Written by Vladimir Moss



     We need to distinguish clearly between the concepts of the nation or nationhood, national feeling or consciousness, and nationalism.

     “Nationhood,” writes Sir Geoffrey Hosking, “has two main aspects. One is civic: a nation is a participating citizenry, participating in the sense of being involved in law-making, law-adjudication and government, through elected central and local assemblies, through courts and tribunals, and also as members of political parties, interest groups, voluntary associations and other institutions of civil society. The second aspect of nationhood is ethnic: a nation is a community bound together by sharing a common language, culture, traditions, history, economy and territory. In some nation, for historical reasons, one aspect predominates over the other: the French, Swiss and American nations are primarily ‘civic’, while the German and East European nations have tended to emphasize ethnicity.”[1]


     Liberals tend to see the civic nation as superseding the ethnic nation; as civic institutions develop, it is assumed, the ethnic nation will simply “wither away”. But this is by no means always or even often the case. As the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries abundantly demonstrates, the development of the civic nation may go hand in hand with the development and strengthening of the ethnic nation. In fact, the institutions of civil society may be instrumental in resurrecting the ethnic nation.

     Clearly the civic concept of the nation is the more modern, having come into being with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. It is also closer to liberalism and democratism. The second, ethnic concept is much older and, I would suggest, more fundamental. It can coexist and interact with the civic nation, but has different roots.

     National consciousness, the feeling of belonging to a nation to which one owes loyalty and love, is as old as recorded history. In the Old Testament, a feeling of nationhood is already evident among the seventy souls that descended into Egypt under the leadership of the Patriarch Jacob (later called Israel). This feeling became stronger when the Egyptians began to persecute the Israelites (by this time, there were four hundred thousand of them) and Moses stood up in their defence; and in general we see that national feeling is strengthened under conditions of persecution and war. Thus Greek nationhood blossomed during the conflict with Persia, and Roman nationhood during the conflict with Carthage. In medieval times, English national feeling was strengthened through the conflict of the Saxon peasants with their Norman and Plantagenet conquerors, and French national feeling – through their conflict with the English during the Hundred Years’ War.

     The morbid tendency that we call “nationalism” must be distinguished from the normal and healthy tendency that we call national consciousness or patriotism. Sir Isaiah Berlin sees it as having been born in the German Counter-Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, and as being defined in terms of four characteristics: “the belief in the overriding need to belong to a nation; in the organic relationships of all the elements that constitute a nation; in the value of our own simply because it is ours; and, finally, faced by rival contenders for authority or loyalty, in the supremacy of its claims.”[2]

     It is “in the first place a response to a patronizing or disparaging attitude towards the traditional values of a society, the result of wounded pride and a sense of humiliation in its most socially conscious members, which in due course produce anger and self-assertion. This appears to be supported by the career of the paradigm of modern nationalism in the German reaction – from the conscious defence of German culture in the relatively mild literary patriotism of Thomasius and Lessing and their seventeenth-century forerunners, to Herder’s assertion of cultural autonomy, until it leads in an outburst of aggressive chauvinism in Arndt, Jahn, Kõrner, Gõrres, during and after the Napoleonic invasion. But the story is plainly not so simple. Continuity of language, customs, occupation of a territory have existed since time immemorial. External aggression, not merely against tribes or peoples but against large societies unified by religion, or obedience to a single constituted authority, has, after all, occurred often enough in all parts of the globe. Yet neither in Europe, nor in Asia, neither in ancient times nor medieval, has this led to a specifically nationalist reaction: such has not been the response to defeat inflicted on Persians by Greeks, or on Greeks by Romans, or on Buddhists by Muslims, or on Greco-Roman civilization when it was overrun by Huns or Ottoman Turks, quite apart from all the innumerable smaller wars and destruction of native institutions by conquerors in either continent.

     “It seems clear, then, even to me who am not a historian or a sociologist, that while the infliction of a wound on the collective feeling of a society, or at least of its spiritual leaders, may be a necessary condition for the birth of nationalism, it is not a sufficient one; the society must, at least potentially, contain within itself a group or class of persons who are in search of a focus for loyalty or self-identification, or perhaps a base for power, no longer supplied by earlier forces for cohesion – tribal, or religious, or feudal, or dynastic, or military – such as was provided by the centralizing policies of the monarchies of France or Spain, and was not provided by the rulers of German lands. In some cases these conditions are created by the emergence of new social classes seeking control of a society against older rulers, secular or clerical. If to this is added the wound of conquest, or even cultural disparagement from without, of a society which has at any rate the beginnings of a national culture, the soil for the rise of nationalism may be prepared…”[3]


     The eighteenth century was an age of profound religious and social disruption. In particular, faith in God as having a real influence on human affairs was being radically undermined – the preferred theology of most Enlightenment-influenced intellectuals (King Frederick of Prussia was one such intellectual, who was proud of his friendship with Voltaire), if they were not atheists, was a vague kind of Deism, according to which God created the world but then left it to develop without His intervention; the metaphor was of a clock being wound up and then left to tick of its own accord. As long as people believed in God, the allegiance to Him always came before any other allegiance, including that of the nation. This supreme loyalty was now undermined, creating a void in the hearts, if not of the simple people who still believed in God, at any rate of the sophisticated intellectuals…

     But besides belief in God, several other vitally important cultural factors that made up what Sir Roger Scruton calls the “pre-political membership” of a society, were being broken down. Sir Llewellyn Woodward identifies them as “family, church, craft, city”. He sees nationalism as a reaction to the loss of these unifying elements: “An inquiry into the nationalist movements in Europe after 1815 brings out an element in them which is not found to the same extent in earlier times; an element of protest, or even fear, fear of the disintegration of the group to which one belonged, fear almost of a loss of identity and of being left an atom in a world of atoms. Such a fear was greater when other groups – family, church, craft, city were losing much of their old significance and the individual, especially in urban areas, though more free to choose, was also feeling himself more alone. The association of like with like had been one of the reasons for the formation of nation-states. Medieval loyalty was not to countries, but to persons or small groups… As late as the early eighteenth century the transfer of territory from one sovereign was not regarded as an affront to political morality. The retention of Gibraltar and Minorca by Great Britain in the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713 was not considered by the losers as a moral offence. Gain of territory was the result of victory; loss of it, the result of defeat. A hundred years later the proceedings of the Congress of Vienna caused scandal to enlightened minority opinion in Europe. Transfer of territory had now become barter of souls, something against which this enlightened minority opinion protested as it protested against slavery. After another hundred years recognition of the right of national groups to determine their own political allegiance was thought essential to the removal of the causes of war. The Vienna treaty of 1815 put certain different national groups under a single sovereignty; the treaty of Versailles in 1919 divided multinational states as a means to lasting peace.”[4]

     Also undermining society were (1) industrial-economic and (2) educational-linguistic-sociological factors. However, this disintegration made possible the emergence of new unities, including the civic nation.

     (1) Industrial-Economic. The Industrial revolution, which was just beginning in the eighteenth century, undermined old economic communities, such as the village, the farm and the guild. However, by uniting different parts of the population into one economic nexus, it created the conditions for a stronger national-democratic, as opposed to local or regional or class consciousness. For, as Shlomo Sand writes, “only the post-agrarian world, with its altered division of labor – its distinctive social mobility and thriving new communications technologies – has produced conditions conducive to linguistic and cultural homogeneity, leading to an identity and self-awareness not confined to narrow elites or groups, as was always the case in the [pre-industrial] past, but now broadly manifest among the productive masses. Whereas earlier, in the era of the great empires, through the nature of the feudal and religious fabric, human societies had always been marked by definite cultural-linguistic divisions and strata, henceforth all the people – high and low, rich and poor, educated or not – would feel they belonged to a particular nation and, what is no less meaningful, would be convinced they belonged to it in equal degree.

     “The consciousness of legal, civil and political equality – produced mainly by social mobility in the era of commercial, and later of industrialized, capitalism – created an umbrella under which everyone could share an identity. Whoever was not converted or included by it could not be a member of the national body, an immanent aspect of equality. It is this equality that underlies the political demand that construes ‘the people’ as a nation that warrants full self-government. The democratic aspect – ‘the rule of the people’ – is utterly modern and clearly distinguishes nations from the older social formations, such as tribes, peasant societies under dynastic monarchies, religious communities with internal hierarchies, even pre-modern ‘peoples’.

     “No pre-modern human community manifested an inclusive sense of civil equality or a persistent desire for self-rule that was felt by the entire populace. But when people began to see themselves as sovereign creatures, there arises the consciousness, or illusion, that enables them to believe that they can rule themselves through political representation. This is the attitudinal core of all national expressions in the modern age…”[5]

     Again, as Maria Hsia Chang writes, “the protean forces of industrialization began to link disparate peoples and communities together, ultimately transforming them into a single nation. In effect, nations were produced as a result of the peculiar functional requirements of the industrial economy. It is said that the logic of modern industry necessitated a common culture and language. Unlike the preindustrial agrarian society – where the economic units were small, isolated, self-sufficient villages of face-to-face relations – the industrial economy required a communication and transportation infrastructure that could connect geographically separated communities. The effective operation of this infrastructure, in turn, required a common language and cultural code so that parochial communities of local dialects and cultures could communicate in an abstract manner over space with strangers. Where a common language was absent, the state would have to impart that common tongue – and common culture – through a public school system. At the same time, the new industries attracted increasing numbers of migrants from the countryside to the cities. As people left their villages and farms for cities, they also left behind many of their previous attachments and became receptive to new identities.

     “The transformative effects of industrialization were magnified by the rise of civil society, given impetus and justification by the philosophers of the Enlightenment. As ideas of self-government through political representation spread, previously unconnected masses began to identify with each other. More and more, new horizontal linkages replaced the feudal vertical relations between monarch and subject, eventually culminating in a collective consciousness and identity that congealed into nationalism.”[6]


     (2) Educational-Linguistic-Sociological. As the nineteenth century progressed, the universalist nationalism preached by figures such as Mazzini metamorphosed into the harder, more exclusive and aggressive kind of nationalism preached by, for example, Garibaldi. “This development,” as Sir Richard Evans writes,  “depended in the first place on the establishment of national identities based on written language. At the time of the Restoration, levels of literacy, measured by the ability to sign a marriage register or an army recruitment form with one’s name rather than with a cross, were patchy at best….

     “Lacking a basis in a written national language, identity was firmly rooted not in nationality but in locality. ‘Every valley,’ commented an economist writing about the Pyrenees in 1837, ‘is still a little world that differs from the neighbouring world as Mercury does from Uranus. Every village is a clan, a sort of state with its own patriotism.’…

     “Entirely different languages existed side by side as the principal medium of communication in many parts of Europe. Minority languages were present in particular regions everywhere – Welsh, for example, or Scottish Gaelic, or Basque in north-west Spain, or Sami among the nomadic Lapps of northern Scandinavia. In Brittany it was reported in 1873 that the people ‘do not speak French, and do not want to speak French’.[7] Some dialects were extremely localized. ‘Change village, change language,’ went one proverb in the French province of the Limousin. The smallest of the Slavic linguistic communities, the Lusatian Sorbs, continued to defy the influence of the surrounding majority of Germans well into the twentieth century. In Calabria, in southern Italy, people still spoke a version of Ancient Greek, probably deriving from the years of Byzantine occupation…


     “What changed this fragmented situation was not only the spread of communications but also the expansion of elementary education, especially in the second half of the century. Many states attempted during this period to make primary schooling compulsory…


     “Nationalists tried to develop a standard written and spoken language in order to justify their claim to a national identity and national statehood. Usually they chose some particular dialect. West Bulgarian dialect was used as the basis for the literary language in Bulgaria; in Italy it was the Tuscan dialect…

     “Not just language, but also history, real and imagined, provided a basis for national identity. In Ireland the nationalist movement began by attempting to recover the autonomous institutions, including the Irish Parliament, abolished in the Act of Union of 1800. The cultural memory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a powerful state in early modern Europe until its dismemberment by Prussia, Austria and Russia in the eighteenth century, played a key role in Poland. A historical grounding for a national culture could not always be easy to create. For the supporters of Greek independence it seemed natural to call the civilization of Ancient Greece in evidence for the claim to statehood in the nineteenth century. The humanist scholar Adamantios Corais (1748-1833), who was educated at the University of Montpellier in south-eastern France, corresponded with Thomas Jefferson, and lived in Paris throughout the Revolution of 1789-94, attempted to revive this connection not only by publishing new editions of the Ancient Greek classics but also by propagating a new version of Demotic Greek, called Katharevousa. He aimed to purge the common spoken language of its foreign and particularly its Byzantine accretions and bring it as close as was practicable to the ancient form of the language. But the great mass of ordinary Greeks could not fully understand it and it never became common currency…

     “The spread of education, the increasing intensity of cross-border communications, the greater ease with which people could migrate from one country to another, the rise of tourism, and the growing trend for books to be translated from one language into others, did not, as some hoped, lead to greater international understanding…”[8]

     Indeed; for speaking the same language does not mean thinking the same thoughts or having the same feelings. In fact, the knowledge that comes from reading the thoughts of foreigners may increase the sense of how different, how foreign they are. Books may unify, but they may also divide…


August 12/25, 2019.



[1] Hosking, Russia. People and Empire, London: HarperCollins, 1997, p. xx.

[2] Berlin, “Nationalism”, in The Proper Study of Mankind, London: Pimlico, 1998, p. 594.

[3] Berlin, op. cit., pp. 594-595.

[4] Woodward, Prelude to Modern Europe, 1815-1914, London: Methuen, 1972, pp. 43, 44.

[5] Sand, The Invention of the Jewish Nation, London: Verso, 2009, pp. 348-39.

[6] Chang, Return of the Dragon: China’s Wounded Nationalism, Boulder, Co.: Westview Press, 2001, pp. 18-19.

[7] This illustrates the truth of Andrew Marr’s remark: “Most Europeans either did not speak the language of whatever nation claimed to rule them, or spoke dialects that would have been incomprehensible in their capital cities’ (A History of the World, London: Pan, 2012, p. 309). (V.M.)

[8] Evans, The Pursuit of Power. Europe 1815-1914, London: Penguin, 2017, pp. 480-481, 482, 483, 487-488, 490.

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