Nations and Nationalisms: Between General Theory and Comparative History

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

The case for comparative perspectives on nations and nationalisms can be made at the most basic level. Definitions of nationhood are notoriously disputed, but irrespective of controversies in that regard, it is generally accepted that national identities involve mutual demarcation; the plurality of nations—ultimately a ‘world of nations’ (Bloom 1941)—is a defining feature of the field to be explored, and comparisons of distinctive characteristics, types and trajectories are by the same token essential to any research programme. The reference to nationalisms in the plural—and as a subject of comparative inquiry—may seem less self-evident, but it is easier to justify if a broad definition is adopted. For the purposes of the present discussion, nationalism will be equated with the explicit and affirmative articulation of national identity. In that sense, it is a corollary of nationhood. The connection is clearly envisaged in Max Weber’s comments on the nation as a ‘value-concept,’ an institutionalized meaning inseparable from a value-orientation. The same point is made by one of the most prominent contemporary analysts of national movements and formations: ‘There is no nation without national consciousness, i.e. an awareness of membership in the nation, coupled with a view that this membership is an inherently valuable quality’ (Hroch 2000 [1984]: 12). If nationalism is defined in such terms, it is more akin to broad and adaptable orientations like individualism and collectivism, than to ideological currents like liberalism or socialism. We can thus defuse the problem—frequently noted by writers on the subject—of intellectual underdevelopment and doctrinal poverty. If nationalism is compared to the major ideological alternatives of modern times, it will inevitably appear as a less structured and less theorizable trend; but if the comparative focus is on broader orientations such as those mentioned above, the nationalist substratum of multiple and often rival ideologies can be put in a more balanced perspective. There is no denying that nationalism has in some contexts developed into a more self-contained ideology than in others, but it never did so without inputs from other sources. Both the superimposed ideological frameworks and the underlying varieties of nationalism call for comparative study.

A further dimension of comparative inquiry will open up if we accept that it is legitimate to speak of nations and nationalisms in pre-modern contexts. This is one of the most controversial issues in current debates. Some specific arguments will be considered below; at this point, it should only be noted that there is nothing a priori implausible about the suggestion. If it is now widely agreed that pre-modern forms of democracy and capitalism can be distinguished from modern ones, the view that the same might apply to nations and nationalisms is not to be dismissed out of hand. It does not amount to a denial of novelty: new characteristics and dynamics of national phenomena in the modern world may be related to new forms and contexts of interaction with other historical forces. If this perspective is adopted, contrasts and parallels between different paths to modernity will be seen as a prime theme for further research.

Obstacles and Preconceptions

In view of these considerations, the limited and one-sided role of comparative approaches in scholarly work on nations and nationalism seems all the more striking. The question of obstacles to a logical andprima facie inviting option must be addressed. One obvious reason has to do with uneven geohistorical coverage. Non-European experiences have been neglected, at least by contrast with the vast and diverse literature on European developments, and two parts of that field are especially relevant to the present topic. On the one hand, enough has been written on ‘Asian forms of the nation’ (Tönnesson and Antlöv 1996) to show that more work of that kind would both open up broader horizons and modify the conceptual frame of reference for comparative studies. Apart from the complex, inconclusive and still not very well understood processes of nation formation in China and India, the Japanese case is of crucial importance. Historians of modern Japan, as well as critical analysts of Japanese politics (especially Maruyama 1963) have done much to clarify the distinctive features of Japanese nationalism (from the nineteenth-century transformation to the post-World War II developmental state), but this work has not been integrated into mainstream debates.

References to Japan as an early case of imitative or ‘transfer’ nationalism (Wehler 2004 [2001]: 52) are still common; they greatly underestimate the endogenous long-term processes that preceded the encounter with the West and determined its outcome. On the other hand, comparative analysis of nation formation in Europe and the Americas has not progressed very far, and the absence of systematic work has made it easier to draw on American experiences in selective and exaggerated ways. This applies to Anderson’s portrayal of Creole nationalism in Latin America as a forerunner of European trends (Anderson 1991), but also to the much more widely shared vision of the United States as the archetypal civic or trans-ethnic nation.

The latter claim links up with interpretations of the European background. If a Eurocentric bias has affected the most influential scholarship on nations and nationalisms, this is not simply a matter of overgeneralizing from specific European cases: rather, the problem is that basic conceptual markers and typological models have been adapted to invidious distinctions rooted in European history. In this way, idealizing conceptions of the modern nation, more or less explicitly identified with specific cases, are built into a general frame of reference. Other aspects of modernity have been transfigured in similar ways, but in this particular field, the projections seem more resistant to criticism.

The reference to a broader modern context touches upon a further obstacle to comparative approaches: the lack of an adequate conceptual framework for the analysis of changing interconnections (and the failure to respond to theoretical innovations in related areas). Attempts to theorize modernity can still draw on the insights of classical sociology, but in that context, its grasp of nations and nationalisms was notoriously limited. When later analysts (especially Gellner 1983) recognized the key role of the national factor in the formation of the modern world, they tended to rely on oversimplified theoretical models that had already been left behind by more critical interpretations of modernity. More recently, the unfolding debate on ‘multiple modernities’ has—so far—not had a major impact on the study of nations and nationalisms. Theorists involved in this discussion—especially S. N. Eisenstadt—have signalled the need to reopen the question of collective identities and their historical dynamics, but the challenge has not been taken up by those more directly concerned with the themes at issue here.

It is not being suggested that closer contact with changing ways of theorizing modernity could help to construct a general theory of nations and nationalism. As the following discussion should show, there are good reasons to agree with Craig Calhoun’s thesis: ‘grasping nationalism in its multiplicity of forms requires multiple theories’ (Calhoun 1997: 8; it seems obvious that the same applies to nationhood). No comprehensive explanatory or interpretive model has withstood criticism, and no plausible grounds for persisting in the search for such master keys can be established. But a theoretical framework, in the more flexible sense of conceptual guidelines for the analysis of multiple constellations, would not impose a uniform pattern. It could serve to focus comparative approaches on the variety of relationships betweeen nations and nationalism on the one hand, patterns of modernity and modernizing processes on the other. Selective views on this problematic—the nation as a functional complement to other modernizing forces, as an integrative counterweight to modern conflicts and tensions, or as a historical obstacle to the long-term globalizing logic of modernity—have proved more conducive to rival simplifications than to productive discussion.

Hans Kohn: Ideas, Traditions, and Trajectories

In the whole literature on nations and nationalism, it would be hard to find a more seminal work than Hans Kohn’s Idea of Nationalism (1945). Its influence on the approaches and arguments of later scholars in the field has been much greater than is now commonly acknowledged; and even where direct connections are absent or unlikely, it can be argued that Kohn’s survey of the whole problematic anticipates the themes and directions of later debates in a more comprehensive fashion than any other work on the subject. The following discussion will focus on specific implications for comparative approaches. In that regard, four main analytical dimensions may be distinguished. At the most basic level, Kohn’s assumptions about the role of nations and nationalisms in the making of the modern world gave a particular twist to the tasks of comparative analysis. As noted above, this context is crucial but still undertheorized; both the questions that Kohn singled out for preferential treatment and those that he conspicuously set aside have figured prominently in more recent work and remain as controversial as ever. Moving on to more sustained comparative history, Kohn adopts a typological distinction between two kinds of nationalism, not simply identical with Western and Eastern versions, but easily assimilable to that dichotomy (first defined in an intra-European sense, but adaptable to a global arena). This is perhaps his most salient contribution to the debate on nations and nationalisms; further inquiry into the origins of the distinction is beyond the scope of this chapter, but there can be no doubt that Kohn’s formulation of it is the most paradigmatic and significant—also in the sense that its nuances and ambiguities suggest ways of problematizing the whole argument. The enduring impact of this dichotomizing model will be analysed at some length below. Kohn used it mainly to clarify and contrast divergent paths of modern history, but his more detailed case studies could not but touch upon pre-modern antecedents that had left their marks on modern identities and destinies. This third aspect of the problematic is marginal to the main line of argument, but it prefigures issues that came to play a much more central role in comparative studies. Finally, the reconstruction of links between modern and pre-modern phases raises questions about the long-term processes of nation formation that encompass both stages. Although this is, in Kohn’s work, the least developed of the themes to be considered here, some highly suggestive statements point to problems that are—as I will argue—of decisive importance for further development of comparative approaches.

The Idea of Nationalism was written during World War II and completed when the victory of the Western—Soviet alliance was in sight. Kohn’s comprehensive interpretation of modern history, developed through an analysis of nationalism, is therefore comparable to other works of a similarly ambitious character, written in the later stages or the aftermath of the war. As the title of the book suggests, the history of ideas provides the main thread of the narrative; but the ideas in question are of the kind that Max Weber had in mind when he referred to ideas channelling and mobilizing interests. They are, in other words, what French historians have called ‘idées-forces.’ This understanding of nationalism as an active world-historical force, rather than a reflection of pre-existing nationhood, foreshadows influential ideas of later authors. But Kohn did not take the extreme ‘constructivist’ view that nationalism creates nations. As he puts it, ‘nationalities are the products of the living forces of history’ (Kohn 1945: 13); this is a first and strong indication of the need to analyse processes of nation formation. ‘Nationality’ is, in this context, synonymous with what later authors would call nationhood or national identity, and definitely not to be understood as something inferior to a nation. As products of history, nations or national identities are ever-changing, under-determined and indefinable in strictly objective terms. Nationalism, as a conscious attribution of meaning, gives them the profile and momentum needed for action on a historical scale.

For Kohn, the nationalist infusion of meaning into group identities produced by history was one of the three main currents of modern history. The others were democracy and industrialism. The combination of these three irresistible forces had—since the late eighteenth century—transformed Europe and was now transforming the rest of the world along the same lines. But if nationalism is to be analysed as a distinctively modern and revolutionary movement, it is also true that adequate understanding is impossible without tracing its pre-modern ancestry. As Kohn puts it: ‘Both the idea and the form of nationalism were developed before the age of nationalism’ (1945: 19). The idea emerged in two cultures with more pronounced national characteristics than any other peoples of the ancient world, Greece and Israel; the form is the centralized, sovereign state that took shape under dynastic rule in late medieval and early modern Europe. Kohn did not clarify the concepts of idea and form. But the implications of his statements are far-reaching indeed: if the historical foundations of modern nationalism include the cultural and political legacies to which he refers, and if pre-modern developments went far enough for both the ideological content and the structural framework of nationalism to be clearly prefigured, the radical novelty of modern trends becomes much less obvious. Moreover, the very different cultural and political traditions of non-European civilizations could be expected to affect their respective versions of nationalism, even when the ideologies and movements in question drew on European sources. This would open up a vast field for comparative studies.

Kohn did not pursue this line of inquiry. His prime theme was the emergence and ascendancy of nationalism as a dominant force of the modern age, and its interaction with other such forces. But when it came to specifics, industrialism was set aside: beyond general references to the mobilization of the masses, the book has next to nothing to say on its relationship to nationalism. The main emphasis is on the interrelations of nationalism and democracy. As Kohn saw it, this was not a matter for general theorizing: it could only be tackled in historical terms. From an overall historical perspective, it seemed clear that the period between the French Revolution and the end of World War II had been an age of nationalism rather than democracy. On the other hand, Kohn thought that the dynamic of triumphant nationalism pointed beyond itself, towards global democratic forms of integration. Some nationalisms were closer in spirit to this future age of democracy than others. The question of different trends and projects during the age of nationalism was therefore critical, and Kohn was particularly interested in divergent patterns that crystallized at relatively early stages. Such contrasts are the key subject of his comparative historical analyses.

The dichotomy mentioned above is introduced in this context. Some of Kohn’s formulations define it on a strictly analytical level and allow for changing historical mixtures:

Two main concepts of nation … emerged in the intertwining of influences and conditions; conflicting and fusing, they became embodied in currents of thought in all nations and, to a varying degree, in entire nations. The one was basically a rational and universal concept of political liberty and the rights of man [sic], looking towards the city of the future … It found its chief support in the political and economic strength of the educated middle classes and, with a shift of emphasis, in the social-democratically organized labor movements. The other was basically founded on history, on monuments and graveyards, even harking back to the mysteries of ancient times and of tribal solidarity. It stressed the past, the diversity and self-sufficiency of nations. It found its support, above all, among the aristocracy and the masses. (1945: 574)

If the two types are to be found everywhere, in different and changing combinations, it would seem advisable to avoid conflation with specific historical cases. Kohn was, however, strongly inclined to equate the conceptual divide with a regional one:

Nationalism in the West arose in an effort to build a nation in the political reality and the struggle of the present without too much sentimental regard for the past; nationalists in Central and Eastern Europe created often, out of the myths of the past and the dreams of the future, an ideal fatherland, closely linked with the past, and expected to become sometime a political reality … While Western nationalism was, in its origin, connected with the concepts of individual liberty and rational cosmopolitanism current in the eighteenth century, the later nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe and in Asia easily tended towards a contrary background. (1945: 330)

Kohn added that diffusion of nationalist ideas beyond the West tended to combine with resentment against the West, and this aggravated the contrast between the two types.

In searching for an archetypal Western moment in the history of nationalism, Kohn seems to have hesitated between alternative accounts. The book begins with a reference to the French Revolution as the first great manifestation of nationalism, but a later chapter claims that English liberal and universal nationalism reached full maturity in the seventeenth century (1945: 183). An even more perfect embodiment of the English model then appears across the Atlantic, where the American nation, instead of being ‘determined by “natural” factors of blood and soil, nor by common memories of a long history,’ is ‘formed by an idea, an universal idea (1945: 324). The disturbing presence of Blacks and Indians is barely mentioned. Kohn had no qualms about describing the American experience as a case of nationalism; his initial focus on France is understandable in the context of his overall picture of the age (this was the most spectacular example of democratic aspirations channelled into national mobilization), but when it comes to more detailed analyses, it is the New World that serves as a model for critical judgement on the retrograde Eastern adaptations of the national idea. The journey into the East begins in Germany, where Kohn stresses the enormous importance of the imperial legacy. His account of various strands and junctures in the history of German nationalism is more balanced than other versions of the same approach. But one major oversimplification should be noted: the vastly exaggerated role of Herder’s thought as a link between German and Slavic patterns of national particularism. This claim has been widely and uncritically accepted by many later writers on the subject; historical research has, however, shown that specific responses to and uses of Herder’s ideas varied from case to case, and were always shaped by indigenous experiences and interests (Sundhaussen 1973). Kohn’s analysis of particular countries in East Central and South-Eastern Europe is perfunctory, but not without some insights into different historical backgrounds. His brief analysis of Czech nationalism (with which he was familiar) is significant for the whole argument of the book: this special case alternated between the roles of an ‘eastern outpost of the liberal West’ and a ‘western outpost of the Slav East’ (1945: 560). It might, by the same token, be a privileged starting point for problematizing the dichotomy.

Kohn’s dichotomy has had an exceptionally broad and enduring impact on comparative studies of nationalism, and later authors have often reproduced it in simplified form (for the most extreme version, see Plamenatz 1972). Its influence, direct or indirect, is evident in recent work, even when Kohn is not mentioned. For example, Liah Greenfeld’s (1992) comparative history of nationalist ‘paths to modernity’ is in all essentials aligned with Kohn’s model, although it makes no reference to his work. In view of this pervasive presence, it seems appropriate to digress and summarize the main objections. The dichotomy is now most frequently stated in terms of Western against Eastern and civic against ethnic conceptions of nationhood; a general delegitimation of nationalism has led to its being linked, primarily if not exclusively, to the second category of each conceptual pair. The conflation of analytical types with regional ones obscures the historical combinations and changing balances at work in every case. The ‘unification nationalisms’ that triumphed in Germany and Italy had received very significant inputs from liberalism and the Enlightenment, even if they later proved vulnerable to takeovers and reorientations from another side. The vicissitudes and internal disputes of nationalism in East Central and South-Eastern Europe reflect—among other things—the very specific interaction of Enlightenment and Romanticism in these regions. On the Western side, the French version of integral nationalism was strong and radical enough to give rise to the first fully recognizable form of Fascist ideology. The picture is, in short, too complex for the contrast between a forward-looking Western model and a regressive Eastern one to make any sense. But the analytical distinction as such is also open to criticism. The ‘myth of the civic nation’ (Yack 1998), as a more rational, liberal and universalistic alternative to the ethnic one, tends to rely on restrictive definitions of ethnicity: it is equated with an emphasis on descent (always to a large extent imaginary), linguistic particularism, or a mythical past. But the key question concerns the relationship between cultural and political aspects of nationhood. The cultural identities involved in the historical constitution of nations are subject to conflicting interpretations, but they also impose specific frameworks on such conflicts. A convincing case has yet to be made for the project of purely political nationhood. Those who credit early modern England with that kind of breakthrough forget the cultural premises (and ethnic sources) of English identity, not least the role of a readapted myth of the chosen people; and those who celebrate the American creation of a civic nation overlook, among other things, the central role of imperial visions during the first formative phase of American nationalism (for a succinct discussion, see Wehler 2004 [2001]: 55–61).

The two last topics mentioned above—pre-modern sources and formative processes—were more marginal to Kohn’s concerns, and their conceptual elaboration does not go beyond vague outlines; but asides and allusions at successive stages of the argument hint at unexplored domains of comparative history. Kohn makes no attempt to clarify the divide between the modern nation and its antecedents. He refers, for example, to national characteristics of ancient Greeks and Jews. On the other hand, these two exemplary cases show how complex the issue is: they represent different combinations of innovative ideas and equally new constructions of collective identity. Although Kohn never tries to theorize the latter aspect as such, it reappears in other contexts. Roman and Christian traditions of universalism, both present in the medieval background to modern nationalism, add other combinations of the same kind. At a later stage, when Kohn moves to analyse Eastern variations on nationalist themes, the emphasis on attachment to the past does not translate into closer attention to forms of identity inherited from the past. Kohn does, however, note the differences due to varying impacts of European cultural currents—Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment and Romanticism—on historical collectivities in the region. In brief, the upshot of his reflections on the genealogy of nationalism is a clear indication of the multiple factors and sources to which the nationalist turn relates in both positive and negative ways. As for the concrete processes that culminate in the transition to a global age of nationalism, Kohn’s reference to the early modern state as a form is particularly suggestive: it points to processes of state formation as decisive factors in the formation of nations. More generally speaking, if the genesis of modern nationalism depends on the coming together of an idea and a form, the different trajectories that lead to this encounter are an obvious topic for comparative analysis; and so are, by implication, the divergences that develop when models derived from the encounter spread to cultural regions where other ideas and forms have been inherited from the past. All these considerations allow us to identify processes of nation formation as one of Kohn’s anticipated but undeveloped themes.

The Modernist Turn and its Troubles

If Kohn’s Idea of Nationalism represents the high point and the most seminal results of scholarship in its field during the first half of the twentieth century, Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism (1983) was probably the most challenging and provocative work produced in the second half. Among the scholars who reopened the debate on nations and nationalism in the early 1980s, Gellner was—implicitly—closest to Kohn’s problematic, but he developed it in a very different direction. He revived the question of connections between nationalism and industrialism, left unexplored by Kohn, and proposed an answer that strengthened general theory at the expense of comparative history. Gellner’s key thesis is that nationalism, national culture and the nation-state reflect the historical dynamics and fulfil the functional needs of industrial society. A socio-economic regime based on an increasingly complex division of labour and a permanent growth of applicable knowledge also requires high levels of social mobility; for all these reasons, a shared and standardized literate culture based on a common language and an educational infrastructure maintained by a centralized state, is essential to the industrial form of social life. Where political organization is not in line with these structural principles, pressures for realignment will develop. Nationalism is, in the first instance, the demand for a ‘marriage of culture and power,’ more specifically a national culture and a centralized state. But in a more general and fundamental sense, nationalism creates nations, rather than the other way around: it is synonymous with the active (and inevitably selective) adaptation of cultural and political patterns to the objective logic of industrialism.

This is the most ambitious general theory of nations and nationalism ever constructed, and it was obviously meant to provide an alternative to more traditional views on the modern world. As Gellner saw it, Marx and Weber had both been mistaken. The decisive world-historical force of the industrial age was neither the class struggle, nor a self-perpetuating rationalizing dynamic: it was nationalism, embodied in nations possessing or demanding a state. With regard to broader historical horizons, it is worth noting that he considered Islam—the most ‘Protestant’ of world religions—likely to become a functional equivalent of nationalism. In the present context, however, his comparative perspectives on nationalism as such are more relevant. His strong and sweeping general theory set strict limits to comparative inquiry, but some notice had to be taken of the changing constellations in which the supposedly universal logic of industrialism manifested itself. In response to that problem, Gellner sketched two different typological schemes. In his most systematic statement on the subject (Gellner 1983), the functional necessity of the centralized state is taken for granted; the variable is the cultural configuration to which it has to be adapted. On this basis, two main types can be distinguished, and Gellner adds a third more specific case to the list. Nineteenth-century Germany and Italy exemplify the first type: a unifying high culture with a common language exists, but political fragmentation and/or foreign domination block the way to national statehood. The second is the well-known Habsburg pattern that pitted national demands for autonomy—radicalized by resistance—against an imperial centre. Diasporic nationalism, represented by the Zionist movement and its successful bid for statehood, is Gellner’s additional case.

This typology is limited to European history, and even within that framework, some further restrictions should be noted. The nationalism of states that achieved an early coordination of cultural and political units—as in Western Europe—is simply disregarded. Only the conflictual patterns count. In this latter case, Gellner screens out all questions about historical sources of national cultures: nationalisms vary in regard to their pasts and their particular uses of them, but this has no bearing on their self-contained modern dynamics. The lack of interest in legacies and traditions is most evident in Gellner’s treatment of the Habsburg Empire and its national problems. His famous portrait of ‘Ruritania,’ the archetypal national community mistaking creation for revival, is a facetious mix of features borrowed from various parts of the imperial domain.

The second typology, set out in a posthumously published reconsideration of central problems in the theory of nationalism, takes a major step forward: it treats the state as a variable, and this means taking the historical dynamics and contingencies of state formation into account. Gellner now divides Europe into four zones (there is no explicit move beyond Europe, but the reader is left with the impression of basic affinities between the eastern part of the continent and regions further to the east). The first zone is the Atlantic seaboard, where states developed—as Gellner would have it—in overall if not complete harmony with cultural boundaries. A brief glance at the twists and turns of state formation on the Iberian peninsula is enough to raise questions about this claim. But Gellner’s main point is clear, and it modifies his earlier approach: he wants to argue that a long-term pre-modern pattern of relations between political and cultural formations, no more natural than any other historical trajectory, gives a specific direction to the problematic of nationhood and nationalism. He then moves on to the second zone, an idio-syncratically defined Central Europe (including Italy, but not Germany’s eastern neighbours). Here the analysis comes closest to the first typology: high cultures have reached the stage needed for nation-building, but the corresponding state structures have to be created out of ultra-fragmented political regimes inherited from the past. Since Gellner has taken a general turn towards more comparative history, the failure to reflect on imperial backgrounds (much more directly involved in the German case, but far from irrelevant in the Italian one) may be noted as a shortcoming on his own terms. More serious problems emerge when the focus shifts to other parts of Europe. The Nordic region is simply absent from Gellner’s map. Its distinctive record of state and nation formation does not fit any of the patterns which he discusses. Collective identities began to crystallize around medieval monarchies, but these states were absorbed into a late medieval composite state, which later split into two such formations (Danish and Swedish); in due course, they gave way to the contemporary pattern of nation-states.

Having bypassed the North, Gellner subsumes the two last zones under a broadly defined notion of Eastern Europe. The difference between them is more historical than geographical: the fourth is identified with Eastern Europe under Soviet imperial rule. For present purposes, the analysis of the pre-1945 zone is more instructive. Its defining feature is the absence of both fully fledged national cultures and states ready to match them. Although Gellner admits in passing that he may have overstated his case, and that high cultures with a national profile did exist, he defends the description of a ‘multi-coloured mixture of cultures and languages’ (Gellner 1997: 96) as at least approximately true, and makes no reference to historical forms of statehood. The main problem with this model is that a diffuse picture of ‘Eastern Europe’ obscures the historical experience of a much more distinctive region, East Central Europe (centred on three historical kingdoms, Poland, Bohemia and Hungary, and their successor states), as well as the problems which this case poses for theories of nations and nationalism (for a forceful reminder, see Zernack 1994). In the region, the interplay of states, empires and nations took forms that differed markedly from developments elsewhere in Europe.

The substantive content of these typological constructs is slim; but their interest lies in the forced retreat from general theory towards comparative history. This trend continues in critical reassessments of Gellner’s work. Those who try to use it as a guide to problems have found the core of his theory wanting. The idea of a functional nexus between industrialism and nationalism is, on this view, too simplistic to throw any light on the multiple and entangled paths of historical nationalisms, but it may have served as a first step to map a field of inquiry: the impact of modernizing processes, including industrial ones, on the interconnected pattern of state formation and ethno-cultural stratification (Hall 1998).

There is, however, another side to the impact of Gellner’s work and the reactions against it: it was one—perhaps the most influential—of several attempts to establish a consistently modernist view of nations and nationalisms. In this context, specific arguments mattered less than a general affinity: scholars from different backgrounds converged on positions which critics have described as a ‘modernist orthodoxy.’ Since this was a late-coming modernism, it lent itself to amalgamations with the postmodernist currents that gained ground at the same time. But apart from concessions to the Zeitgeist, the historical substance of the modernist paradigm was derived from European experience. Together with an a priori downgrading of long-term processes as determinants of nationhood, this reinforced existing obstacles to comparative study. Conversely, critics of the modernist orthodoxy have reopened questions that call for comparative approaches. The most direct challenge to Gellner’s version of modernism came from Anthony Smith, who began with a reconsideration of links between modern forms and pre-modern sources of nationhood. Gellner had not claimed that nationalism created nations ex nihilo, but he argued that the modern imperatives at work were so uniform and unilaterally decisive that the infinite variety of available raw materials could be disregarded. As Smith observed, modern nations are, at least in the historically crucial cases, recognizable descendants of much older cultural collectivities for which he adopted the term ethnie. They are ‘named units of population with common ancestry myths and historical memories, elements of shared culture, some link with a historic territory and some measure of solidarity at least among their elites’ (Smith 1995: 57). If the concept of ethnie is defined in this way, the nation becomes a more special category, adding three further elements: a shared public culture, a common economy and a legal order of rights and duties.

Smith thus started from a basic fact of comparative history, left out of account by a theory intent on closure and universal validity: the genealogical connection between ethnies and nations, easily established in crucial cases and therefore plausibly regarded as a model for nation-building on less clear-cut ethnic foundations. On this basis, he was at first inclined to restate the distinction between Western and Eastern developmental paths: ‘It would indeed not exaggerate the matter to say that what distinguishes nations from ethnie are in some sense “Western” features and qualities’ (Smith 1986: 144). The Eastern conception of nationhood (ideological and practical) can then be portrayed as an attempted shortcut: instead of the more balanced and multidimensional development that had occurred in the West, the addition of statehood to ethnicity was to ensure the completion of other transformations. Both sides of Smith’s basic distinction—the ethnie and the nation—have been questioned by critics. The definition of the ethnic community disregards the linguistic factor, its role in forming or reactivating identities even when the factors mentioned are more or less underdeveloped, and the question of conditions that allow other factors to replace it. On the other hand, the criteria used to distinguish the nation seem imprecise. If public spheres can—as comparative studies have shown—develop in specific forms and directions in different socio-cultural settings, it becomes by the same token difficult to maintain a stark contrast between the absence and presence of a shared public culture. The idea of a common economy poses problems of another kind: the modern dynamic of economic integration has a global dimension, and national unity on this level is therefore undermined by the very processes that made it a plausible goal. If the economic criterion is redefined in terms of a unified economic policy, it presupposes the same foundation as the legal order of rights and duties: separate statehood. At this point, Smith’s model invites the objection that it cannot account for the existence of nations without a state. In such conditions, statehood may be achieved through a long struggle, gained in a more abrupt manner through geopolitical upheavals, or relinquished as an unrealistic goal. But if these historical outcomes are converted into defining features, the nation becomes effectively synonymous with the nation-state. in Smith’s most recent writings, his position has—partly in response to critics—evolved in a way that seems to expose all conceptual schemes to open questions of comparative history. He now sees it as ‘at least a moot point whether some nations can be found among the many ethnies of premodern epochs’ (Smith 2001:14); even a limited number of such cases would put paid to the idea of the nation as a Western upgrading of the ethnie. Conversely, the persistence of ethnic identities in the modern and contemporary world—which Smith also notes—suggests that modern transformations need not be internalized in the manner assumed by the original definition of the nation.

Nation Formation: Formative Phases and Long-Term Processes

As I have argued, implicit references to processes of nation formation appear in influential works and in connection with more central themes, but without an adequate grasp of their importance for comparative study. They have been overshadowed by dichotomizing conceptual schemes that discourage closer analysis of historical constellations, trends and transformations—be it the division between an age of ascendant nationalism and a prehistory of its disjointed potential elements, between Western and Eastern archetypes, or between ethnies and nations. It seems clear that the overall state of the field has evolved towards more explicit focus on nation formation and its historical phases, but approaches to this problematic have been fragmented and ways to integrate them have not been discussed at length.

The most decisive step to recentre the study of nations and nationalism on historical processes was taken in virtual isolation from mainstream Western debates; it preceded the modernist turn discussed above, but was not properly acknowledged by Western scholars until the critique of modernism had made some headway. Miroslav Hroch’s work on modes and phases of national mobilization in Europe (Hroch 2000 [1984]) is based on research done in the late 1960s. His decision to focus on ‘small nations,’ more precisely subordinate nations without an indigenous ruling class, was already a move against established stereotypes: this category cuts across the supposed divide between East and West, and it includes a whole range of cases that differ in regard to structures and sequences. A common framework could, as Hroch argued, be based on an obvious distinction between three developmental phases: the rediscovery of cultural legacies and reactivation of languages by patriotic intellectuals; the stage of broader mobilization through ‘national agitation’; and the formation of nationalist mass organizations seeking political power. Hroch’s analysis dealt primarily with the second stage, ‘phase B,’ and the social context in which it unfolded. Detailed examination revealed significant variations from case to case. As Hroch saw it, the most salient conclusion was negative: no social group could be credited with a privileged role in the process of ‘national revival,’ and there was ‘no “typical” combination of social groups’ (Hroch 2000 [1984]) that could be identified as essential to a successful transition. The record suggests that interest conflicts coinciding with national differences are of decisive importance, but no central conflict emerges as an invariant factor.

In contrast to the emphasis on nationalism among Western scholars, Hroch rejected this—in his view—levelling and nebulous category. His main concern was the formation, articulation and diffusion of national consciousness. As noted at the beginning, it may be possible to define nationalism in a way that does not conflate different levels of articulation. But in the present context, this issue is less important than the broader implications of Hroch’s research programme. He explicitly linked the focus on national movements of non-dominant ethnic groups, more precisely on contrasts and parallels during key parts of their trajectories, to a multi-level perspective on processes of nation formation. A particularly intensive study of a closely circumscribed process thus served to ground a more general reorientation. The three phases mentioned above add up to a clearly demarcated episode in the longue durée of nation formation. This does not mean that we are dealing with a self-contained story: it is linked to the more comprehensive modern transformation of European societies. Hroch’s conception of this macro-historical transition has evolved far beyond the Marxian framework of his earlier writings, and now allows for the autonomous role of political and cultural forces in shaping the multiple paths from the European an d en régime to a spectrum of divergent but interconnected modernities (see especially Hroch 2004). National movements differ not least because of their varying historical relationships to the overall dynamics of modernization in general and capitalist development in particular. Finally, the long-term process of nation formation can be traced back to pre-modern sources and divided into ‘two distinct stages of unequal length and intensity. The first stage had an extensive character and began during the Middle Ages. The second, which was intensive and decisive, took place during the nineteenth century’ (Hroch 2000 [1984]: XIII). This periodization is obviously tailored to the European record, and does not prejudge the question of comparable long-term processes with different rhythms and chronological divisions in other parts of the world.

To conclude, possible connections with other comparative-historical approaches to processes of nation formation should be briefly explored. Analysts of state formation in Europe have, for obvious reasons, often touched upon issues related to the role and place of nations—or their pre-modern antecedents—in that process. Stein Rokkan’s work (posthumously systematized in Flora 1998) dealt with Western European patterns of political development in great detail and took some note of different dynamics at work further to the east. The main emphasis was, however, on links between long-term transformations of political power and modern forms of representative government; within this frame of reference, nation formation as such can only play a marginal role. Rokkan preferred the term ‘nation-building,’ and his most interesting reflections on that topic had to do with the varying relationships between state structures and linguistic communities. Here his work provides a useful corrective to other conceptions of ethnic origins, less attentive to the linguistic factor.

The most convincing and decisive work on pre-modern phases of nation formation has been done by medievalists, especially by German and East Central European ones (for a succinct summary, see Seibt 2002; for a seminal programmatic statement, see Schlesinger 1978; Zientara 1997 is one of the most representative works in this vein). Their research on medieval forms, developments and conceptions of nationhood has clarified several aspects of the problem. Ways of collective self-identification, the vocabulary used to articulate them and the corresponding modes of demarcation from other collectivities have been studied in detail. These analyses have, at the same time, effectively refuted some frequent objections to the idea of medieval nation formation. The relevant vocabulary is neither identical with the terms of modern discourse, nor a mere prefig-uration of their meanings, but it has significant points of contact and reflects historical trends that continued beyond the transition to modernity; in particular, the term natio may have had fluctuating meanings in different contexts, but as has been shown, its medieval uses are more meaningfully related to modern ones than the modernists have wanted to admit. The political dimensions of medieval nationhood are, especially when linked to emerging states and dynastic continuity, too important for a stark distinction between ethnie and nation to be applicable. And as for the most fundamental objection, the contrast commonly drawn between the egalitarian self-definition of the modern nation and the purely elite character of its medieval precursors, it must at least be toned down. Medieval references to political nationhood did not have the same scope as modern ones, but they were not rigidly limited to the social boundaries of ruling elites; even when primarily made on behalf of nobilities, they involved some kind of appeal to a broader collective identity, and this could be made more explicit in critical situations (in the late medieval phase, the most far-reaching innovations of that kind occurred during the Hussite revolution in Bohemia). Conversely, the more inclusive character of the modern nation manifests itself in transformative processes that unfold in different ways and at a varying pace. There are epoch-making contrasts between medieval and modern patterns, but they have to do with historical dynamics rather than invariant defining features.

On the other hand, the broader civilizational setting of medieval nation formation differed from modern conditions as well as from other parts of the pre-modern world. National identities and collectivities emerged in the context of Western Christendom as a civilization, and more specifically within the socio-cultural space provided by a very distinctive configuration: the presence of two interconnected but inevitably rival embodiments of civilizational unity, the papacy and the empire. National differentiation was one aspect of the structural and cultural pluralism that developed on this basis. The reconstruction of medieval backgrounds is therefore bound to raise questions that call for comparative civilizational approaches. This is a particularly promising field for comparative studies, but very little has so far been done to explore it (for reflections on Christianity and nation formation, not explicitly civilizational but to a certain extent translatable into such terms, see Hastings 1997). Some preliminary distinctions may be suggested. It seems clear that some civilizational patterns and traditions are more favourable to nation formation than others: the European path stands out as a particularly salient case, with implications and consequences no less complex and ambiguous than its other distinctive features. But non-European examples of nation formation as a persistent and dominant trend, beginning with the Japanese experience, are too obvious for the idea of a radical European exceptionalism to be tenable. As the Japanese record also suggests, civilizational contexts may give rise to specific forms of nationhood and nationalism.

Finally, this problematic should also be considered from the opposite angle: the civilizational dimensions or aspirations that may be built into national identity. In the introduction to their collection on Asian forms of the nation, mentioned at the beginning, Tönnesson and Antlöv (1996) proposed the typological concept of a ‘civilizational nation,’ but without any explicit definition or detailed illustration. However, the examples they mention in passing indicate what they have in mind: India and China appear as civilizational nations, at least in the making, whereas Russia and the United States are the major Western cases (Germany is tentatively described as a failed civilizational nation). National identities can, on this view, develop in ways and on levels that involve distinctively civilizational claims or visions. This idea seems to link up with classical sources. Marcel Mauss had, in his seminal but very unsystematic reflections on the notion of civilizations in the plural, noted the possibility of nations ‘singularizing’ themselves within civilizational contexts, and, by implication, through varying ways of appropriating, elaborating and transforming a shared civilizational basis. This line of thought has yet to find adequate outlets in comparative studies.