E.J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality, 1990

Prominent Marxist historian E.J. Hobsbawm takes direct aim at traditional explanations of nation-state formation due to the forces of “nationalism”. At the forefront of the transnational [note: not sure if this is the best term here but Hobsbawm certainly seems to be suspect of nationalism as a real force for unity, implying that it became a favored form of solidarity among elites.] turn in historical circles. Where nationalists claim primordial ties due to ethnicity or language, Hobsbawm points to other, more significant solidarities along with the idea that individuals often align themselves along an axis of numerous identities rather than the singular one of nation.

Before 1880, the process of building nations revolved around expansion. Nations only referred to large states or what Hobsbawm identifies as the threshold principle (more on this in a moment). Three general criteria emerge in this period that validate a political entity as a state 1) historical association 2) the creation of a long established cultural elite “possessing a written national literary and administrative vernacular” and 3) a proven capacity for conquest. (37) [note- Hobsbawm argues that outside France until the late 1800’s language minorities found little suppression … he repeatedly makes the point the numerous languages were spoken within nations, empires and the like with little friction though often smaller communities were absorbed into nations sometimes as less than equal participants in the national fabric) Frequently, rather than nationalistic identifications, Europeans expressed supralocal forms of self-identification. Crediting Bendict Anderson’s work in several places, Hobsbawm suggests that often elites promoted the idea of a essential language of the nation for their own purposes and in fact that the multilingual nature of Europe at the time made an exclusive identification with any one idiom quite arbitrary.” (57) The “common language that arose, grew form interconnected elites who through their own usage and the printed word embedded a level of fixity to the linguistic form that gave the illusion of an established natural development. [note- Hobsbawm also points out that with much of Europe illiterate, historians have privileged elite thought and interests at the expense of portraying a more accurate linguistic environment] The introduction of public education solidified this connection.

In addition to questioning the inherent nature of “common language”, Hobsbawm argues that race/ethnicity failed to play the role in nationalism that supporters and historians have long envisioned. Rather, it waqs used as a horizontal or vertical divide of social status. Visible ethnicity served as a negative marker such that it often led other to define themselves by what they were not rather than what they were. This “negative ethnicity” according to Hobsbawm performs very little work in the process of protonationalism. As for religion, Hobsbawn illustrates several examples that maintain that religious connections to nationalism remain far too complex and opaque for such simplistic connections. As consequence, before the late 1800s, protonationalism proved inadequate as a force by itself in the formation of national aspirations. After the 1880s, with the expansion of government into the daily lives of citizens, along with the transformation of subjects into citizens, a populist consciousness that resembled nationalism developed. The mass migration of peoples between 1880-1914 facilitated this populist “us” versus “them” identity. Still, this loyalty was not the same a state patriotism and in fact appears to be an ideological construct. Merging this with state patriotism proved risky since few European states could claim the kind of homogeneity that has been assumed. As states began to employ censuses, citizens found themselves forced to choose or designate a language.

The “new nationalism” which surfaced illustrated marked differences from earlier variants. First, it abandoned the threshold principle. Second, ethnicity/language became central. Third, a political shift rightwards emphasized nation and flag. [reasons why these developments have been obscured 1) “the two most prominent nonstate national movements of the first half of the nineteenth century were essentially based on communities of the educated, united across political and geographical borders by the use of an established language of high culture and its literature.” 2) the romantic and populist love of peasantry was mistaken for a political movement and 3) “The third reason concerns ethnic rather than linguistic identification. It lies in absence – until quite late in the century – of influetnail theories or pseudo theories indentifying nations with genetic descent.”] As nations grew and economies expanded numerous ethnic groups made choices about which language they chose to identify with for several reasons but significant among them economic and social benefits [i.e. Poles that chose to speak German etc.] National consciousness did develop however it grew as did numerous other forms of consciousness. Nor was socialism and nationalism mutually exclusive as numerous working class peoples expressed a belief in both.

In the interwar period, national economies took precedent as many nations retreated from international economics. The long existence of multinational states and empires made Wilson’s edict rather untenable if one truly wanted a continent of discrete homogenous states. Thus, Wilson’s “self determination” contributed to a wave of mass expulsions and later genocides. Post 1919 nationalism no longer directed itself at supra or multinational empires but at nation states, thus becoming separatist movements which remain distinct from broader forms of nationalism. [note- two key developments in this period were the rise of mass meida which allowed for a standardization/homogenization of messages exploited by states and the rise of sport as mass spectacle and proxy for national interests]

The rise of fascism contributed to a antifascist patriotism that exhibited a kind of internationalism. Workers and intellectuals supported this development which had nationalist implications. With increased migration and urbanization, territorial nationalism found life more difficult. Groups entering “advanced modern” countries could assimilate, accept minority status while trying to limit minority disabilities, or emphasize its ethnicity in ways not previously seen in such nations. Traditional interethnic relations were then aided by a segmented division of labor so that the “stranger” has an established function that complements rather than competes. [of course this point could be debated esp. in regard to the economic context of the specific period] Lingustic and ethnic nationalism find themselves in declining fortunes as most European cities exhibit marked multilingual and multiethnic enclaves. As such nationalism appears, according to Hobsbawm, to be a declining force. State formation after WWII had little to do with the Wilsonian self determination of the prior conflict but rather “reflected three forces: decolonization, revolution, and … the intervention of outside powers.” The liberation movements of the third world had a distinctly internationalist feel, quite different from the nationalism that bound itself to language, ethnicity and history [this appears very clear in nations like India or African countries that often feature several large distinct ethnic and linguistic groups yet maintain a national polity.] Moreover, the expansion of multinational economics and institutions further undermines the potency of traditional nationalism. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the spread of technological/communication revolutions, nationalism finds itself further afield. [unlike previously as well size of a nation no longer dictates its economic viability.]

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