Ethnicity and Nationalism

Anthony Smith. The Sage Handbook of Nations and Nationalism. Editor: Gerard Delanty & Krishan Kumar. 2006. Sage Publishing.

In the study of nationalism, we find two contradictory tendencies. The first of these tendencies is associated with the ‘modernists,’ those who hold that nations as well as nationalisms are recent and novel phenomena, the products of the processes of modernization from the late eighteenth century onwards. For theorists like Ernest Gellner, Elie Kedourie, John Breuilly and Benedict Anderson, ethnicity plays at best a minor role in their accounts of the rise and spread of nations: ethnic ties, in Anderson’s case linguistic bonds, are assumed as background factors, but they play no part in the unfolding of those processes that engender nations and nationalisms. In the eyes of modernists, nations are products of modernization in its many forms, be it the rise of capitalism and industrialism, the emergence of the professionalized bureaucratic state, the spread of literacy and secular education, or the political outgrowths of Enlightenment rationalism and its reactive twin, Romanticism (see Gellner 1983; Kedourie 1960; Breuilly 1993; Anderson 1991; cf. A. D. Smith 1998, Part I).

Even where modernists introduce an ‘ethnic factor,’ it is to downgrade it. In this vein, Michael Mann argues for the greater predictive power of politics over ethnicity in explaining the rise of particular European nations, while for his part Eric Hobsbawm is intent on dismissing or disparaging the claims of language and ‘ethnicity’ in the construction of the ‘divisive,’ fissiparous nations of late nineteenth-century Eastern Europe. In these accounts, nations and nationalism are, in principle, opposed to ethnic communities and ethnicity: the more the former take hold in an area or population, the more attenuated become the ties of ethnicity, and the less does descent, actual or fictive, matter. Ethnic ties, like every localized collectivity and sentiment, diminish and ultimately dissolve in the inclusive mass culture of modern ‘civic’ nations (Mann 1995; Hobsbawm 1990; see also Deutsch 1966).

In contrast, the second tendency regards nations as specialized developments of ethnic ties and ethnicity, and as a result it claims that we cannot hope to comprehend the powerful appeal of the nation without addressing its relationship with ethnic ties and sentiments. In this view, nations are formed on the basis of prior ethnic ties and networks, which provide nationalists with cultural resources for their projects of ‘nation-building.’ Without such resources, the task of forging new nations becomes an uphill struggle against disunity and fragmentation. In Walker Connor’s succinct formulation, nations are self-aware ethnic groups: they are the largest group based on a conviction of ancestral relatedness, and come into being when the majority of their members feel they belong to, and participate in, the nation. In more extreme versions, the nation is simply an ‘awakened’ and politicized version of ethnic community, a view espoused by early German Romantic nationalists and late nineteenth-century French ‘integral’ nationalists (Connor 1994, ch. 8; also Berlin 1976).

Underlying these tendencies is a strong normative impulse. In many ways, the fashionable distinction between ‘civic’ and ‘ethnic’ conceptions of nationhood mirrors these tendencies. The conception of nationhood that modernists have in mind is essentially ‘civic.’ The nation is a territorially bounded, sovereign legal-political community, a constituent of an international society of nations legitimated by nationalist ideology, whose members are citizens participating in a mass public national culture and obeying standardized national laws. The nationalism that underpins this conception is voluntaristic, rational and activist: it regards the nation as an association of willing citizens residing in a given territory and obeying the nation’s laws, and while it asserts the need for every individual to belong to a nation, it leaves the choice of nation open (see Kohn 1967; Brubaker 1992).

In sharp contrast, the ‘ethnic’ conception of nationhood is tied to myths of ancestry and kinship. The notion of nationhood here is a community of history and culture, whose members are linked by genealogical ties, native traditions of ‘ethno-history’ (the tales told by members of the community to each other), vernacular language, customs and religion, and traditions of popular mobilization. The accompanying kind of nationalism tends to be ‘organic’: as a natural phenomenon, the nation follows the same rhythms as other organisms in nature, from rudimentary origins to efflorescence, decay and renewal. Such organic nationalism holds that not only must every individual belong to a nation, it is the nation of birth that stamps the individual for life and determines his or her destiny (Kohn 1967; also A. D. Smith 2001: ch. 2).

These are, of course, pure types, to which few nations conform. In the great majority of cases, we find elements of both types mixed in varying degrees. Nevertheless, both tendencies noted at the outset, shorn of their ideological freight, are vital for our understanding of nations and nationalism, and their relationships with ethnicity. In what follows, I aim to combine the insights of both tendencies in order to form a more rounded picture of the relationships between ethnicity and nationalism, both conceptual and historical. I start with ethnicity.

Ethnie and Ethnicity

The term ‘ethnicity’ is of fairly recent vintage. It became common in the 1950s and 1960s in the United States to signify the quality of belonging to an ethnic group within a larger national state and territory. Ethnicity, in other words, always denoted minorities; majorities were ‘nations,’ even if this was only a tacit assumption, the ‘nation’ being a civic and territorial political community, transcending ethnicity and ethnic ties.

In contrast, the European sociological tradition, while still wedded to the idea of a waning of ethnic ties in the modern epoch, does not focus exclusively on minorities. Ethnicity is a quality that can pertain as much to large and dominant groups like the French or Poles as to small minorities like the Frisians and Pomaks. This makes for a more confusing terminological situation, but it reflects the complex history of Europe and its Middle Eastern and Mediterranean heritage. Thus

This disjunction between words and ‘things’ continued into the medieval era. Certainly, geographical-cultural groups of students in universities and of clerics at Church Councils were referred to as nationes, but the same word was also used of whole peoples, as when Henry II referred to the ‘troublesome’ Welsh nation. How far the word ‘nacion’ (‘nacioun’) bore a meaning in the fourteenth century similar to ‘ethnic community’ rather than to the territorial-political meaning of ‘nation’ that it bears today is the subject of vigorous debate. What seems to command greater assent is the recognition of the ubiquity of ethnicity and of the perceptions of ethnic ties in all periods (see Hastings 1997: ch. 1; Hertz 1944; Zernatto 1944.)

But this recognition is accompanied by another: that of the fluidity and even malleability of ethnicity. Durability and evanescence appear to define the paradoxical character of ethnic ties; the more distant from ethnic groups, the greater the appearance of solidity, the closer, the more fluid and fissiparous the bonds that hold the members together. In recent years, the latter aspect has commanded more attention. Reacting against essentialism and the nationalist ‘naturalization’ of ethnicity, many writers, influenced by the ‘postmodern turn,’ have stressed the overlapping nature of ethnic cultures and their internal conflicts and kaleidoscopic mutations. Some have followed Fredrik Barth in emphasizing the importance of the social boundary between ethnic groups over the changing cultural stuff that the boundary encloses. Others, reacting against earlier cultural determinisms, have developed the theme of ‘situational ethnicity’ and the idea of an individual’s multiple, overlapping identities, seeing in ethnicity a construct of individuals, an instrument of power and control for elites, and a means of labelling and classification (Barth 1969; Brass 1991; Eriksen 1993).

Such approaches serve a useful corrective function. But in stressing one side, they elide the paradox of ethnicity: its simultaneous fluidity and persistence, which has been the source of both its power and of its divisiveness for those seeking to use it to forge nations. While recognizing the shifting nature of ethnic clusters of perceptions, attitudes and sentiments, John Armstrong has given due weight to the persistent quality of many ethnic groups, and to the importance of boundary mechanisms such as myths, symbols and codes of communication which serve to ‘guard the border’ and preserve ethnic ties overla longue durée. He uses this framework to demonstrate how various long-term factors, from nomadic and sedentary ways of life, religious civilizations, imperial administrations and mythomoteurs, to ecclesiastical organization and language cleavages, have helped to shape and change ethnic boundaries, cultures and perceptions (Armstrong 1982).

Armstrong titled his book Nations before Nationalism, but he was only concerned with medieval Christendom and Islam, not with the modern era of nationalism, and in the body of the book, he speaks of ethnic ties and persistence, not of nations. Besides, his concluding matrix of factors suggests a long history of ethnic ties leading up to the emergence of (modern) nations. But how then is it possible for clusters of shifting attitudes, perceptions and sentiments to provide the bases for forging nations? We need to look more closely at what we mean by ‘ethnic ties.’

Anthropologists have differentiated between different ‘levels’ of ethnicity. At the lowest (most undeveloped) level, we encounter a myriad ethnic categories: groupings of individuals classified as such by outsiders who endow them with a name, and discover some common cultural characteristics (a dialect or customs) and perhaps a link to some location. At this level, the members are aware of who they are not, but have very little idea of themselves as a distinct cultural group with a common relationship, as, for example, with Slovak and Ukrainian communities before the eighteenth century. It is only at the next levels, those of ethnic networks and associations, that common activities and purposes endow these groupings with a sense of collective selfhood, at least among elites. At this point, oral traditions evolve, and often reveal shared myths of common ancestry and ties of presumed descent. Finally, at the most developed level, that of ethnic community or ethnie, a clear conception of not only ‘who’ but ‘where’ and ‘when’ we are, together with an ethno-history, is articulated, often in chronicles and epics; and with it a sense of solidarity, at least among the elites. Hence we may define an ethnie as a named and self-defined human population sharing a myth of common ancestry, historical memories and elements of culture (often including a link with a territory) and a measure of solidarity. This is a definition that can also encompass diaspora ethnies like the Armenians, Greeks and Jews, who retained a symbolic link with their ancestral homelands (Eriksen 1993; A. D. Smith 1986: ch. 2).

Ethnicity in History

There is, of course, nothing fixed or static about ethnies, or other forms of ethnicity. Like nations, ethnies ‘have their beginning and will have their end,’ to transpose Renan. Indeed, ethno-genesis takes place in every period and continent, requiring as it does the interplay of culture with politics and a sense of common ancestry. Factors that have played a particularly important role in the origins and development of ethnic consciousness include prolonged warfare between states, the role and conflicts of organized religion, and the rise of codes of communication among populations sharing some common elements of culture. Factors that have helped to sustain ethnic identity and community include collective beliefs about origins and election, shared attachments to landscapes and the skills of specialist elites, notably priests, scribes and merchants—factors that, as we shall see, also contribute to the persistence of national identity (Renan 1882; Smith 1986).

Generally speaking, pre-modern epochs have been characterized by a plethora of ethnic categories, networks and communities, standing in various relationships to polities—whether empires, kingdoms, tribal confederations or city-states. From sources that range from Herodotus and the Bible to inscriptions and place and family names, the record is filled with ethnic perceptions and sentiments, as well as ethnic myths, symbols and traditions, all of which attest to the importance of ethnicity in structuring the social and cultural life of populations across the globe. At times, too, ethnic attachments and perceptions influenced political action, as, for example, in ancient Greece, where the distinction between Ionians and Dorians affected the political perceptions and actions of Athenians and Spartans in the Peloponnesian War, and were used by their leaders for political purposes. The politics of ethnicity can also be traced in the visual record, for example, in the Assyrian palace reliefs of wars and foreign captives, and the Persian reliefs on the staircase of the Apadana in Persepolis showing the various subject peoples of their empire bringing gifts to mark the Persian New Year (Alty 1982; Cook 1983: ch. l5; Reade 1983).

In the modern period, too, ethnicity has left a profound mark, and not only in respect of nation formation. The various movements of the so-called ethnic revival in the West in the 1960s clearly had nationalist undertones, but for the most part these were autonomist movements of ethnic minorities who had in pre-modern epochs been unequally incorporated by dominant ethnies into the Western states, and were seeking to redress the balance. Though some, like the Catalans, Scots and Quebecois, saw themselves as stateless nations, others, like the Frisians, Alsatians, Welsh and Bretons, were more intent on improving their economic and political status while protecting their distinctive cultural heritages. In Africa, too, while some movements such as the Ibo and Somali undoubtedly had nationalist goals, many others have been more concerned with strengthening their collective bargaining power and maximizing their ethnic share of the benefits of modernization. More generally, ethnic conflicts from Northern Ireland to Iraq, and from Kashmir to Indonesia, have fed widespread aspirations for greater autonomy, unity and identity, the hallmarks of nationalism (see Esman 1977; Heracleides 1992; Horowitz 1985.)

Paradigms of the Nation

What is the relation of ethnicity to nations and nationalism? We have seen that the terms ‘natio’ and ‘nation’ have a long history, revealing once again a disjunction between words and things, and a paradoxical combination of antiquity and modernity. For many an earlier scholar, the nation constituted an ‘ancient’ and ‘perennial’ form of political community, for some even a ‘primordial’ one. As a form of human association, the nation appeared to be continuous, even immemorial, from the earliest historical records. For most latterday scholars, who are largely ‘modernist’ in their approach, nations are recent forms of community, products of modernity, and anything resembling the nation before the modern period is purely fortuitous. Yet, as we shall see, the modern nation does also have elements that hark back to earlier times; and there are some ancient forms of community and identity that approximate quite closely to the ideal type of the nation. In this paradox, ethnicity plays a key role (Gellner 1983: ch. 2; Grosby 2002; Horowitz 2002).

To some extent, the modernist understanding and definition of the term ‘nation’ obscures this paradox. For modernists, the nation is characterized by:

  • A clearly demarcated territory with a centre and recognized borders
  • A legal-political community, with a single, standardized legal system
  • Mass participation, including civil and political rights, for all members or citizens
  • A mass, public culture disseminated to all members through a standardized, mass public education system
  • The political status of sovereignty in an ‘inter-national’ system of sovereign national states
  • Legitimation in terms of nationalist ideologies.

That these are the characteristics of the modern Western nation, legitimated by a civic-territorial nationalism, is not in doubt. But these characteristics are the product of a particular social and cultural location, and we cannot, and should not, derive the generic concept of ‘nation’ from so specific a milieu as late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Western Europe. For this inevitably produces a partial definition, one which mistakes the part for the whole and thereby prevents us from discerning that whole.

There are several objections to ‘Western’ civic definitions. The obvious one is its ethno-centrism which, applied as a yardstick for non-Western cases, soon runs into difficulties. The usual strategy at this juncture is to make a sharp differentiation—indeed, a dichotomy—between Western ‘civic-territorial’ nations and non-Western (‘Eastern,’ according to Hans Kohn, that is, east of the Rhine) ‘ethnic’ nations. There is some justification for such a strategy. A recent study of Arab national identity and the Arabic language demonstrates how unsatisfactory Western ‘civic’ definitions of the Arab nation are bound to be, and locates the basis of that nation in history and culture, particularly language, rather than in law, territory and mass politics. Similar problems appear in the attempt to apply modernist definitions to Asian forms of the nation (Kohn 1967; Tönnesson and Antlöv 1996; Suleiman 2002).

The general point here is that ‘ethnic’ nations like the Arab, the Polish or the Burman, emphasize rather different attributes. These include:

  • Genealogical ties, myths of presumed common descent from a (usually fictive) ancestor(s)
  • Vernacular culture, notably distinctive and indigenous languages, customs and folk culture
  • ‘Ethno-history’—narratives of the communal past as retold down the generations by the members themselves
  • Popular mobilization—the appeal to ‘the people’ as the repository of the authentic spirit of the nation.

Of course, ‘ethnic’ nations and their ‘genealogical’ nationalisms are equally interested in the ancestral homeland—a ‘place of our own’—and in citizenship and popular sovereignty of the common folk, even if they come to these so-called ‘Western’ ideas from a rather different route. One should not exaggerate the differences. The point is rather to underline the inadequacy of a partial ‘Western’ reading of the concept of the nation, and to try to remedy this situation. In practice, as we saw, ‘civic’ and ‘ethnic’ attributes are interwoven in the history of particular nations, and their prominence waxes and wanes in certain periods and among specific social groups—as a glance at the oscillations in nationalist ideology and practice in the modern history of France, that most ‘civic’ of nations in its own (official) eyes, testifies (Brubaker 1992; Gildea 1994).

A second objection to the ‘Western’ civic definition of the nation turns on its insistence on ‘mass participation,’ a point most forcefully argued by Walker Connor. For Connor, both the nation and nationalism are ‘mass phenomena.’ This means that if the nation is, as he claims, a self-aware ethnic group, the majority of its members must be aware of belonging to it and must participate in its social and political life. So, in a democracy, we cannot really speak of a ‘nation,’ until the majority of its population is enfranchised; and from this, Connor concludes that we have to be sceptical of any claims to nationhood before the late nineteenth century (Connor 1994, 2004).

There are several objections to such a radical modernism. The first is that it appears to confuse the definition of democracy with that of the ‘nation.’ Connor has stated the necessary conditions for ademocratic nation, not for the nation per se. He himself recognizes, in passing, the possibility of non-democratic nations, but he does not elaborate. There is also the related problem of ‘numbers’: at what point does the Marxist law of transformation of quantity into quality come into operation? When do the majority, including women, get the vote? There is something rather arbitrary in a procedure that rules out, in advance, the possibility of elite, or middle-class, nations. Finally, there is the historical problem. Connor, like so many others, stresses that nations are formed in stages. Yet, he is only prepared to call a community a ‘nation’ in the final stages of its development. Again, there is something arbitrary in refusing to call the community in question a ‘nation’ in the earlier stages. Besides, how are we to conceptualize and term the community which is to become a nation and which regards itself as a ‘nation’ in those earlier stages? If England was a ‘nation’ only from the 1900s, how should we (and its members) conceive of it in the sixteenth, the eighteenth or even the nineteenth centuries? (see A. D. Smith 2004; cf. Kumar 2003.)

This historical problem leads into a third objection to the ‘Western’ conception, which I have touched on before, namely, the antiquity of terms like ethnos and natio, and the problem this raises for our understanding of pre-modern ‘nations.’ Here I can only note that historians, following the main historiographical paradigms in the field, are sharply divided over the applicability of the concept of the nation to different periods of history and to specific ‘peoples,’ and over the relevance and significance of such ethnographic usages for politics (Geary 2002; Scales 2000; Smith 2000).

There is a fourth, related, objection: namely, that the modernist definition exaggerates the significance of political dimensions. Few scholars would deny some importance to politics in defining nationhood. The question is how far the latter should be tied to the state and especially to sovereignty, given that even in the modern epoch we find acknowledged stateless nations like the Catalans, Scots and Quebecois. This insistence on sovereignty may well derive from modernist preoccupations with centralized, bureaucratic states and with mass political mobilizations. The latter are undoubtedly crucial for what John Breuilly terms ‘oppositional nationalisms’; but he also reminds us that there are different forms of nationalism, and that mobilizations may occur within the framework of already established nations, and, we may add, even before the advent of nationalist ideology, as in Holland and England (see Breuilly 1993; Guibernau 1999; Mann 1995.)

Given the many objections to the specific ‘modern Western’ definition of the nation, a broader approach is required. Here Max Weber’s methodology of the ideal type may be useful. However, constructing an ideal type of the nation faces the problem that, on the one hand, it is necessary to create an ideal standard to which given cases of nations approximate, while, on the other hand, recognizing that the concept also represents a ‘moving target’ for its members, especially the nationalists, and is best analysed as a combination of processes. In the light of this, we may define the pure type of a nation as a named and self-defined human community sharing common myths, memories and symbols, residing in and attached to a historic territory, and united by common codes of communication, and a distinctive public culture, and common customs and laws.

The patterns of change to which these elements of the ideal type refer are the well-known processes of:

  • Self-definition: the increasing self-definition, and self-naming, of a human community, and the creation of a symbolic boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them.’
  • Myth-and-memory cultivation: the creation and dissemination of a fund of myths, memories, symbols and traditions by members of the community peculiar to ‘its’ past and future.
  • Territorialization: the settlement and residence by the majority of the members of a human community in a territory felt to be ‘historic,’ and the growth among them of collective attachments to that territory.
  • Codes of communication: the emergence and dissemination to the members of a community of shared codes of communication, by formal or informal means.
  • Public culture: the creation and dissemination to the members of a community of a distinctive public culture of symbols, values, customs, laws and rituals. (See Smith 2002).

As a type of community, the ideal type of the nation is closely aligned with that of the ethnie, or ethnic community (as opposed to the state). However, there are key differences between the two concepts. While both are self-defined communities, and both have myths of common origins (however fictive) and shared memories, the ideal type of the nation features shared codes of communication and public culture, including laws and customs, whereas that of the ethnie refers only to one or more elements of culture. And while ethnies usually possess at least a symbolic (remembered) link with a specific territory, the nation features majority residence in and attachment to a historic territory (see Smith 2001: ch. 1).

Adoption of this broader ideal-type of the nation may help us to include non-Western, and possibly pre-modern, cases more easily. Moreover, it locates the formation of nations in the combination of processes that usually develop separately; this in turn may help us to chart the emergence of different nations, and gauge the degree of their approximation to the ideal type at different periods.

Nationalism and National Identity

So far, I have focused on nations. What of nationalism? Nationalism may be defined as an ideological movement for the attainment and maintenance of autonomy, unity and identity on behalf of a population some of whose members deem it to constitute an actual or potential ‘nation.’ (In this sense, one can, and does, have nationalism without nations, just as more rarely we can speak about nations without nationalism.)

As an ideological movement, nationalism emerged in eighteenth-century Europe, finding its first full-blown expression during the French Revolution and in the aftermath of the American Revolution, with their cults of classical antiquity and their belief in popular autonomy. But, nationalism is in practice closely related to the cognate concepts of national sentiment, collective sentiments for the strength and welfare of the nation, and national identity, defined as the reproduction and reinterpretation of the pattern of symbols, myths, memories, values and traditions that form the heritage of the nation, and the identification of its members with that heritage. Hence it is possible to detect key elements of the ideology of nationalism in earlier periods, notably in early seventeenth-century England and the Netherlands, along with a growing sense of national identity among their elites and middle classes; and perhaps even in nuce in earlier ‘Western’ cases (Gorski 2000; Greenfeld 1992: ch. 1; Smith 1991: ch. 4; cf. Kumar 2003: chs. 5-6).

The reason for this precocious Western development must be sought in certain sacred traditions closely related to some of the more general processes outlined above. The most important of these is the succession of myths of ethnic election, the conviction that ‘we’ constitute a chosen people entrusted by God with a task or mission, or bound by a covenant with God to fulfil and be witness to a divinely ordained dispensation, which requires that ‘our’ community be separated from others. Deriving from the ancient covenant with the Israelites on Mount Sinai, this tradition spawned a series of myths of divine election which, from the medieval period onwards, became attached to kingdoms and peoples in a Christian Europe that had come to see the Church (and later particular ethnic and provincial churches, states and peoples) as the true successor to ancient Israel (verus Israel). Along with myths of origin, the belief in ethnic election became the most dynamic of the many myths and memories that were to generate a sense of national identity, especially after the Reformation and its return to Old Testament Hebraism (Akenson 1992; O’Brien 1988; Smith 2003: chs. 3-5).

There were other sacred traditions. The most ancient and widespread sprang from aspects of territorialization, in particular collective attachments to sacred sites. Starting with the last resting places of ‘our ancestors,’ they took in tombs of saints which became places of pilgrimage, as well as burial places of kings and heroes. Other ‘sacred sites’ included fields of battle and ancient assembly-places, temples, mosques, churches and monasteries, as well as sacred rivers, mountains and fields, forming a landscape filled with hallowed memories. Of course, these did not of themselves define a bounded sacred homeland, but they delineated a sacred territorial zone patrolled by ethnic guardians (usually priests and scribes) and often by ethnic confederations and kingdoms. In some cases, a whole territory was demarcated as a ‘promised land’ and dedicated to a particular deity and his or her cult, and it came to signify a sacred symbolic centre, even when the ethnic inhabitants were exiled from it, as was the case with the Armenians and Jews (Grosby 2002).

Equally important, if not quite so ubiquitous, is the myth-memory of the golden age (or ages). Already in the ancient world we encounter a nostalgia for past ages held to be of superior worth to the present, and to embody the inner or ‘true’ virtues of the community, now sadly undermined or forgotten. We can find it in the so-called neo-Sumerian civilization of Ur, which recalled the earlier dynastic period of Sumer before Sargon of Akkad’s usurpation and much later in Asshur-bani-pal’s Assyria in its decline (seventh century BC), as the king looked back to Babylonian culture; and again in late Sasanid Iran under Chosroes II in the sixth century AD. It is particularly marked in certain historians and poets of the Latin Silver Age in the early Roman Empire, in the work of Tacitus and Juvenal, who looked back to the alleged virtues of the early Republic. It reappears in medieval times, for example, in the myth-memory of Arthur and his knights, and the opposed golden age of supposed Anglo-Saxon liberties. But, it is really much later, in antiquarian circles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and again among the nationalists of the nineteenth, that the ideal of the golden age comes into its own, and feeds political ideals of restoration and regeneration as the model of the sacred ‘authentic nation’—as could be seen, for example, among the Slavophiles in Russia and the Pharaonicists of early twentieth-century Egypt (Roux 1964: ch. 10; Frye 1966: ch. 6; MacDougall 1982; Smith 2003: chs. 7-8).

For nationalists, the ideal of a canonical golden age was a summons to emulation and action, and it pointed the way to a further tradition of individual and collective struggle and sacrifice on behalf of the nation. Once again, there were ancient and medieval examples, indeed a whole tradition of heroic sacrifice, from the Homeric and biblical heroes up to William Wallace, William Tell, Joan of Arc and Alexander Nevsky. That these exemplars were rarely, in any sense of the term, national and sometimes of doubtful historicity, was of little import to later generations; they had fought (and in some cases died) on behalf of a named community and its sacred cause. To follow their example and be prepared to sacrifice life itself for the sacred cause of the people, came to be seen from the eighteenth century as the highest, most valued human goal, one that applied not just to exceptional heroic individuals, but to the youth and courage of all the (usually male) members of the nation. Hence, the efflorescence of ‘history painting’ and the growing cult of the patriotic war dead, with its rites and ceremonies and its vast cemeteries and monuments for the millions who lost their lives in the two World Wars. Through these means, the survivors sought to make some sense of their immense loss and bind together in one sacred communion of the people the dead, the living and the yet unborn; and thereby fulfil the sacred destiny of the nation (Mosse 1990; Smith 2003: ch. 9; Winter 1995: esp. ch. 4).

Only in the age of nationalism were these sacred traditions brought together for a single political end, the ‘rebirth’ and ‘regeneration’ of the nation, under the influence of the newly politicized ideals of popular sovereignty and cultural authenticity. But most of these traditions were much older, and their very sanctity made them available for use as cultural resources for communities which, for limited periods in pre-modern epochs, approximated to the ideal type of the nation. These traditions provided a measure of continuity with past ethnic communities, though the importance of such links and the degree of their continuity varies considerably.

Nations in History

Continuity is one thing, but identity is quite another. Just as we should not confuse words and things, so we should not equate ethnic communities with nations, because we can point to some links between them. This point can be illustrated by considering some examples of what used to be termed ‘old-new nations.’

Take the case of Egypt. Even if we were to concede that ancient Egypt at certain periods constituted a ‘nation’ in the sense of a named and self-defined, territorially compact community with shared codes of communication, a fund of myths, memories and symbols, and a distinctive public culture, and that some sense of self-definition survived the Macedonian, Roman and Arab conquests, and the introduction of first Christianity and then Islam, it would be an impossible, if not misguided task to attempt to demonstrate links between such an early approximation to the ideal type of the nation and the nation of modern Egypt. The same might be said of any continuities between ancient, Byzantine and modern Greece, of the kind propounded by the nineteenth-century Greek historian Konstantinos Paparrigopoulos, in view of the predominantly cultural rather than political unity of ancient Hellas and the huge impact of the subsequent Slav and Albanian invasions (see Kitromilides 1989; Trigger et al. 1983).

What of other ‘old-new nations,’ like the Armenians and the Jews? Granted that here the cultural continuities of their codes of communication, aspects of their public religious culture and their heritage of myths, memories and symbols, are much greater, because they were carried by an enduring institution; and that consequently the sense of an Armenian and Jewish ethnic community persisted to a far greater degree, stimulated by diaspora exile and periodic persecution. But, even if we are prepared to speak of more or less continuous, if scattered, Armenian and Jewish ‘peoples’ (ethnies) in the medieval epoch, the question remains to what extent they can be termed ‘nations’ before the modern period. Perhaps, as Steven Grosby argues, both communities approximated to the ideal-type of the nation, say, in Second Temple and Mishnaic Judea, or fifth-century Armenia. But, after their dispersion, both Armenians and Jews, losing their historic lands and aspects of their public cultures as a result of their far-flung diasporas, are better viewed as ethnies, their sense of collective unity having been eroded by varying degrees of acculturation in their host societies (see Grosby 2002; Neusner 1981; Redgate 2000.)

These are matters of historical judgement measured against the touchstone of the ideal type and its constituent processes. They illustrate the fact that we are dealing with variable processes, and these probably need to be broken down further into more specific elements. But, at least, this procedure can move us beyond doctrinaire paradigms, whether perennialist or modernist, and direct our attention to the multiplicity of variables involved in the formation of nations and the different forms they take in different historical contexts (Uzelac 2002). On the whole, it is true to say that in Near Eastern and classical antiquity, ethnic categories, networks and communities predominated, alongside empires and city-states. We rarely encounter ‘nations’ even in the broader ideal-typical sense I have been proposing. The same can be said of the early medieval period with its barbarian regna, although there are clear intimations of nationhood among, say, the fifteenth-century English, Scots and Swiss, certainly among their elites. Whether we can therefore speak of elite nations in this period is a moot point, but it does point to a definite change in the developments of the key processes of nationhood (Reynolds 1984: ch. 8).

From the late sixteenth century, however, the turn to Old Testament Hebraism and covenantal theology in the Reformation, disseminated by translations of the Bible and Prayer Book, printed tracts and regular sermons, ‘democratized’ the old tradition of chosenness which had been previously applied to kingdoms (and more rarely to peoples), and provided a dynamic ideology of popular rule in the name of an original national-Christian community. At the same time we encounter new myth-memories of golden ages, growing territorial attachments (often as a result of wars), and a cult of martyrs which, though Protestant in origin, became increasingly national in form.

All of these traditions build on the confluence of processes of increasing self-definition, myth-and-memory cultivation, residence in an historic territory, shared codes of communication and the dissemination of a public culture. As both Gorski and Schama document, the most obvious example was the Netherlands, but among English and Scots Puritans, too, a sense of Protestant popular nationhood emerged at this time, providing important models for later nations (Kohn 1940; Schama 1987: ch. 2; Greenfeld 1992: ch. 1; Gorski 2000; cf. Kumar 2003: ch. 5).

By the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the language of nationhood—national character, the genius of the nation, patriotism—had become widespread in Europe. The subsequent rise of nationalism—the ideological movement—on its back provided an accessible ideological blueprint for aspirant ethnies to claim autonomy or sovereign statehood. The confluence of classical and Hebraic traditions, and of ethnic cultures with the cult of authenticity and the quest for popular sovereignty, imparted a new dynamic to the national ideal; and the success of the Anglo-French model helped to ensure its global reach. However, the ethnically based nations have by all accounts been much more successful than post-colonial ‘state-nations’ based on more or less artificial boundaries, which have found it difficult to create a deep sense of the collective self, because they lacked a fund of shared ethnic myths, memories, symbols and traditions, and/or strong territorial attachments. This suggests that political will, in the absence of the necessary general processes of nation formation, not to mention the more specific sacred traditions, cannot suffice to sustain nations. Territory and the claim for popular sovereignty within its borders may have wrested statehood from alien hands, but the forging of nations requires deeper and more pervasive cultural commonalities (Kemilainen 1964; Colley 1992; Bell 2001).

The success of nationalism, as well as its limitations, has therefore much to do with the conjunction of the more recent ideals of popular sovereignty and cultural authenticity with antecedent, and often much older, ethnic ties and communities. That it was the West that led the way was largely due to the interplay of three sets of factors: a complex mosaic of ethnic communities and ethnic polities in Europe, the rapidity of large-scale social and political change from the sixteenth century on, and Christianity’s, particularly Protestantism’s, recovery of biblical Hebraism and ‘Mosaic theology’ with its emphasis on ethnic election, covenant and mission.

But, once the model of the ethnically based nation was firmly established, it became possible to conceive of polyethnic nations like Nigeria, Eritrea and Tanzania, despite the obvious difficulties of implementing such a project in the absence of one or more of the key processes. This ‘civic’ model of nationhood has become increasingly attractive, partly because of a general revulsion against the atrocities committed by radical ethnonationalists bent on achieving congruence between a single nation and ‘its’ state, and partly because of the scale and nature of recent waves of immigration. In some cases, notably immigrant societies like Canada, Australia and the United States, the new kind of ‘plural’ nationhood with its commitment to multiculturalism has scored considerable success. In others, particularly in Europe, the appeal to a more ‘civic’ kind of nationalism has barely concealed the historic ethnic basis of the nation and of its cultural ties and ethos. This is especially true of cases where constituent and long-resident ethnies, such as the Catalans, Basques, Corsicans, Bretons, Scots and Welsh (not to mention the French, English and Castilians) had successfully claimed the status of nationhood within an overarching national state. In this respect, there has been little change: the post-Cold War era remains one of both widespread ethnic communities and of nations and national states based in varying degrees on a complex nexus of ethnic ties, with competing, but intertwined, conceptions of the nation—ethnic, civic and multicultural (see Smith 1995: ch. 4.)


The current picture presented by the state of ethnicity and nationalism is a complex one. On the surface, we are witnessing the proliferation and in some cases intensification of ethnic and national conflicts, but also a concerted effort in certain areas, notably Europe, to create supranational institutions that appear to undermine the bases of national identity in some existing states. At a deeper level, our received traditions, even our ideas, of national identity in the West are being transformed, as some of the sacred foundations on which they rest are weakened; while at the same time Western-style ‘sober’ secular national identities are being challenged, sometimes thrust aside, by national-religious ideals that draw inspiration from radical readings of scriptures and populist mobilizations (see Juergensmeyer 1993; on Europe, Delanty 1995.)

But these conflicting trends still operate within the field of ‘a world of nations,’ and the general processes that underpin nationhood—self-definition, myth-memory cultivation, territorialization and the like—remain operative, even when, and perhaps because, they encounter opposing globalizing and localizing trends. Even the fashionable Western insistence on multiculturalism and the polyethnic nation, and the associated transfer of powers upward and downwards by the national state in a so-called post-national order, has not so far undermined the political and cultural pluralism of the sovereign national states of the ‘international’ community. Neither, within those national states, has it dissolved the centrality of dominant or core ethnies, whose culture, myths, mores and memories continue to define the national state and frame the ideals and conduct of its members, even those of relatively recent origin (see Smith 2001: ch. 6).

Even when the ‘sacred foundations’ of national identity are undermined, and its underlying cultural resources are neglected, the power of competition between national states with their uneven distribution of ethno-historical cultures, their unequal geopolitical and economic resources, the differential nature and rates of their immigration, and the varied impact of their religious traditions, continues to preserve and extend the global community of nations and to excite the national aspirations of ethnic communities across the world. In an age of globalization, the position of ethnicity and nationalism is paradoxical. The national state loses many of its erstwhile functions, its borders become porous, consumerism penetrates all cultures, and ethnies are revitalized. Yet, the national state extends its reach in ever-new directions and the sense of national identity, however much ‘contested,’ continually resurfaces as the expression of a powerful social solidarity and a sacred communion of the people.