The "Nation": The Invention of a Concept

From the comments by the excellent and apparently new commenter Daniel:

I think I see the reason for our disagreement, Mr. Jaipal. Lloyd Cox in “nation-state and nationalism” (The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, 2007, Volume VII) discussed five approaches to the nature of “nations.” The first or “objectivist” view conceptualizes the nation in terms of essential features, like a common language, shared culture, contiguous territory, etc. The second approach argues that nations can only be conceived with reference to people’s subjective states, exemplified by Hugh Seton-Watson’s statement that a nation exists “when a significant number of people in a community consider themselves to form a nation, or behave as if they formed one.” The third approach sees nations as invented categories rather than real collectivities (Ernst Gellner argued that nations are invented by nationalism, instead of being the source of nationalism.) The fourth approach views nations not as fictional entities, but as “imagined communities” in the minds of the people. The fifth and most recent approach is to conceive of nations as “symbolic frames” or “discursive formations” defined by the claims made in evoking and promoting nations. The so-called primordialist and perennialist views of the nation (Athena S. Leoussi, “Nationalism,” The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, 2007, Volume VII) fall under the first approach. The belief that the Indian nation has existed for thousands of years because it has a millennia-old cultural heritage (including Vedic literature and Sanskrit language, among other elements) is a perennialist view, and since you consider the perennialist view to be “correct,” I assume that you subscribe to such a view, or at least do not oppose it. I used to have a similar perennialist view of nations, until I encountered the ideas of Benedict Anderson. I now favor the second, third, and fourth approaches to the concept of nation, but most especially the fourth. You cited the example of China. China is indeed comparable to India. China also has a long history, and the Chinese have also been keenly aware of their culture and of “barbarians” who did not share their culture. However, this sentiment of Chinese prior to the 19th century has been termed “culturalism” instead of nationalism (John K. Fairbank, Edwin O. Reischauer, and Albert M. Craig, East Asia: Tradition & Transformation, 1978). Although China and India have gone through periods of unity and disunity, and both have had rulers who periodically reunited their respective countries, this does not indicate the presence of nationalism, since when we look at “the big picture” as you would say, the people (meaning the masses in general) were not lamenting their “national disunity” or clamoring for “reunification,” and even the “unifiers” undertook their military campaigns not to rebuild the “nation,” but to establish their personal empires. In China, for example, the scholar class lamented the chaos and disorder and the incessant wars during times of disunity, but not the “disunity of the nation.” Such sentiments would only surface in the 19th century, and would become widespread only in the 20th century. The case of India is similar. The Marathas for example had to fight many battles in the long process of consolidating their rule over much of India, and the people in the territories of their opponents certainly did not just surrender their lands to the Marathas because they wanted to be part of a “united Indian nation.” I cannot remember now who it was who said that China and India are better described as “civilization states” rather than nation-states. You also cited the Poles and the Germans. The Poles may have had a “broad sense” that they were Poles, and it may have been the same for the Germans, but ethnic or ethnocultural identity should not be confused with nationalism. I have only encountered the term “culturalism” applied to China, but I wonder if it can equally apply to the peoples of India, Poland, Germany, and other ethnic groups before the advent of nationalism.

This is an excellent comment by Daniel, and I agree with it. This just shows what complete and utter idiots most modern nationalists really are, especially the primordialist variety, which is what just about all nationalists are anyway, at least outside of Europe, where the entire concept of nationalism has fallen away after the nationalistic disasters of the World Wars, especially the last ones. The primordialist holds that the nation, as we know it today, has always existed in the minds of the people who are living there today. What complete, utter, total and puerile nonsense that is! As Daniel immaculately shows, before 1900 and especially before 1800, the vast majority of the humans living in what are now known as China and India gave precisely fuck all about the concepts of “China” and “India.” What exactly were they nationalistic about? Perhaps about their particular regions, tribes, linguistic or cultural communities or even caste communities. When India and China became disunited, which was often, precisely no one in the disunited communities clamored for the reunification of the nation. They were perfectly happy to be under the jurisdiction of this or that warlord or princely state. Variously power hungry sociopaths periodically tried to wage wars of reunification which were actually just attempts by sociopaths to increase their power and money by conquering enemy regions. The regions being attacked by these phony “reunifiers” had no interest in being reunified with anything, and the people waging the reunifying wars were seen as enemies attacking the homeland. I differ with Daniel in that I believe in the 3rd explanation of nationalism. What is modern nationalism? It’s no primordial entity that has forever beaten in the hearts of all men, unless we conflate tribalism with nationalism. Instead it’s a completely artificial construct that was invented by modern nationalists in the last 200 years and then implanted into people’s minds as something as real to them as their very own blood and soil. The modern Indian or Chinese feels that the nation is as much a part of him as his appendages. He’d sooner hack off a limb that give up Tibet or Kashmir or whatever bullshit territory the fascist Chinese and Indian states lay false claim to. Why does he feel this way? Because he has been trained to; trained like a dog. You can train a dog to do just about any idiotic thing you want it to do, and it seems that humans are not much different when you get down to brass tacks. Modern nationalists, especially the ethnic nationalists, the most fake and dishonest of them all, are peddling a lie. They draw some lines on a map, tell you it’s as real to you as your arm or your leg, and like a dipshit, you believe it. As Leftists, we believe that the modern nationalistic concept has caused untold pain, suffering and death. It also causes a shocking amount of sheer stupidity, and the injection of nationalism into the veins of a good man will turn him into a vicious, lying and murdering scoundrel of the worst sort in no time.

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15 thoughts on “The "Nation": The Invention of a Concept”

    1. Excellent comment.
      I always hated the concept of nation-state, which is tipically used as an excuse for imperialistic conquest. Here in Italy, history books celebrate the Piedmontese conquest of the other states, also known as the Risorgimento. Yet the other states could have used precisely the same excuse to conquer Piedmont!
      Besides, nations truly are concentric. For instance, you could say that there are many different nations within Italy (Sicilians, Venetians, and so on). Yet one can’t deny that all these nations are part of the nation of Italy. EU enthusiasts will correctly point out that Italy and all the other European nations are part of the greater nation of Europe, comparable in scope and diversity to India and China. And White nationalists say that all Whites are part of an even greater nation. ALL are correct, so where do you draw the political borders?

  1. According to Joseph Stalin writing in 1913 in ‘Marxism and the National Question’: “a nation is not a racial or tribal, but a historically constituted community of people;” “a nation is not a casual or ephemeral conglomeration, but a stable community of people;” “a common language is one of the characteristic features of a nation;” “a nation is formed only as a result of lengthy and systematic intercourse, as a result of people living together generation after generation;” “a common territory is one of the characteristic features of a nation;” “a common economic life, economic cohesion, is one of the characteristic features of a nation;” “a common psychological make-up, which manifests itself in a common culture, is one of the characteristic features of a nation;” “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.” According to Stalin, this would exclude Jews as they have no common territory.
    An alternative view, expressed by Otto Bauer, author of Social Democracy and the Nationalities Question (1907), that “A nation is an aggregate of people bound into a community of character by a common destiny.” would include Jews. R. Springer, author of The National Problem (1909), also cited by Stalin in his discussion of this matter, held similar views.

  2. Dear Robert
    Self-styled intellectual sophisticates and leftist hypocrites claiming to be internationalists like to attack nationalism. They pretend to be above petty nationalism and solemnly say that their country is the world and their nation is mankind. May I laugh for a second?
    What is a nation? A nation is a people who speak a common language and share a common basic culture. The inhabitants of a certain territory are not a nation, all the citizens of a state are not a nation, people with common ancestry are not a nation, a nation is not a racial community. If an American is in a Russia, he is not among his own kind. Why not? Because Russians don’t speak English and are also culturally different.
    Language and culture are the objective attributes of nationhood, but there are also psychological factors such as national consciousness. That’s why Jews can feel a nation even though they speak dozens of languages and belong to dozens of cultures. Judaism, a tribal religion, tells them that they are a nation. The Scots also have national consciousness even though they are indistiguishable from the English, except in trivial ways. Their national consciousness is vestigial. Just as a grandson of Polish immigrants who doesn’t speak a word of Polish and knows nothing about Poland may still call himself Polish, so some peoples still have national consciousness even though objectively they are no longer a separate nation. I call that genealogism.
    Politically the world is divided in sovereign states. The vast majority of these states are not nation-states because they have more than one nation in them. That is one of the principal sources of internal conflicts in today’s world. We should not confuse tribe and territory. States are territorial and nations are tribal. Two or more tribes within the same territory is always a source of conflict. That’s why nation-states are much more peaceful internally than multinational states.
    The notion that nationalism causes war is nonsensical. Wars are caused by power-hungry rulers of states, regardless of whether those states are nation-states or multinational states. Tsarist Russia was constantly waging wars. This had nothing to do with Russian nationalism but everything with the desire of the ruling clique in Russia to augment its power. Do you think that Catherine the Great, a German by upbringing, fought her wars because she was a Russian nationalist or because she wanted more power? Do you think that the Habsburgs plunged Europe in war in 1914 because they were such German nationalists or because they were keen on keeping all the power they had?
    Borders define states, not nations. People don’t belong to the same nation just because they live on the same side of the border, and people don’t belong to different nations just because they live on different sides of the border. The Hungarians who live in Southern Slovakia may be citizens of Slovakia, but they belong to the Hungarian nation even though they live outside the Hungarian border. English-Canadians and Americans are much closer to each other than English-Canadians and French-Canadians are.
    Nationalism is a positive force because it binds people together and makes them part of something bigger, and only nationalism can overcome class differences. Internationalism is a figment of the leftist imagination. People who claim to be internationalist don’t love all of mankind, they are only alienated from their own nation. The brotherhood of man doesn’t exist. If everybody is my brother, then nobody is my brother.
    The modern welfare state can work only because people can feel solidarity with their co-nationals. However, the more nations there are within a state, the weaker those sentiments of solidarity will be.
    Many Swedes like to say that they are internationalist. Well, Sweden spends about 40% of its GDP on domestic social programs and only about 1% of it on foreign aid. In other words, they spend 40 times more on national solidarity than on international solidarity.
    Somebody once said that most people have enough Christianity to hate other people but not enough to love them. Unfortunately, may people have enough nationalism to hate foreigners but not enough to feel solidarity with their co-nationals. I’m no more in favor of jingoistic, militaristic, imperialistic and chauvinistic nationalism than you are, but there is no good reason to oppose moderate nationalism which consists of an attachment and loyalty to one’s own nation and of feelings of solidarity with other members of the nation.
    Nations are as old as mankind. The Amazon Indians are divided into nations. We may call them tribes, but tribes are usually nations whose members have non-white skins. Of course, some tribes are clans, and clans are not nations because they are defined by blood ties, not by language and culture.
    Very well, I have rambled enough. Have a good day. James

    1. I read the first three or four paragraphs. The definition of a nation as “a people who speak a common language and share a common basic culture” was demolished decades ago by scholars of nationalism. Objective criteria of nationhood don’t work. You yourself contradict that immediately, with the subjective criterion right afterwards.

    2. I agree that language and culture are what bind people together. The most violent conflicts that I can think of over the past century have been between people who are “racially” quite similar but culturally and/or linguistically distinctive. Think of WWI and II (European theater), India/Pakistan, Bosnia, Lebanon, etc. By contrast, Brazil (one of the most racially diverse countries in the world) displays a high degree of civic integration, apparently a by-product of its shared Portuguese heritage.

  3. I partially agree with the argument. The concept of nation as Indian, Chinese or even Pakistani nationalists tout today is far removed from the traditional concept of what a nation is. However, I don’t think the idea of nations is an entirely artificial concept.
    National consciousness existed even before sociologists and political scientists started to define this as a concept. People identified strongly with other people of a common heritage, language, culture and territory. I also agree with James Schipper, it isn’t nationalism that causes war, but political greed and ambitiousness.
    However, I also understand that in the current era of globalisation, where people intermingle and mix in a way that civilisation perhaps didn’t intend to, the concept of nationalism (or tribalism/culturalism) is getting obsolete. A person identity these days is far more complex, individualic and multi-faceted than simply being a by-product of the culture.

    1. What you say about globalisation rings true. The conservative nature of nationalist ideology means that it has become irrelevant in the same way as the rest of conservative ideology. Don’t misunderstand me though, I’m not saying that things rooted in tradition are automatically “irrelevant”, the way liberals usually do (“opposition to gay marriage is increasingly irrelevant”). The problem I’m pointing to is that by this time there is nothing, or very little, left to conserve.
      Nationalism, in the West, no longer offers an alternative beyond liberal identity politics, because your ethnic identity is nolonger something simply given, that you don’t have to choose. Even if thereis no way I could plausibly claim to be Chinese, for example, the weight I give to my English/mixed Euro ancestry, and how I interpret this in terms of an identity that could have a political meaning, is very much up to me.
      I think a lot of people on the right are driven to nationalism (or racialism as it’s extreme outcome); they see it as the ONLY alternative to liberalism and the anomie, the malaise, the death of meaningful individuality that goes with it. But they are engaged in wishful thinking.

  4. Anderson’s Imagined Communities is one of the most over-rated books I’ve ever read. There’s a lot of good stuff in it, but nowhere near what you’d expect from all the hype. I think a lot of the hype is due to people who just read the title. Anderson himself complains about that in the Afterword to the second edition.

  5. Robert, you seem to be conflating different meanings of the word “nationalism.” It has several different meanings: loyalty to one’s nation, belief that one’s nation should have a state, belief that every nation should have a state, etc. Also, as Walker Connor and others have pointed out, what we call “tribes” are usually nations. We just call them tribes because they’re not European.

  6. Nations are constructed, but that doesn’t mean they’re constructed arbitrarily or from scratch. Saying “your nation is invented” isn’t really saying much against national loyalty. And of course there were nations before nationalism. (I think there was even a book with that title.) Israel is sort of the canonical nation in Western political theory.

    1. On how nations are constructed from pre-existing elements, Anthony Smith’s National Identity is a good source.

  7. Nations were not invented during last 200 years. It rather seems that in different periods of time, nations were defined differently and there were waves of being more nationalist and less nationalist. I mean there were periods of intense nationalism, and periods when no one was caring about the nations.
    E.g. read the history of Poland — there was stark difference between nationalism in XIII century, with all calls about “those pesky Germans getting everywhere” and calls to reunite of whole Poland and the next century, were people were a lot more tolerant. Or history of Czechs and especially hussite revolution. The definition of nation as “people of the same faith, blood and language” created in early XV century is different from XIX century only by the fact of removing the “faith” component.
    Just read the Dlugosz chronicle, with the disgust he writes about Silesians who are traitors to the Polish nation; or his accounts of Czech allies, who burned alive the captured Czech mercenaries, who were hired by Teutonic Knights (because, as Dlugosz reports, the hussite considered those mercenaries as traitors who supported Germans against another Slavic people — circa 1421).
    People who claim that nations were invented in XIX century usually are dogmatists who don’t know much about the history.

  8. Dear Aaron
    What do these demolishers of the idea of a nation as a linguistic and cultural community say that a nation is?
    We should not confuse any community that can create collective consciousness with a nation. Catholics can have a strong sense of community, but that doesn’t make Catholics a nation. Nigerians can feel like a community by virtue of sharing a country, but that isn’t a national bond but a territorial one.
    The genealogical definition of nationhood doesn’t work because it only shifts the question backward. If someone says that he is Polish because his ancestors were Polish, then that doesn’t define Polishness because the next question should be: What makes your ancestors Polish and not Germans or Italians?
    Genealogy is a foolish game. The further back one goes back in the past, the greater the chance that one will find people who are different from us. No Protestant had Protestant ancestors in the 15th century. No American had American ancestors in the 17th century. No English-speaker had ancestors in the year 1000 who spoke a language comprehensible to him. What people are is independent of who their ancestors were.
    There is such a thing as false consciousness. If Peter and Paul are both factory workers who do the same work, have the same schooling and lifestyle and earn the same wage, but Peter feels that he is socially superior to Paul because his grandparents were prosperous landowners, then Peter has false consciousness. Likewise, if Jews feel like a nation, then they have false consciousness. If someone feels Polish because he has Polish grandparents even though he doesn’t speak a word of Polish and knows nothing about Poland, then he has false consciousness.
    There is no more futile and dangerous preoccupation than genealogism. Don’t worry about your or somebody else’s ancestry. Otherwise you may end up with unsavory company like the Nazi’s or Zionists.
    Regards. James

  9. I think a nation is in part a cultural innovation of a particular cultural milieu. And there are certain respects in which India and China are themselves civilizations the resemble Western Civ, apart from their longstanding and relatively durable political agglomerations. Europe for geographical and historical reasons has never experienced complete political union, and instances of widespread agglomeration have been fleeting. So yes, there may be a correlated tendency within Western Civ to adhere to national identity that is lacking in other civilizations.

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