France, class values, despite the potential for revolt they can still symbolize, have long been tied to the values of the nation State, protectors of national industry. Here, themes surrounding national decadence receive a response certainly because they correspond to the idea that what French labourers do of their own decadence works as essential factor towards the valorisation of national capital. Between the defence of the national economy and the defence of the nation, there is today no Chinese wall, no more than there was one yesterday between social nationalism and national socialism. The apostles of democracy, at times situated in the militancy of revolutionary pretense, do well to not understand fascism’s genealogy as mass phenomenon. They even at times denounce the ultranationalist party of Le Pen as the one betraying the republican traditions of France and seek to reheat the petrified ideology of nationalist resistance to fascism. They could neither admit that the democracy-nation pair is not separable and unveil on which bases they will direct and frame the spectacle of the kneeling resistance against the rise of fascism. What’s more, faced with the authoritarianism of the State, the disappointed with centralization in the outskirt regions are very sensible to the siren calls of the autonomists, if not the separatists. The engendered desertification caused by the economy’s centralization, in particular in the domain of culture, would raise the exclusive responsibility of central power. Faced with the general standardisation of survival, the more and more atomized, desperate and empty of any meaning, the need to find landmarks and to reconnect with sociability passes through the valorisation of supposed particular cultures which, as a general rule, are presented as traces of popular traditions bridled by the State. And those who find refuge in it are ready to forget what these traditions in their exclusivity had, in their binding and authoritarian essences. The naive partisans of the separatist leaders swear that it is but a question of culture for them, and nothing but. But, as it happens, culture is the pursuit of politics by other means. Apologia for cultural differences appears as an essential means to mobilise them behind such leaders who aspire to conquer power, including through violence, in their respective regional zones of influence and, of course, to do business in the European sphere. State power, loyal to the Jacobin tradition, is annoyed by such nationalistic gestures. At the same time, it is prepared to drop some ballast, perhaps give free terrain to certain nationalist mafias as exemplifies the case of Corsica. Henceforth, cultural relativism is also seen in immigrant communities originating from the third world. Without denying the factors of solidarity they may possess, we cannot close our eyes to their thick headed sides, in particular their hierarchy of the patriarchal type, upon which take hold the nationalists, from the last Marxist-Leninists to the Muslim fundamentalists. In France, they appear as hideaway values because the power of the State, by virtue of the Jacobin principle of individual assimilation, persecutes them as such. But to go from there and create poles of resistance to the State!

In France like elsewhere, nationalism is more than ever susceptible to bring solutions to fundamental questions which the catastrophic evolution of contemporary society raises. As a general rule, it diverts the individuals away, even those who are barely revolted by the conditions handed to them, from the essential: the struggle against capitalism. It deludes them on the possibility to ameliorate their survival on the condition that they accept to identify themselves with the diverse national communities offered to them on the ideological marketplace, presented in mystified and nostalgic fashion like so many palpable traces of precapitalist sociabilities. In reality, such communities, under the crookery of nationalist leaders, dominate them, use them and, in the end, deprive them of liberty. We are for individuals retaking the path of community, which already exists in human history, including Europe, in recent history, through the fights between capital and State. In this sense, more than yesterday, the revolting individuals leave nothing to realize their objectives and dreams. They support themselves through their history. But the conquest of liberty, liberty both individual and collective, remains the primordial condition of rediscovered sociability. When liberty is absent, the community loses all sense. It is synonymous to domination.

André Dréan [l]

1 – Gallimard Editions, Bibliothèque des histoires, 1992

2 – A set of heavily protested laws, named after two of its most prominent republican proponents Charles Pasqua and Jean-Louis Debré, proposed and then adopted between the late ‘80s and ‘90s in France which would give proprietors increased bargaining and managerial power over their employees as well as tighten visiting and immigration standards.

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Aug 23 2017 18:15


  • The enlarging of the base of nationalism, in particular of the cultural, linguistic and racial variety, was by evidence related to the modification of societal class structure.

    André Dréan

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Aug 23 2017 14:20

What is the date of the original French publication?

Aug 23 2017 14:25