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Imagining nationhood or the utopia of nationalism

Wasi Ahmed | November 13, 2019 00:00:00

Cartoon: https://magazine.utoronto.ca

Nationalism is often used simplistically, and populist politics tends to make it even oversimplistic. Since the term began to gain currency from the eighteenth century, it has been applied variously. It began to be manifested as part of official state ideology or as a popular non-state notion or as public sentiment expressed along civic, ethnic, cultural or religious lines. We have seen this happening since the early twentieth century in the disintegration of state entities and emergence of nation states. The partition of India in 1947 along the religious line into two states and the subsequent disintegration of one state into another two states along ethnic and cultural lines may serve to exemplify the shifting priorities of nationalist agenda. The split of Yugoslavia into five successor states and of Soviet Union into ten more, to mention the two most remarkable events of the past century, may not, however, offer very simple and straightforward explanations.

Academics have theorised nationalism in terms of three paradigms to trace its origins and basis. These are: Primordialism, Ethno-symbolism and Modernism. Primordialism proposes that there have always been nations and that nationalism is a natural phenomenon. Ethno-symbolism explains nationalism as a dynamic, evolutionary phenomenon and stresses the importance of symbols, myths and traditions in the development of nations and nationalism. Modernism proposes that nationalism is a recent social phenomenon that needs the socio-economic structures of modern society to exist. These classifications are not mutually exclusive and many nationalist movements combine some or all of these elements to varying degrees. Nationalist movements can also be classified by other criteria, such as scale and location. In all forms of nationalism, the populations believe that they share some kind of common culture.

Anthony D Stephan Smith, British historical sociologist and 'founder father' of ethno-symbolism, argues that nationalism draws on the pre-existing history of the "group", an attempt to fashion this history into a sense of common identity and shared history. That is not to say that this history should be academically valid or cogent, but Smith asserts, "many nationalisms are based on historically flawed interpretations of past events and tend to mythologise small, inaccurate parts of their history." Moreover, Smith reasons that nationalistic interpretations of the past are frequently fabricated to justify modern political and ethnic positions.

Nationalism, according to Smith, does not require that members of a "nation" should all be alike, but only that they should feel an intense bond of solidarity to the nation and other members of their nation. A sense of nationalism can inhabit and be produced from whatever dominant ideology exists in a given locale.

It may be seen from the above that Smith didn't totally subscribe to the notion of nationalism as a reflection of peoples' bonding among themselves and a shared heritage under a given geography and a political system. Although he stressed on kinship as a binding factor, he is sceptical about elements of the past which, he says, are often untrue and serve to justify political and ethnic positions.

If we take this departing point as an argument rejecting beliefs and history often used to 'fabricate' nationalism, it may be relevant to name another important figure Benedict Anderson who in his remarkable book 'Imagined Communities -- Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism' examined nationalism from an altogether different and refreshing perspective.

Anderson starts his book with what he considers a firm assumption that the emergence of prolonged rivalry in Indo-China following the Second World War is an outcome of the failure of Marxist ideology to hold together nationalist communist regimes in harmony with each other instead of waging wars such as those witnessed among China, Vietnam and Cambodia. There are arguments to prove that this perception is flawed as adherence to the communist system of governance by the countries of the region does not necessarily mean that their nationalistic aspirations were shaped and defined by Marxist ideology alone. Is there a Marxist nationalism per se? There are things in addition to, and more than, economic emancipation and distributive justice in nationalism. To put it plainly enough, their country-specific interests, goals and indeed problems among themselves were exclusive of their entities as communist nations or as followers of Marxist ideology.

Anderson, however, has viewed it as an anomaly of nationalism. He also referred to the emergence of nation states as another anomaly that negates the very essence of bonding that once formed the basis and foundation of the old state entities from which nation states surface along varying lines. Interestingly, he mentions that every few years the UN admits new members; these new members are not from nowhere, they did exist in the 'old nations' they once belonged to, shorn off their identities and the potential of claiming nationalism of their own. The reality is that "Many 'old nations', as Anderson puts it, "once thought fully consolidated, find themselves challenged by 'sub-nationalisms' within their border". The latter in many instances are able to shed the 'sub-ness' to appear on the globe as full-fledged nations. A candid example indeed to proclaim the end of the era of nationalism! And so Anderson declares that nation-ness instead of nationalism "is the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time."

It is from his observations on the anomalous positioning of nationalism that Anderson came up with his famous concept 'Imagined Communities'. In his view a nation is a socially constructed community, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group. As he puts it, a nation "is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion". Members of the community probably will never know each of the other members face to face; however, they may have similar interests or identify as part of the same nation. Members hold in their minds a mental image of their affinity: for example, "the nationhood felt with other members of your nation when your 'imagined community' participates in an international event such as the Olympic Games".

This clearly implies that Anderson found a strong utopian element in nationalism. In this connection he refers to the imagery of Unknown Soldier tombs in many countries as a manifestation of nationalism. The tombs of Unknown Soldiers are either empty or hold unidentified remains, but each nation with these kinds of memorials claim these soldiers as their own. No matter what the actual origin of the Unknown Soldier is, these nations have placed them within their own imagined community.

These are among some of the very striking symptoms he cites to call a nation imagined. Finally, as he says, "A nation is an imagined community because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings".

Anderson belongs to the "historicist" or "modernist" school of nationalism along with Ernest Gellner and Eric Hobsbawm in that he posits that nations and nationalism are products of modernity and have been created as a means to political and economic ends. This school stands in opposition to the primordialists, who believe that nations, if not nationalism, have existed since early human history. Anderson's imagined communities can be seen on a par with Edward Said's imagined geographies.

Now, how did this imagining process begin? Anderson's reply comes from an equally curious conviction that behind this imagining is the role of printing press. To establish his thesis, he names it Print Capitalism-- a fitting expression in as much as it is applied to explain the relationship between the growth of capital and public consciousness (literacy).

Print capitalism explains the concept of nation, generated from the use of the printing press, and proliferated by capitalist marketplace. Capitalist entrepreneurs printed their books and media in the vernacular (instead of exclusive script languages, such as Latin) in order to maximise circulation. As a result, readers speaking various local dialects became able to understand each other, and a common discourse emerged. Anderson argues that the first European nation-states were formed around their "national print-languages."

Anderson's main thesis is that the confluence of capitalism and new technologies of printing brought about 'print-capitalism' in early modern Europe, which allowed for widespread propagation of literary work such as novels and media instrument such as newspapers. These two media were particularly important in the way they allowed readers to conceive of other readers as moving together simultaneously through 'homogenous, empty time' as members of national 'imagined communities'.

Anderson argues that print-capitalism allowed for the birth of national consciousness in three ways: (1) it created simple means of discourse and communication between members of a given 'language-field' thereby creating awareness of such fields as actual communities; (2) it standardised languages and thereby allowed future members of the language-field to identify with the past; and (3) it elevated certain languages to print form and not others, thereby prioritising certain language fields.

Benedict Anderson's theory of imagined communities has definitely reshaped the study of nations and nationalism. Strikingly original, it broke with the arguments as to whether nations were already in existence or are merely a phenomenon of modern states. Anderson is not hostile to nationalism. What he attempted to say (and establish with conviction) is that defining nationalism is difficult, more so in a scientific method. It is here that his theory of imagined communities stimulated attention to the dynamics of social and cultural imagination as processes at the heart of political culture and self-understanding. Thus the idea of utopia in nationalism may not strike the wrong chord in that it may help understand the dynamics better and may also form a basis for solidarity among the people.


Wasi Ahmed, novelist and short story writer, is Senior Editorial Consultant, FE. wasiahmed.bd@gmail.com

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