Classes and Nations in Recent Historical Sociology

Robert Fine & Daniel Chernilo. Handbook of Historical Sociology. Editor: Gerard Delanty & Engin F Isin. Sage Publication. 2003.

One of the key areas of investigation in historical sociology concerns the ties that bind the economic forms of modern social life to its political forms, and especially the relation of capital to the formation of the nation-state. One aspect of this more general question is the link between two cornerstones of the self-understanding of modern societies, classes and nations, and this is the focus of our investigation. The social sciences have made an extensive use of these categories to comprehend the development of modern societies, grasp the hidden meaning of different world-views and provide points of critical intervention. The co-originality of their formation may be traced back to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1976), where the three great classes of modern bourgeois society labour, capital and the landed interests—are characterized in relation to the interests of the nation as a whole, and where focus is placed on the progressive inclusion of all classes into the national arena.

Historical sociology has drawn from this way of thinking in its recognition of the pivotal role played by both classes and nations in the actual shaping of the modern world and in the imaginary communities modern social actors construct for themselves. An important argument we find in historical sociology is that neither nations nor classes can be understood except in relation to one another; or, to put this proposition more affirmatively, that nations and classes are conjoined both as forms of social organization of modern societies and as imaginary communities that arose together in the same historical processes and period.

The contribution of historical sociology to understanding these linkages should be measured against the more usual ignoring or downplaying of class relations within theories of nationalism and the parallel ignoring or downplaying of national questions within theories of class struggle. For example, even when Ernest Gellner (1973, 1997) put forward his deservedly well-known thesis that the rise of nationalism was a result of social processes of industrialization, he paid little attention to the class relations of industrial society, put his emphasis on questions of atomization and anomie rather than class, and did not address how the different classes used national rhetoric to frame their social experience. Conversely, when the Marxist historian E.P. Thompson (1995) criticized orthodox Marxism for having forcibly isolated politics as part of the ‘superstructure’ from the categories of political economy that are supposed to make up the ‘base,’ and advocated in its place a more dynamic and unitary approach to the connections between legal, political, cultural, and economic forms of modern society, his own focus on legal and cultural aspects of the class struggle was rarely extended to national questions. The Englishness of the English working class remained relatively unexplored. Against both these exclusions, that of class from theories of nationalism and of nation from theories of class, it has been a strength of historical sociology to bring together what arguably should never have been separated out in the first place.

In this chapter we shall be engaging with a range of positions to be found in recent historical sociology. We shall both be criticizing and building upon them with the objective of drawing out an emergent position. We begin with a discussion of modernism and primordialism as they relate to conceptualizing both class and nation. This will frame the discussion for the three following sections: the first on Marxism, class and nation; the second on bringing the state back in; and the third on subject nations and class formation. We conclude with a discussion of five caveats concerning the limitations of the positions we have found within historical sociology.

Modernism and Primordialism

Within the study of nations and nationalism there has been considerable debate over the historicity of nations, or, more concretely, over the relation of nations to the rise of modern societies. In the dispute between ‘modernist’ and ‘primordialist’ theories of the nation, the former argue that nations came into being in relation to other major social transformations that shaped the modern world. Nations, they say, were moulded by state bureaucracies, mass political movements, the growth of cities, improvements in communication and literacy, and not least by the integrative requirements of industrial capitalism. The nation appears from this perspective as a radically new social form which, if it did not exist, would have to be invented to provide feelings of attachment and unity for individuals in a world that has become increasingly meaningless, disenchanted and class-divided. For the primordialists, by contrast, nations seem to be much older or even as old as history itself. They argue that the crucial role that nations have played in the formation of modern societies is a corroboration of how deeply rooted they are as a form of community, and that the sense of belonging they provide is not something new that arose with modernity.

We find certain parallels between the debates on the historicity of nations and analogous debates on the modernity of classes. In Marxist and Weberian traditions of sociology one can talk about classes throughout history, even though it must be recognized that the form of class relations changes from one period to another and that the determinate relations of labour and capital are radically different from earlier historical forms of class exploitation, such as feudalism and slavery. Such differences of form are related both to material conditions that constitute the organizing principles of classes in capitalism and to the rising consciousness of what it means to be a member of a class. What happens in modernity is that class makes a difference in terms of the experiences of becoming a member (Gellner, 1997: 14-24; Hall and Jarvie, 1992: 4-5), in the sense that experience is no longer lived as natural but rather as shaped by thought and reflexive reasoning. It is, however, but a short step to say that consciousness of class emerges with the rise of the phenomenon itself; that is, that we may speak of the modernity of classes in the sense that both the phenomenon and reflexive awareness of it came into being in the modern period. Prior to modernity, there were many other forms of social hierarchy, division and exploitation, but not classes as such.

We would want to argue that there is a certain mythic quality to both primordialist and modernist narratives of class and nation. If primordialists presume a line of transhistorical continuity and expound the myth of class struggles and national identities throughout history, the modernists presume an equally mythic break from tradition and define modernity in opposition to its origins. Historical sociology tends to cut through the whole issue by saying that at least part of the disagreement is related to the possibility that we are facing two different discussions: one on whether there were nations and classes before the rise of modern societies; the other on what is specifically modern about modern nations and modern classes. The theoretical labels ‘modernist’ and ‘primordialist’ are not easily imported into historical sociology, none of the authors we shall look at can be considered naïve representatives of either side, and in fact there have arisen all manner of middle positions.

For example, Joseph Llobera puts forward a ‘third way’ between extreme positions when he locates the nation as neither radically modern nor transhistorical. He points out that it is a ‘mere truism’ to say that ‘nations and nationalism as we understand them today, did not exist in the middle ages’ (1994: 3), but he also argues that modern nations have a medieval heritage that crystallizes through different historical combinations into what they are today. His thesis is that the clearer the identity of an independent polity during the Middle Ages, the bigger the chances of constituting a modern independent nation. To support his case, Llobera describes how Britannia, Gallia, Germania, Italia and Hispania became the modern nations we know today (Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain) and claims to understand the formation of national identities as the result of a Braudelian longue durée process. However, there is a strong counterfactual operating in Llobera’s argument in so far as he tries to prove his case only by showing how some successful modern nations had a history of political autonomy. There is no mention here of politically autonomous groups that did not form modern nations, nor of subject peoples who overcame their subjection to form modern nations. From this analytical blind spot, an empirical weakness arises: there is sufficient research to show that lack of a history of political independence does not pre-judge failure in the formation of modern nation-states. Even if Llobera is not able to produce generally valid claims about the transition from traditional forms of political community (including empires, city-states and other non-nation-states) to the modern nation, he does reveal a shortcoming in the modernist literature: that one cannot understand nations as completely new because there would be no place for including historical arguments about their development.

The position of historical sociology is closer to that of the modernists in that it has to recognize that the relation of nations and classes in which it is interested emerges only in modern societies. Its straightforward claim is that the mutual engagement of classes and nations is constitutive of modern societies and that neither historically nor sociologically does it make much sense to extend the idea of nation beyond modern class societies or the idea of class beyond modern nations. Thus most historical sociologists accept that something new happened with the beginning of the modern nation, but what is far from consensual is the content of this change. Where there does seem to be some convergence is around the claim that one thing that is modern about the modern nation is the class character of national identification, and vice versa. We find in historical sociology many arguments which acknowledge that every class in society, and not just the ruling class, produces its own discourse about what it is to be a member of the nation—about what national identity means-and that class movements have used the idea of the nation as the form in which they have sought to put forward their own notions of collective political identity, shape the political community in the making, and fight materially as well as symbolically for their participation in processes of democratic legitimation.

Such an understanding of the link between classes and nations is related to another issue implicit within the literature: namely that national and class politics are both mass politics in the sense that demands for civil rights, political democracy, social security and redistribution are issues that have linked national and class movements and involved them both in mass political mobilization. Historical sociology builds on a Marxist understanding of the relationship between classes and nations, but has tried to avoid the trap of falling into an ideology-critique that presents the nation merely as illusion or deceit. It holds that the nation became a suitable medium for all classes precisely because the experiences and symbols related to it allowed for the differentiated claims of different bearers. Different classes have made use of the rising national imagination to frame their specific demands as classes, and in many cases it is difficult to say that any one class definitively wins the struggle for hegemony over what is the nation (Hroch, 1996: 67-8). One of the strengths of the national idea lies precisely in its ambiguity—in the fact that one can give it a plurality of meanings that only minimally converge.

Marxism, Classes, Nations

The Marxist sociologist Nicos Poulantzas (1978, 1980) is a writer who had the merit of going beyond an ‘orthodox’ Marxism in which the link between classes and nations is seen only in terms of an ideological mask. He addressed the links connecting capitalist economic relations and the national form of political states by identifying the modern state as a capitalist state but the nation as a more timeless repository of differentiated meanings for the different classes (Poulantzas, 1978: 78). His analysis of the nation was primordial in the sense that he saw the nation as a transhistorical category that comes into being once humankind emerges from its primitive pre-history. If under capitalism the idea of the nation is constitutively bound up with the formation of modern states—Poulantzas writes of the historical tendency of the modern state to ‘encompass a single, constant nation’ and of modern nations to ‘form their own states’ (1980: 95)—it long preceded this particular coupling:

The nation is not identical with the modern nation and the national State…. The term designates ‘something else’—a specific unit of the overall production of social relations that existed long before capitalism… the constitution of the nation may be said to coincide with the passage from classless (lineage) to class society. (1980: 93)

Poulantzas presented the nation as a complex unity that is at the same time ‘economic, territorial, linguistic, and one of ideology and symbolism tied to tradition’ (1978: 79), and in the modern context places it alongside a mix of social and natural factors like knowledge, power, individualization and law as elements of the ‘institutional materiality of the State’ (1980: 49). He described the nation as a contested prize for the conflicting classes: ‘The modern nation is not… the creation of the bourgeoisie,’ but the outcome of a relationship of forces between the ‘modern’ social classes one in which the nation is a stake for the various classes’ (1980: 115, original emphasis). He argued that the nation does not have the same meaning for the bourgeoisie as it does for the working class and ‘popular masses,’ and that as far as the bourgeoisie is concerned, its history is one of ‘continual oscillation between identification with and betrayal of the nation’ (1980: 117). In short, Poulantzas naturalized the idea of the nation. Just as for sociology there is all too often a congruity between the universal category of ‘society’ and the nation, so too for Poulantzas there was a tendency to construct a parallel congruity between the category of ‘social formation’ and the nation (1978: 22). For example, when he writes that modes of production only exist and reproduce themselves within historically determinate social formations, he cites the nation-states of France, Germany, Britain, as his examples (1978: 22), and in the name of the Marxist classics he argues that the idea of the nation as such will not disappear even in the classless or stateless society to come (1980: 93-4).

By way of contrast, the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm locates the idea of the nation firmly in the context of modern politics: [N]ations, we now know… are not as old as history (1994: 3). In spite of repeated claims that this way of classifying groups of human beings is in some way primary or fundamental for the social existence of its members, Hobsbawm regards the nation as a ‘very recent newcomer in human history’ (1994: 5) and even today as competing with many other forms of social identification. He cites Gellner: ‘Nations as a natural, God-given way of classifying men… are a myth; nationalism which sometimes takes pre-existing cultures and turns them into nations, sometimes invents them and often obliterates preexisting cultures: that is a reality’ (1994: 10, original emphasis). For Hobsbawm, the nation is the product, on the one hand, of modern nationalisms which seek to make national identity supreme, and, on the other, of the development of modern territorial states which asserted their own political unity and independence by organizing the people who inhabited their territories as a singular nation. Once the idea of the nation came into being, its reference was the thoroughly modernist unification of otherwise heterogeneous collectivities across traditional divisions based on ethnicity, language, religion, culture, history, destiny, and so on. In this regard the idea of the nation was anything but conservative or traditional. Only later was it used in a more derivative and archaic sense to convey the primordial unity of the nation itself.

Hobsbawm also points out that during a good part of the nineteenth century political appeals to the masses were made by combining national and class rhetoric, and he goes so far as to say that at some points one can hardly build a distinction between them. He argues that scholars on the subject have generally been unable to notice ‘the vast overlap between the appeals of national and social discontent.’

The well-known international Marxist debates on ‘the national question’ are not merely about the appeal of nationalist slogans to workers who ought to listen only to the call of internationalism and class. They were also, and perhaps more immediately about how to treat working-class parties which simultaneously supported nationalist and socialist demands. What is more—though this did not then figure much in the debates—it is now evident that there were initially socialist parties which were or became the main vehicles of their people’s national movement…. One might go further. The combination of social and national demands, on the whole, proved very much more effective as a mobilizer of independence that the pure appeal of nationalism, whose appeal was limited to the discontented lower middle classes, for whom alone it replaced—or appeared to replace—both a social and a political programme. (1994: 124-5)

Hobsbawm frames as strongly as possible the ‘non-contradiction’ upon which class and national consciousness operated together during a long period of the nineteenth century, and he maintains that we cannot understand the political processes at the core of modern social formation as long as we oppose class to nation. Thus if we take into account that the number of candidate nations for building a nation-state was far greater than those that eventually arrived at this stage, and that the process of nation-building was therefore far from automatic, Hobsbawm relates the achievement of this goal to the twofold character of a class and national platform. He demonstrates that proto-nationalist movements had to broaden their base of support along class lines if they wanted to be successful in building fully formed national movements, let alone a modern nation-state (1994: 77-8). Hobsbawm faces up to the frequent fusion of class and national politics in mass protests, not to endorse it but to see it for what it is. He writes, for instance:

The very act of democratizing politics, i.e. of turning subjects into citizens, tends to produce a populist consciousness which, seen in some lights, is hard to distinguish from a national, even a chauvinist, patriotism…. E.P. Thompson’s ‘free-born Englishman,’ the eighteenth-century Britons who never shall be slaves, readily contrasted themselves with the French…. The class-consciousness which working classes in numerous countries were acquiring in the last decade before 1914 implied, nay asserted, a claim to the Rights of Man and Citizen, and thus a potential patriotism. Mass political consciousness implied a concept the ‘patrie’ or ‘fatherland,’ as the history both of Jacobinism and of movements like Chartism demonstrates. For most Chartists were both against the rich and the French. (1994: 88-9)

In his discussion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hobsbawm writes that ‘nationality appears most often as an aspect of the conflict between rich and poor, especially where the two belong to different nationalities,’ and that even where we find the strongest national tones—as among Czech, Serbian and Italian nationalists—we also find ‘an overwhelming wish for social transformation’ (1994: 128). Further, he writes that the fact that ‘the new mass political movements, nationalist, socialist, confessional or whatever, were often in competition for the same masses, suggests that their potential constituency was prepared to entertain all their various appeals’ (1994: 124).

One of the many strengths of Hobsbawm’s work is to recognize that the links between nations and classes are far from historically static. He argues that up to the end of the first half of the nineteenth century, nationalists and socialists tended to share both the same mass constituency, the peasantry and urban proletariat, and the same political issues, including the widening of the franchise and the redistribution of taxation burdens. He grants that in this period ideas of French and British nationhood were shaped by feelings against other nations, but their respective nationalisms were relatively ‘civic,’ albeit in a superior ‘civilizing’ mode. In an echo of E.P. Thompson’s contention that social life should not be split into isolated compartments, Hobsbawm argues that ‘the acquisition of national consciousness cannot be separated from the acquisition of other forms of social and political consciousness’ (1994: 130) and during this period at least they went together.

Hobsbawm identifies a major change in the nature of European nationalism in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and in the period leading up to the First World War. He characterizes this change in terms of a movement from ‘state’ (civic) nationalism to ‘cultural (racial) nationalism.’ His contention is that state/civic nationalism prevailed for the fifty years following the French Revolution, but that with the defeat of the popular movements of 1848-9 cultural/racial ideas of the nation began to achieve supremacy. Henceforth an exclusive nationalism emerged which substituted itself for all other forms of political and social identification and explicitly rejected socialism for its internationalism. Concurrently, a new wave of socialist movements arose that had little understanding of the meaning of national ideals. Even so, Hobsbawm argues that one thing that did not change is that nationalists and socialists were still aiming at and proclaiming the interests of the same groups of rural and urban poor, and that a conglomerate national-social consciousness still formed the soil in which all political sentiments grew; indeed, ‘the radicalization of the working class in the first post war Europe may have reinforced their potential national consciousness’ (1994: 145). Hobsbawm observed in Europe a nexus between class militancy and ethnic nationalism that other studies have confirmed in other contexts. Even in this context nation and class are not readily separable.

Historical Sociology: Bringing the State Back In

One of the key questions addressed by Reinhard Bendix in Nation-building and Citizenship concerns the links which exist between the ‘formation and transformation of political communities which today we call nation-states’ and the development of modern class relations (1964: 18-19). These issues were directly intertwined for Bendix, since he held that there could not be social classes in the modern sense of the term without the political changes that made a new legal framework possible. It was on this basis that he explained the absence of classes in the Middle Ages:

Classes in the modern sense do not exist, for the coalescence of interests among the individuals in an estate in based on a collective liability. That is, joint actions result from the rights and duties shared by virtue of the laws or edicts pertaining to a group, rather than only from a shared experience of similar economic pressures and social demands. (1964: 38)

Bendix maintained that the crucial factor for the existence of modern classes is not just the fact of sharing some kind of social experience, but the legal framework in which it becomes possible to make sense of these experiences. Historically, he suggests, West European societies experienced two major political transitions: ‘from the estate societies of the Middle Ages to the absolutist regimes of the eighteenth century, and hence to the class societies of plebiscitarian democracy in the nation-states of the twentieth century’ (1964: 2). For Bendix, the emergence of modern classes cannot be separated from the extension of national citizenship to all classes that occurred as a reflection of changing authority relations, as a response to protests from below, and as a result of the bureaucratization of state structures (1964: 3). There emerged new forms of political authority (the state), new forms of production (capitalism) and new forms of social relations (civil society), in all three of which the nation provided the framework in which social reconstruction could take place: as nation-state, as national political economy (which the Germans tended to call Nationaloekonomie or Volkswirtschaft), and as national public sphere. Bendix argues that a striking characteristic of the newly created structures is that they comprised a relatively high degree of consensus from within despite the proliferation of conflicting class interests; certain functions of the nation-state, for example, were rarely contested—including taxation, law enforcement, public works and the direction of foreign affairs (1964: 137). The other side of this process, Bendix adds, is that the wider the consensus, the thinner it turns out to be. In other words, there is a decline of social solidarity with the rise of modern political relations and there is no other form or solidarity that achieves as high acceptance as the national government. In this class framework the nation appears as the symbolic form in which a sense of political community has to be reinvented (1964: 138). Seeing class relations as subordinate to the achievement of social integration, which is fulfilled in national terms alone, Bendix seems to end up normatively in a liberal account that opposes classconflict to national integration.

The more radical claim of Barrington Moore in his classic Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (1967) has to do with the revolutionary and violent quality of the processes in which modern nation-states were formed. He shows that nowhere was the transition to the modern nation-state achieved peacefully; on the contrary, violence was the characteristic path towards the constitution of all modern nation-states. Moore sees this transition in class terms. It is clear that in absolutist states the landed classes played the key political role while the peasantry was the class from which the economic surplus was largely taken; in modern nation-states there is an increment in the importance of the relative positions of the bourgeoisie and working class. More concretely, he argues that the shape of class relations in the constitution of modern nation-states is the main factor that elucidates their subsequent political forms. Thus his three routes to modernity (democratic, communist and fascist) are expressions of the trajectory of particular class struggles, and while democracy and fascism may both be forms of bourgeois rule, the relation of the ruling class to the other classes in society are of course quite distinct. At stake in Moore’s analysis is the way in which national bourgeoisies were able in the course of bourgeois revolutions to build class alliances upward as well as downward. Upwardly, they faced the problem of how to limit the power of the landed classes and place themselves as the decisive actors in the introduction of new political arrangements. Downwardly, the core issues they faced were how to limit demands from below and integrate both the peasantry and the working classes into capitalist social relations; the ability of some sections of the bourgeoisie to build class alliances downward played a major role in containing radical social and political demands. As Theda Skocpol has pointed out (1984b: 379), Moore’s comparative analysis tends to operate through a method of agreement: the occurrence of one factor seems enough to explain the development of a general pattern regardless of previous differences. When bourgeois revolutions were successful, a democratic nation-state was built (England/Britain 1688, France 1789 and the USA 1861-5); when they were defeated either by strong landed classes (as in Japan and Germany) or by a strong peasantry (as in Russia and China), the nation-state assumed quite different and more authoritarian political forms. While Moore’s primary interest was in explaining the different national patterns that resulted from class struggles, he did not question why nations as such became a generalized form of political community.

Michael Mann takes this argument one step further when he proposes that classes and nations are co-original and coeval because they both call for an abstract sense of community in analogously universalistic ways: ‘[I]f the nation was an imagined community,’ its main ideological competitor, class consciousness, might seem to have been even more metaphorical, an ‘imaginary community….’ [W]e shall see that the two imagined or imaginary communities arose together, conjoined, in the same process of modernisation (Mann, 1992: 141; see also B. Anderson, 1991). According to Mann, the first phase of this process of modernization had to do with the expansion of literacy that accompanied the spread of commercial capitalism and the development of political states: ‘Both routes encouraged the diffusion of broader, more universalistic ideologies. One centred on class consciousness and/or class collaboration through political reform; the other centred on state modernisation’ (1986: 530). Through the eighteenth century, classes and nations were affected by a second phase of modernization, triggered by the intensification of geopolitical rivalry between the Great Powers:

Nationalism—like class ideology, the other great ideology of modern times—was capable of spreading across large social and geographic spaces only from the 18th century to the present day…. As states vastly increased their rates of extraction of taxes and military manpower, they politicised emerging ideologies. Over matters of political representation and state reform, class and national consciousness developed and fused. (1992: 138, 142)

Historically, Mann gives to the state a major role in shaping class-nation relations, which in the British case he calls the ‘class-nation.’ He argues that in Britain the installation of Parliament in Westminster by the end of the seventeenth century produced a class composed of the gentlemen of the counties, lords, bishops and merchants—that saw itself as the nation and identified the interests of the nation with its own class ideology. From that moment on, the social background of the membership of the nation started a process of social differentiation and expansion that was eventually to culminate in membership of the nation being extended to all classes in society. According to Mann (1986: 482), the driving force behind this process related to the changing functions of the state: in early modern times the state was marked by an ‘infrastructural inability to penetrate civil society,’ and even though armies were used internally against the poor, the raison d’être for strong armies was principally to do with external relations with other states. Indeed, until the beginning of the nineteenth century the state’s main function was warfare and most state expenditure (as much as 90 per cent) was related to the costs of war. The rise of modern nation-states saw major changes in the state’s functions that enabled it for the first time to penetrate all areas of civil society. The result of this development, according to Mann, was the diffusion of national images along class lines and the corresponding tendency for all classes to build a national identity alongside their own class identity.

In his second volume of The Sources of Social Power, Mann further develops this explanation of the relation between states, classes and nations, by presenting it in the context of his overall theoretical framework (1993: 17-20, 214-26, 722-8). He now links the rise of classes and nations to changes that occurred in what are for him the four sources of social power: economic (expansion of capitalism),military (state-militarism), ideological (secularism and literacy) and political (fiscal crises and the call for democracy). Classes and nations arose as a combined result of the transformations experienced in all four forms of social organization. As a result, the question to be explained turns now to the rise of classes and nation-states as the two major containers in which modern social life crystallized. Mann argues that nations were formed, that is, they surpassed the proto-national threshold, only when a cross-class self-consciousness was achieved, and that classes, as emergent social actors, therefore arose before nations (1993: 225). The latter were only created with the processes of naturalization pursued by states: ‘As states transformed first into national states, then into nation-states, classes became caged, unintentionally “naturalized” and politicized’ (1993: 20).

Charles Tilly’s work on Coercion, Capital and European States (1992) takes up the discussion of national state formation that he himself initiated in his own pioneer work on the subject in the mid-1970s (Tilly, 1975a, 1975b). He criticizes his early work for proposing a developmental orthodoxy in which processes of national state formation all respond to the same cycle of ‘extraction, repression, state formation’ (1992: 12). In his later work, he argues that we have to be open to the variability of patterns of national state formation which eventually impose themselves on previous forms of political community, and that convergence towards the form of the national state was produced both out of an original divergence, including empires and city-states, and out of differential class structures that made a difference to state formation: ‘The class structure of the population that fell under the jurisdiction of a particular state significantly affected the organization of that state, and variations in class structure from one part of Europe to another produced systematic geographic differences in the character of states’ (1992: 27).

Tilly emphasizes that the ‘war-making advantage’ fell to those states that could field great standing armies because they had ‘a combination of large rural populations, capitalists and relatively commercialized economies’ (1992: 58). He writes of national states rather than nation-states to highlight the myth that states are composed of just one nation (1992: 3). He uses the idea of nationalization to demonstrate that the modern national state was the result of a combination of originally different ‘nationalities,’ and to refer to those actions by means of which states sought to homogenize their subject populations. He focuses on the functions of homogenization for the rulers:

In one of their more self-conscious attempts to engineer state power, rulers frequently sought to homogenize their populations in the course of installing direct rule. From a ruler’s point of view, a linguistically, religiously and ideologically homogeneous population presented the risk of a common front against royal demands; homogenization made a policy of divide and rule more costly. But homogeneity had many compensating advantages: within a homogeneous population, ordinary people were more likely to identify with their rulers, communication could run more effectively, and an administrative innovation that worked in one segment was likely to work elsewhere as well. People who sensed a common origin, furthermore, were more likely to unite against external threats. (Tilly, 1992: 106-7)

Tilly goes on to explain the rise of national states mainly in terms of their military advantages for rulers:

Why national states? National states won out in the world as a whole because they first won out in Europe, whose states then acted to reproduce themselves. They won out in Europe because the most powerful states—France and Spain before all others adopted forms of warfare that temporarily crushed their neighbors…. Those states took that step in the late fifteenth century both because they had recently completed the expulsion of rival powers from their territories and because they had access to capitalists who could help them finance wars…. [E]ventually only those countries that combined significant sources of capital with substantial populations yielding large domestic military forces did well in the new European style of warfare. Those countries were, or became, national states. (1992: 183)

Tilly dates the emergence of the national state not only before the revolutions of the late eighteenth century but even before the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 or the Thirty Years War to which the Peace of Westphalia put an end. He writes that a European system of national states was already in the making by 1490: its participants, he writes, were ‘increasingly not city-states, leagues or empires, but national states: relatively autonomous, centralized, and differentiated organizations exerting close control over population within several sharply-bounded contiguous regions’ (1992: 164). Tilly does not directly address the heterogeneity of nationalities that preceded state-homogenization (1992: 28-30, 103, 185-6), nor does he explain why or how homogenization took a specifically national form. His account thus fuses primordialism and modernism. On the one hand, his conceptualization of the nation is on the primordialist end of the spectrum in that ‘nationalities’ are seen as long pre-existing modernity. On the other hand, his conceptualization of the national state is on the modernist end of the spectrum, in that it presupposes a major rupture between traditional forms of political community and the emergence of the modern national state, and thence a fundamental continuity in modern times centred on the development and extension of the national state. Once the national state is established as the primary political form of modern society, it is as if the old adage le plus a change, le plus c’est la même chose holds sway and nothing really or radically changes.

Subject Nations and Modern Class Formation

The relevance of studying nation-state formation in the core Western countries relies on the obvious fact of their influence on world history, but what marks them apart is that, with certain exceptions like that of the USA, they tend not to have a history of external domination. By contrast, one of the main issues in the work of Miroslav Hroch (1986) is on understanding how peoples or nationalities which have traditionally lived under political domination became fully formed nations and/or independent nation-states. His focus is on how ‘small European nations’ made use of their oppression to reinforce the importance of national claims, but if we were to generalize his argument, we would say that the success of the nation-state as a political form throughout the world indicates that a past history of independence is not the rule and that many, if not most, nation-states we know nowadays did not have such a privileged history. Subjection seems to have been just as much the norm as independence, and the principle of national self-determination has been the platform upon which previously dominated nations have created ‘their own’ states.

Many modern nations were once parts of empires: some emerged in Latin America out of the collapse of Portuguese and Spanish empires in the early nineteenth century; some emerged in Europe out of the collapse of the German, Austro-Hungarian, Turkish and Russian empires in central and eastern Europe at the end of the First World War (the focus of Hroch’s work); some emerged out of the collapse of the European empires in Africa, the Middle East and Asia after the Second World War. The condition of prior domination is far from being a historical exception, and the expansion of nation-states throughout the world has as its central feature that it has been carried on by peoples struggling to get rid of foreign oppressors (Hroch, 1996: 61). From the point of view of the actors involved in these processes, nation-building takes place in the struggles for liberation. While in the core countries the processes of nation-building coincided with nation-state formation, this was generally not the case for small countries where people started to look at themselves as nations in the absence of independent political institutions.

What distinguishes Hroch’s work is not only his focus on small nations but also his understanding of class structures at the national level. He argues that small nations were generally characterized by an ‘incomplete’ class structure in the sense that they lacked ‘their own’ ruling classes. While in the core nations the struggle against the ruling classes was located internally within the boundaries of the nation, and hence was not different from the constitution of modern class relations, in the small nations the struggle against the ruling classes was focused on the creation of a fully developed national class structure, that is, on the constitution of the subject nation’s own ruling class in its struggle against foreign domination. In this case the constitution of a complete class structure within the subject nation may be separated in time and is analytically distinct from the formation of mass national movements. In the author’s own words:

The fundamental yardstick of the completeness of a nation’s formation is the development of the class structure of the national community. Small nations were formed with an incomplete class structure. We can therefore say that small nations were fully formed when they displayed a class structure typical of capitalist society and their national movement had taken on a mass character. The achievement of political independence is not necessarily an indication that the small nation is completely formed; and conversely the struggle to achieve independence may continue even after the nation has completed its formation. (Hroch, 1986: 26)

It would appear that for Hroch what is crucial for the development of national movements is the entry of the peasantry and urban proletariat, both of which make claims for their own participation in political life and for the constitution of the national arena as the place in which claims for political participation and the defence of interests have to be made (1986: 154). The ‘completeness of a nation’s formation,’ however, is intrinsically related to the development of capitalist social relations and the class institutions that accompany it (1986: 179). In these studies Hroch illuminates what it means to say that the constitution of a nation is based on the development of class rule (1996: 63-4). He invites us to consider not only the huge differences that exist within and between bourgeoisies, but also the ways in which other classes in society make their own use of the idea of the nation. The implication of these writings seems to be that neither nations nor classes can be established as stable entities independently of one another, and that the institutional framework of a nation-state as constructed through national revolutions—which includes national sovereignty within the international system of states, an internal division of powers, rule of law and representative political institutions is the form in which the structures of class and nation are consolidated. When such a framework breaks down, under the weight not only of political crises of legitimacy but also of economic depression, social decline and popular distress, forces may be set in motion that are disintegrative of both class and nation.


We are perhaps more in need of theories of nations than we are of theories of classes. The ideas of class to be found in Marx and Weber are relatively consensual within sociology compared with Ernest Gellner’s or Anthony Smith’s explanations of the rise of nations. So, while looking at the link between nation and class, our primary object of inquiry in this chapter has been the nation and our primary contention has been that modern nations are formed together with or as a result of the formation of capitalist class relations. More importantly, however, we have sought to demonstrate that historical sociology has opened the relation of classes to nations in ways that are invisible to those who simply take a stand on behalf of one or the other. It shows, successfully to our mind, that nation and class belong to one another in the sense that they are mutually entwined forms in which the self-consciousness of modern society is expressed; they are two cornerstones of the representation of modern societies; we cannot capture their meanings unless we study them relationally. We might add that under totalitarianism they fell together in the sense that totalitarian movements were hostile to both national and class parochialism and envisaged in their own way a nationless as well as classless society.

The idea that the one can be evaporated by an act of will or by the clarification of one’s perception, and that the other alone is ontologically grounded, is not a view that is easily sustained in the light of the contributions of historical sociology. If both nation and class are imagined communities, they are also as real as one another and as grounded in the material conditions of modern life. Just as we cannot conceive of capitalist productive relations without a conception of class, so too we cannot conceive of modern political relations without a conception of nation. To the extent that nationalists and Marxists have both tried to make the other vanish into thin air, it would seem that they are tilting at windmills. One cannot transform the world by the deconstruction of a category. In short, the perception of a homology between nation and class challenges approaches that claim there is an a priori ground for privileging one over the other. One of the strengths of historical sociology is to dispel the myths that surround these competing forms of solidarity: not only by relating them to one another, but also by relating their conceptual existence to the empirical ways in which these concepts are actualized. Historical sociology has an eye not only for the formal flourishes of national and class identification but also for the violence and destructiveness that lurk not far beneath. To quote from C. Wright Mills (1959), there is little room in historical sociology either for ‘general theories’ or for ‘abstracted empiricism’; in other words, as a subdiscipline historical sociology is neither theoretically nor historically naïve in its determination to take into account both concepts and their factual existence.

We wish to end on a more critical note with five brief caveats on the limitations of historical sociology. They are in turn political, theoretical, methodological, comparative, and historical. Politically, nation and class have been key categories of modern mass politics and have both been extensively used as ideological resources, means of legitimation or alternatively as objects of critique or denunciation. By identifying the interests of a nation or a class with the universal interests of humanity as a whole, nationalists and socialists, respectively, have claimed to actualize universal principles through a particular group of people. However, the insight historical sociology has developed into this class-nation relation should not be used to confound political distinctions, and it would certainly turn historical sociology into a doctrinal determinism if it were used as a block on political criticism of either nationalist or class politics. For example, Hobsbawm criticizes Marxists in the post war period who used the names of anti-imperialism and internationalism to subordinate ideas of class solidarity to the great-power chauvinism of Russia or to the interests of particular national liberation movements. His historical sociology supports his contention that in the post war period Marxists put themselves ‘at the mercy of nationalism… swallowing some nationalist assumptions whole’ (1989: 140, cited in Fine 1994: 435-6). Benedict Anderson may well have been right when he wrote that the ‘end of the era of nationalism, so long prophesied, is not remotely in sight,’ and that ‘nationness is the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time’ (1991: 12); but the relation between facts and norms can no more be resolved simply by reference to ‘what is’ than it can by translating normative beliefs into the pale ghost of reality.

This political dimension also raises questions concerning the relationship between the domestic formation of class relations within national states and the international formation of class relations across nation-states. A focus on the impact of the world system of nation-states on the constitution of individual nation-states is certainly one of the strengths of historical sociology, but what is relatively neglected in the ensuing discussions of national mobilization of classes is the extent to which notions and experiences of transnational class solidarity (among aristocracies and bourgeoisies as well as working classes) also take place. This treatment is perhaps a reaction to rhetorical invocations of working-class internationalism, which either pay too little heed to national differences or alternatively reduce working-class internationalism to support for anti-imperial struggles. Nonetheless, in its focus on notions and experiences of competing national and class formations, historical sociology remains rather one-sided and unconnected with discussions of transnational and cosmopolitan solidarity that have developed in recent social theory and international relations.

Theoretically, historical sociology has not been especially interested in the exposition of the logical links through which the concepts of class and nation relate to one other. Not much attention has been paid to the fact that classes and nations are not only historically real, but also conceptual tools. The depiction of the historical co-emergence of classes and nations seems to be only one part of the task of historical sociology; the concepts of class and nation have also to be scrutinized in their own right. The clarification of the theoretical strategies underlying historical narratives is an important dimension to historical sociology’s interest in the demythologization of the formation of modern societies. The attempts by historical sociology to explain in theoretical terms how and why nations and classes were simultaneously formed in modern societies, and have been mutually formative of modern societies, are not impressive. Historical sociology seems to have left these questions in an analytical void, isolated from the history of political thought, or has reduced them to historical contingency So, whilst historical sociology finds its strength in ‘bringing history back in,’ thus giving an account of the external connections between classes and nations, it has not been equally successful in tracing their internal connections. It might also be the case that this situation is related to the self-image some colleagues have about historical sociology. For example, when Edgar Kiser and Michael Hechter analyse the different theoretical options historical sociologists use, they argue for the necessity of ‘general theory,’ but disappointingly equate it to ‘rational choice theory.’ Their argument is that by not taking rational choice theory seriously, ‘explanations [in historical sociology] are too underdeveloped and vague to have determinate empirical implications’ (1991: 24). While these authors push in the direction of a more conscious use of theoretical frameworks, their narrow conception of what a theory is (rational choice) and what a theoretical explanation shall produce (empirical generalizations) makes them aim for the wrong target.

Linked to this last point, we also find in historical sociology a permanent quarrel about methodological assumptions and procedures. Too often, it takes a defensive position on what it does or does not achieve in terms of ‘scientific standards’; notably, on the value of undertaking historically oriented research without first-hand archival work. In a well-known formulation, Skocpol argues that for historical sociology a dogmatic insistence on redoing primary research for every investigation would be disastrous; it would rule out most comparative-historical research. If a topic is too big for purely primary research—and if excellent studies by specialists are already available in some profusion—secondary sources are appropriate as the basic source of evidence for a given study. (1984b: 382, original emphasis)

She invites historical sociologists to ‘develop consensual rules and procedures for the valid use of secondary sources as evidence,’ and reflecting upon her own research experience (a study of three major social revolutions in France, China and Russia), she says that she could rely on specialist works (1984a: 1-5). The difficulty of this formulation, however, is in part one of empiricist bias: there are good reasons for not undertaking ‘proper’ first-hand research: if the topic is too big, or if we can rely on good enough specialist work. But these conditional clauses claim a sort of second-class legitimacy: let’s do secondary research if ‘proper’ research is not possible. This pragmatic defence may appear as an unconvincing apology for historical sociology, whose methods should rather be justified in relation to the nature of the research problem addressed and theoretical argument deployed. More importantly it fails to recognize that lack of primary research may be a deficit if it gives to history a false sense of givenness or predetermination. Historical sociology may well need primary research to denature what actually happens, to explain why one outcome emerged and not another, to make us aware of what concrete alternatives might have transpired. If the strength of historical sociology in this area lies in its unravelling of the naïveties of voluntarism, its weakness may lie in presenting history in an objective, deterministic form that downplays subjective agency and decision-making.

There is a strong comparative element in historical sociology and this is indeed one of its great strengths. A limitation of this comparative framework, however, may be found in the prevalence of certain specialized ‘area studies’ that cut off comparison of class and nation formation in Africa and Latin America from the mainstream of comparative historical research. To take the Latin American case, it does not fit well into the common hypothesis used within historical sociology to understand these processes. First, it can be sustained that languge was never a major issue either in the wars of independence from Spain and Portugal or in the later wars between Latin American countries. The use of Spanish and Portuguese, though problematic for indigenous communities, was not central to these conflicts. The same holds true, second, in the case of religion. There were indigenous religions and there are ongoing re-interpretations of Catholicism, but again religion was not a major problem in either class or national struggles. Third, the timing of Latin American independence, that is, of nation-state formation in Latin America, is problematic for the mainstream in as much as by the 1830s most countries were already politically independent nation-states (Cuba was a late exception achieving independence in 1898), so they can be considered as neither early nor belated cases in a world-wide context. These, perhaps risky, generalizations are thought not to make the point of historical sociology’s impossibility for dealing with these issues, but rather to point out that the marginal presence of such issues is a shortcoming historical sociology must overcome.

Lastly, we find disappointing historical sociology’s lack of a systematic periodization in dealing with the formation of nation-states. The claims we have visited in this chapter look unconvincing to the extent that they fail to assess what has changed and what has remained the same in these processes. We might speak, for example, of a movement from the early formation of the political state in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, to the formation of the sovereign state after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, to the formation of the nation-state in the revolutions of the late eighteenth century, to the inversion of the idea of the nation-state in the age of imperialism, to the creation of mass democratic state after the break-up of empires, and now to the diffusion of sovereignty and nationhood and rise of cosmopolitan institutions in more recent times. Whatever may be the strengths and weaknesses of this very rough and brief outline, one of the reasons behind the deficiency of historical sociology is that it still needs to relate historical trends to the normative presuppositions that are related to these trends. The normative principles which existed at the beginning of the modern system of nation-states (diplomacy is taken as a common example) can hardly be the same as those of nation-states today.