NATIONALISM AND BRITISH DEMOCRATIC POLITICS
Nationalism is an ideology and belief that the people of a single territory should have a common culture, and with it, a sovereign state. Nationalism is a modern phenomenon, dating from the eighteenth century; when it combines with the modern state in that territory, the product is known as the nation-state. The creation of the nation-state system thus witnessed the development of nation-states out of existing states (France and Britain) or through the unification of a number of smaller ones (Germany and Italy).
At the same time, the process entailed the break-up of existing territorial states into a number of national units. The prime examples of this process were the Russian, Habsburg, and Ottoman empires. Hence their pattern of formation went through three phases; the first of scholars propagating the idea of a single nation by promoting its language, folklore, and history; the second of journalism disseminating the idea of the nation through popular publications in the national language; and the third of political movements espousing these doctrines to work for the nation-state. When international diplomacy and war combined with these factors, as especially during and after the First World War, a number of such nation-states established themselves.
Until the French revolutionary wars, states engaged in war and diplomacy; thereafter it was nations, or more strictly, nation-states. Nationalism has clearly emerged as the most dominant political force during the course of the last two centuries. Modern man does not simply think; he thinks as French or German or as an Indian. One of the most prominent features of modern state is nationalism. Nationalism has become one of most important instruments of mobilization and effectively it leads to self-
mobilization. For nearly 150 years between the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and the end of the Second World War in 1945, nationalism was the lone promoter of nation-states.
Although it is possible to trace the idea of the nation to the earliest times and certainly to the 16th century – as in the case of the German word Volk for people – there is considerable unanimity among historians that nationalism is a modern concept. Despite other disagreements, scholars like Benedict Anderson, Ernest Gellner and Eric Hobsbawm agree that nationalism is a phenomenon which emerged in the eighteenth century in Western Europe and then spread during the 19th and 20th centuries to other parts of the world.
Proto-Nationalism Before 1789
Several 19th Century Observers believed that elements of nationalism emerged in the medieval period – a sense of ethnic or linguistic or national identity. This can be called a form of patriotism or of protonationalism. The 19th century French historian and politician Guizot believed that the Hundred Years War between England and France (1337-1453) – provoked by the claim of the king of England to the throne of France – brought together the nobility, burghers and peasantry in a common desire to defeat the foreigners who had attacked and plundered France. Though modern historians regard this as a period of crises marked by war, plague and famine; it did create a sense of patriotism. The four different nationalities which created a modern state in 1648 managed to create a distinct Swiss national consciousness only by 1848 after the victory of the liberals and the drafting of a new federal Constitution.
The 19th century is regarded as a century of nationalism – a period in which the idea of the nation state based on Britain and France was generalized and perceived as the universal principle for modern societies. It is the considered
view of historians that nationalism in the modern sense emerged with the growth of industrial capitalism or print capitalism and was then sustained by a variety of factors – by notions of community based on language, ethnicity or religion or by the rivalry and competition among states and imagined communities.
The big change in the attitude towards nationality and nationalism came about in the late 19th century with the growth of mass political movements in the era of democratic politics. After 1880 the debate about the national question becomes important with the need to mobilize voters for different political parties and to gain adherents for new ideologies whether among socialists or minor linguistic and national groupings. In the later stage of mass politics and national movements, the state played an active role. Colonel Pilsudski, the liberator of Poland, in fact observed, “It is the state which makes the nation and not the nation the state”. Whatever view one takes of the relations between nation and state, it was electoral democracy which undermined the liberal theory of the nation.
The exercise of power in modern European states was different from any form that preceded it. It was marked especially by the absolute power of the modern state, and the correspondingly enormous mobilization of the population over which these states exercised their powers. Nationalism was the driver of this type of mobilization.
Defining the Un-Definable
The earliest attempt to define a nation was made in 1882 by Ernest Renan, a French scholar. He defined nation, as a “human collectively brought together by will, consciousness and collective memory” (and also common forgetfulness, or a collective amnesia). He called the nation as an exercise in everyday plebiscite. The strength of Renan’s definition lay in providing a voluntaristic (as against naturalistic) component to the understanding of nation. He forcefully rejected the notion that nations were created by natural boundaries like mountains, rivers and oceans. He emphasized the role of human will and memory in the making of a nation.
According to Renan, human collectivity or grouping can will itself to form a nation. The process of the creation of a nation is not defendant upon any natural or objective criteria
and a nation, in order to be, is not obliged to fulfil any of the objection conditions.
Stalin offered a much sharper and comprehensive understanding of nations. According to him, ‘A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people,’ formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.’ If Renan’s definition-net was too wide catching nations as well as many non-nations, Stalin’s definition tended to be a bit narrow, leaving out significant nations.
Though Renan offered an ‘idealist’ definition of the nation as against the ‘materialist’ analysis of Stalin, both authors believed that there was nothing eternal or everlasting about nations. Nations had a beginning and they would also have an end.
Within the Marxist tradition, the definition of the nation has evolved from the writings of Marx and Engels, through Lenin and Stalin, to those of Hobsbawm. Broadly speaking, within this tradition the nation is regarded as a historically evolved phenomenon which emerges only with decline of feudalism and the rise of capitalism. Tribes, clans and peoples existed prior to the emergence of capitalism but it was because of new economic relations produced by the emergence of the capitalist mode of production that nations were created. Nationalism was regarded as an ideological construct which enabled the bourgeoisie to identify its interests as a class with the interests of the whole society.
Hobsbawm also emphasizes that nations and nationalist aspirations have to be examined in “the context of a particular stage of technological and economic development.” Though essentially constructed from above, nationalism cannot be understood unless it is also analyzed from below” in terms of the assumptions, hopes, needs, longings and interests of ordinary people which are not necessarily national and still less nationalist”.
Friedrich List in ‘The National System of Political Economy’ stated that, “a large population and an extensive territory endowed with manifold national resources, are essential requirements of the normal nationality. It is this tacit liberal assumption of a certain size of states
which Hobsbawm calls the “threshold principle” of nationality which the liberal bourgeoisie broadly endorsed from about 1830-1880. It is this threshold principle of nationality which is shared by figures as far apart as John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Engels and Mazzini. It is this principle which explains why Mazzini, the apostle of nationalism, did not support the cause of Irish independence. The principle of national self- determination in the period of Mill and Mazzini was therefore substantially different from that in the period of the American President, Woodrow Wilson.
The modern concept of the nation emerged during the Age of Revolution, the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789. In America political discourse did not emphasize the unitary aspect of nationalism – the Americans were concerned with the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, with the proper relation between the American union and the states and with development of a liberal capitalist society. By contrast, in France the nation was conceived as “one and indivisible’. The idea of the nation was inextricably linked up with mass participation, citizenship and collective sovereignty of the people or of a given nationality.
Hobsbawm draws a distinction between the revolutionary democratic and the nationalist conception of the nation. In the revolutionary democratic view of the nation the sovereign citizen people within a state constituted a nation in relation to others whereas in the nationalist view the “prior existence” of same distinguishing features of a community, setting it apart from others, was necessary to constitute a nation.
Hans Kohn, argues that “nationalities are products of the living forces of history and therefore always fluctuating never rigid,” Nationalities are not identical with clans, tribes or folk-groups nor are they the simple outcome of common descent or common habitat. Kohn argues: “Ethnographic groups like these existed throughout history, from earliest times on, yet they do not form nationalities; they are nothing but ‘ethnographic material’, out of which under certain circumstances a nationality might arise. Even if a nationality arises, it may disappear again, absorbed into a larger or new nationality”.
Kohn argued that “both the idea and the form of nationalism were developed before the age of nationalism”. The idea of nationalism is traceable to the ancient Hebrews and Greeks. The idea of the chosen people, the consciousness of national history and national mechanism were three traits of nationalism which emerged with the ancient Jews. But he acknowledges that, despite their “fierce nationalist ideology”, the Greeks lacked “political nationalism’ and there was only a brief period of patriotism during the Persian Wars.
According to Ernest Gellner, nations are best understood in the spirit of nationalism. Contrary to popular belief it is not nations that lead to nationalism. But, nations are created by nationalism. The three components-will (Renan), culture (Stalin) and ideology (Gellner)- complete definition of nation.