The discussion about the roots of nationalism is one which has caused fierce debate among a number of historians, political scientists and sociologists. The vast majority of scholars agree that it was at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century that terms such as ‘nation’ and ‘nationalism’ and related terms such as ‘national self determination’ and ‘national identity’ began to be used regularly in political contexts. However, there is considerable disagreement to what degree the feelings and ideas which came to be represented by these terms should also be treated as things which belong only to the modern era. Scholars have not been able to agree whether nationalism should be treated as a recent phenomenon or rather as something which goes back to the distant past.

  • To begin, those who support the primordial interpretation have insisted that nationalism should be treated like an ancient phenomenon which belongs to the pre-modern era. In the opinion of those who have identified with this point of view, nations are natural and organic units which reflect an instinctive tendency among human beings to arrange themselves into groups, in order to nurture a sense of belonging, identity and certainty. It is argued that nationalism is an unavoidable result of this tendency, and as a result that it can be traced back to the customs of some of the earliest groups and tribes. In addition, it is alleged that it is a phenomenon which will continue for as long as human beings survive. A figure who is linked to the primordial interpretation of nationalism is the German thinker from the 18th century, Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803). However, it is not only a point of view from the past – fairly similar points of view were also expressed in more modern work by psychologists.

  • Johann-Gottfried-Herder.jpg
    Johann Gottfried Herder
  • A quite different interpretation of the roots of nationalism is expressed by those who profess the modernist radical point of view. As the name suggests, the essence of this point of view is the belief that nationalism is a fairly recent phenomenon – something which came into prominence as part of the huge changes experienced across Europe from the 16th century onwards as history stepped from the Middle Ages into the Modern Age. This was the process characterised by a series of far-reaching changes. Without doubt, the two most prominent were the development of a social and economic order based on the sovereign state. In the opinion of those who follow the modernist point of view, nationalism is a phenomenon which developed in the shadow of these social, economic and political processes. It is argued that only as a result of the new circumstances of the modern age has nationalism come into existence. Previously the circumstances of life would have made the expansion of such ideas impossible.

    One of the foremost exponents of the modernist point of view was the philosopher and anthropologist Ernest Gellner (1925-1995). In his famous book Nations and Nationalism (1983) Geller argues that nationalism as a result of the circumstances of modern society means that encouraging a high level of linguistic and cultural adherence was vital. In pre-industrial societies, linguistic or cultural differences did not create a problem. The horizons of the vast majority of people were very local, and the connection between individuals from different social levels was limited. As a result, it did not matter if the linguistic or cultural customs of different classes within society were different. However, in the modern industrial period individuals have come to live far more changeable lives generally to be far more mobile. People no longer spent their lives in isolated communities, and being upwardly mobile became more and more possible. The only way to be able to move people around – and through – society in such a way is by creating a common cultural medium which enables everyone to get on well together. According to Gellner this linguistic and cultural glue was spread across society by means of a common education system, and this provided the basis for developing a sense of nationalism in various parts of Europe during the 18th and 19th century.

    Another exponent of the modernist point of view was the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm (1913-2012). However, the emphasis in Hobsbawm’s arguments is slightly different from those of Gellner. Rather than concentrate on general social and economic changes, Hobsbawm insists that attention should be given to the political actions of some specific groups. In Hobsbawm’s opinion, it is nonsense to talk of national adherence stretching back to the distant past. Rather, the nation and the feelings of national adherence are things that were deliberately created during the early 19th century. The bourgeoisie were a mainly responsible for leading this process, according to Hobsbawm. As a dedicated Marxist, he argued that this group of people had set about ‘devising tradition’ from the 1830s onwards – for example, national flags, national anthems and national holidays – which would be a basis for the idea of a nation. Hobsbawm argued that this was done in order to develop a sense of nationhood, and thereby encourage the working class to believe that they shared a common interest with those who governed society. As a result, the revolutionary potential of the proletariat was restricted by a ‘fake consciousness’, while the power and status of the bourgeoisie were maintained.

    While the primordial and modernist points of view represent the two extreme ends of the discussion about the roots of nationalism, there is a third point of view which stands somewhere in the middle. This point of view is attributed mainly to the work of the historian Anthony D. Smith (1939-2016) and his ethno-symbolic arguments. In the opinion of Smith, the argument of modernists such as a Gellner or Hobsbawm tend to over-simplify matters and ignore the element of continuity between modern nations and pre-modern ethnic communities – continuity, for instance, of traditions, histories, language and literature. At the same time, while Smith emphasises this element of continuity, he also argues that we should not discount the important changes which lead to turning pre-modern ethnic adherence into nationalism as it is recognised by today. All in all, therefore, Smith’s point of view insists that modern nationalism should not be presented as a phenomenon arising from nowhere, but rather as something which builds upon the raw material stemming from previous historic times.

    To conclude, we see in this section that the discussion about the roots of nationalism has given rise to different points of view among historians, political scientists and sociologists. The basis of this disagreement over these points of view is to what degree should nationalism be treated as a modern phenomenon belonging mainly to the past two hundred years, or rather as something organic and ancient stretching back to the distant past.