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Nations & Nationalism

Warwick Debate: Anthony D. Smith & Ernest Gellner

Warwick University provided the venue for a series of debates on nations and nationalism. The debate, held on 24 October 1995 under the above title and chaired by Edward Mortimer, brought together two of the best known authorities on the subject in a stimulating intellectual exchange.

The arguments of these statements were taken up in the second annual Nations and Nationalism Public Lecture (renamed the Ernest Gellner Nationalism Lecture in his honour) held at the London School of Economics on 21 March 1996. The lecture was to have been given by Professor Gellner, but in the event Anthony Smith was asked to give the lecture and appropriately employed the occasion to offer his reflections on his former teacher's contribution to the study of nationalism.

Anthony D. Smith's opening statement

Nations and their pasts

May I first thank the Vice-Chancellor of Warwick University, and Professor Edward Mortimer, for their kind invitation to me to take part in this unique series of debates about nationalism. It is certainly a welcome idea to get away from the usual lecture format, and I hope that you will forgive me, if, with the agreement of Professor Ernest Gellner, I detain you for some twenty minutes with a rather telescoped opening statement.

The present occasion affords me an opportunity to express my great appreciation of the achievement and the inspiration provided to me, and to all of us, by Ernest Gellner. It was his work that first caught my imagination in 1964, when I was groping for a method of studying phenomena that had already for some time absorbed me and that were, after the wave of decolonisation in Africa and Asia, very much in the air. Not only did Ernest encourage and guide my thesis on theories of nationalism with much patience and care; he taught me some fundamental lessons about nations and nationalism, which served me for a guide thereafter.

The first is that nationalism is elusive, even protean, in its manifestations; and so we have to try to classify the rich variety of movements and ideologies if we are to make any progress in understanding so variegated a phenomenon. Second, he taught me to appreciate the underlying sociological reality of nationalism and its creation, the nation. Against all those who would tell us that the nation exists only in the imagination and that it can be deconstructed away, Ernest has always insisted that nations and nationalism are real and powerful sociological phenomena, even if their reality is quite different from the tale told about them by nationalists themselves.

And third, he convinced me that nations, as well as nationalism, are modern phenomena, in the sense that the basic features of the modern world require nations and nationalisms. You could not have one without the other. This is obvious in the case of nationalism, the ideological movement, which clearly did not exist before the eighteenth century. But it is also true of nations in general. That is to say, even if a few nations could be found before the advent of modernity, most nations are modern in the sense of being relatively recent in time - and necessarily modern. And yet - and this is why, in the spirit of this evening, I shall admit that debates are not just invented - there is at this point a certain difference between Ernest and myself.

Insofar as he is a wholehearted 'modernist', Ernest would claim that the nation is not only relatively recent; it is also the product of specifically modern conditions - those of early industrialism or its anticipations, social mobility, the need for mass literacy, public education and the like. It is the modern transition from spontaneous, non-literate 'low' cultures to highly cultivated, literate and specialised 'high' cultures that engenders nationalism and nations (Gellner 1964; 1983).

Now, it is not that I find this account wrong, only that it tells half the story. There is another half, and other ways of looking at this protean phenomenon. I shall try to tell this other half and consider some of these other ways.

I think most of us would agree that nationalism is today one of the most powerful forces in the world, and that the national state has been for a century at least, and continues to be, the cornerstone of international politics. Nationalism provides the sole legitimation of states the world over, including the many polyethnic and federal ones. It is also the most widespread and popular ideology and movement, and it comes as no surprise that many of the world's most intractable conflicts - in India and the Middle East, the Caucasus and the Horn of Africa, the Balkans and southern Africa - are either ethno-national conflicts or possess a strong nationalist component.

Of course, it is easy to exaggerate the influence of nationalism, and to inflate the terms, nation and nationalism, to cover every aspect of a state's social, cultural and political policy, and every dimension of inter-state relations. The first thing, therefore, is to define our concepts.


By 'nationalism' I shall mean an ideological movement for the attainment and maintenance of autonomy, unity and identity of a human population, some of whose members conceive it to constitute an actual or potential 'nation'. A 'nation' in turn I shall define as a named human population sharing an historic territory, common myths and memories, a mass, public culture, a single economy and common rights and duties for all members.

This definition suggests that the concept of the nation refers to a particular kind of social and cultural community, a territorial community of shared history and culture. This is the assumption of nationalists themselves, for whom the world is composed of unique historic culture-communities, to which their citizens owe a primary loyalty and which are the sole source of political power and inner freedom (Smith 1991, chs. 1, 4).

It is important to distinguish the concept of the nation from that of the state. The state is a legal and political concept; states can be defined as autonomous, public institutions of coercion and extraction within a recognised territory. States are not communities (Tivey 1980). We should also recall that the systems of states that arose, first in Europe and then in other parts of the world, often preceded the rise of nationalism, as well as many of today's nations, though not necessarily many of their core ethnic groups. This lack of temporal and spatial fit between state and nation is one of the main causes of many of today's national conflicts (Tilly 1975, Introduction and Conclusion).

Modernist and 'post-modernist' theories

For most people, nations, especially their own nations, appear to be perennial and immemorial. They cannot easily imagine a world without nations, nor are they happy with the idea that their nation is a recent creation, or even a construct of elites. Indeed, an older generation of scholars, often under the unconscious influence of nationalism, tended to seek and find 'nations' everywhere, in all ages and continents (Walek- Czernecki 1929; Tipton 1973).

Today, however, most scholars would regard the idea of nations existing perennially through antiquity and the middle ages as simply 'retrospective nationalism'. For most post-war scholars, nations and nationalisms are fairly recent phenomena, arising immediately before, during or in the wake of the French Revolution. They also tend to see nations and nationalisms as products of modernisation and features of modernity. Many of these modernist' theories are, at root, materialist. In some cases, the materialism is explicit. Tom Nairn, for example, regards nationalism as the product of, and response to, the 'uneven development' of capitalism. In other cases, the materialism is part and parcel of other, cultural processes of modernisation - be it the mobile society based on a public system of mass, standardised literary education which Ernest Gellner regards as critical, or the rise of reading publics engendered by the spread of the technology of 'print- capitalism', stressed by Benedict Anderson. In all these cases, nations and nationalisms are viewed as more or less inevitable outgrowths of a modern, industrial society, however regrettable their consequences may be (Anderson 1983; Gellner 1973; Nairn 1977, ch. 9; Smith 1988).

It is, of course, in the deconstructionist models of Benedict Anderson and Erie Hobsbawm that the question of the real or imagined status of the nation has been most sharply posed. In Hobsbawm's approach, the nation is seen, in large part, as a set of 'invented traditions' comprising national symbols, mythology and suitably tailored history. In Anderson's model, the nation is seen as an 'imagined political community', one that is imagined as both finite and sovereign. I do not think that either would regard the nation as a wholly imaginary category; at the same time, they wish to debunk nationalist views of the nation as somehow 'primordial' and 'perennial'. (Anderson 1983, ch. 3; Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983, ch. 1).

This seems to me quite proper, provided that, in designating the nation as an imagined community or tradition, we do not gainsay its reality or consider it a fabrication. There is nothing contradictory about saying that something is both imagined and real: the Parthenon, Chartres and the Sistine ceiling are no less real and tangible for all the imagination of their creators and spectators down the ages. But, if nations are not fabricated, are they cultural artefacts created in the same way as artistic monuments? I shall argue that, although we can often discern elements of deliberate planning and human creativity in their formation, nations and nationalisms are also the products of preexisting traditions and heritages which have coalesced over the generations.(1)

Let me return to the far more acceptable 'modernist' theories, those that emphasise the sociological reality of nations, once they have been formed. There are certain problems associated with these theories. The first is their generality. Though they make out a convincing case for explaining 'nationalism-in-general', they are often pitched at such a level of abstraction that they cannot be easily applied to specific areas or cases. They appear to cover everything, and yet, when we look to them to illuminate actual historical instances, they so often invoke exceptional circumstances - like the religious factor, or colour, or a history of ethnic antagonism (Gellner 1983, ch. 6).(2)

Second, their materialism is often quite misleading. Nationalism can emerge in all kinds of socioeconomic milieux - in rich Quebec and poor Eritrea, in areas of decline as well as improvement, in pre-industrial as well as industrial conditions. Nor is it easy to explain the content and intensity of particular nationalisms through the workings of global capitalism or the dynamics of relative deprivation (Connor 1984; Smith 1981, ch. 2).

But the third problem is the most crucial, since it stems from their commitment to modernism, the idea that nations and nationalisms are the product of modernisation. What this systematically overlooks is the persistence of ethnic ties and cultural sentiments in many parts of the world, and their continuing significance for large numbers of people. Erie Hobsbawm, indeed, goes so far as to deny any connection between the popular 'Proto-national' communities that he analyses and subsequent political nationalisms (Hobsbawm 1990, ch. 2).

Ethno-symbolic approaches
This is exactly where I disagree. Modern political nationalisms cannot be understood without reference to these earlier ethnicties and memories, and, in some cases, to pre-modern ethnic identities and communities. I do not wish to assert that every modern nation must be founded on some antecedent ethnic ties, let alone a definite ethnic community; but many such nations have been and are based on these ties, including the first nations in the West - France, England, Castile, Holland, Sweden - and they acted as models and Pioneers of the idea of the 'nation' for others. And when we dig deeper, we shall find an ethnic component in many national communities since - whether the nation was formed slowly or was the outcome of a more concerted project of 'nation-building' (see Armstrong 1982; Smith 1986, 1994).

I believe that this kind of approach which we may term 'ethno-symbolic', is more helpful for understanding the growth of nations, the rise of ethno- nationalisms and the conflicts to which they give rise.

To begin with, it is an approach or perspective, not a theory. I doubt whether we are in a position yet to offer a theory of so protean and many- sided a set of phenomena as ethnies, nations and nationalisms, except at a very general level.(3) Second, this kind of approach may help to explain which populations are likely to give rise to a nationalist movement under certain conditions, and what the content of their nationalism is likely to be - though there is much work to be done here.

An exploration of earlier ethnic configurations will, I suggest, help us to explain the major issues and concerns of a subsequent nationalism in a given population and provide us with clues about the likely growth of a nation and its nationalism. Modern Greece provides an example. Its dual heritage of Byzantine imperial Orthodoxy and classical democratic antiquity shaped the patterns and contents of rival - Greek nationalisms in the nineteenth century and beyond - and suggests some reasons for expecting the rise of a powerful nationalism among the Greeks rather than, say, the neighbouring Vlachs (Campbell and Sherrard 1968, ch. 1; Kitromilides 1989).

Third, the approach that I recommend emphasises the important role of memories, values, myths and symbols. Nationalism very often involves the pursuit of 'symbolic' goals - education in a language, having your own language TV channel, the preservation of ancient sacred sites like the mosque at Ayodhya or the Wailing Wall area, the right to worship in one's own way, have one's own courts, schools and press, wear particular costume, and so on - goals which often bring protest and bloodshed, based as they are on popular memories, symbols and myths. Materialist, rationalist and modernist theories tend to have little to say about these issues, especially the vital component of collective memories (see Connor 1993; Horowitz 1985, ch. 2; Hutchinson 1987; Kapferer 1988; cf. Tonkin, McDonald and Chapman 1989).

Fourth, an ethno-symbolic approach can help us to understand why nationalism so often has such a widespread popular appeal. The intelligen- tsia may 'invite the masses into history' and politicise them and their cultures. But why do 'the people' respond? Not simply because of promises of material benefits. Their vernacular culture is now valued and turned into the basis of a new mass, public culture of the nation. So nationalism often involves the vernacular mobilisation of the masses (Nairn 1977, ch. 2; Smith 1989).

This is why the ethnic form of nationalism has become such a powerful force today. Unlike the civic, territorial nationalism of the French Revolution and the West, which sees the nation as a territorial association of citizens living under the same laws and sharing a mass, public culture, ethnic nationalism regards the nation as a community of genealogical descent, vernacular culture, native history and popular mobilisation.

The civic kind of nationalism is a nationalism of order and control, and it suits the existing national states and their dominant ethnies. But it has little to offer the many submerged ethnic minorities incorporated into the older einpires and their successor states.

So they and their intelligentsias turn to ethnic nationalism, and try to reconstruct their community as an ethnic nation. Theirs is the politics of cultural revolt. Revolt not only against alien rulers, but against 'the fathers', the passive older generations, guardians of ancestral traditions and notables of a traditional order. To achieve their cultural revolution, they must thrust their ethnic communities into the political arena and turn them into political nations (see Kedourie 1971, Introduction; and Smith 1995, ch. 4).

Here is the deeper, inner source of so many ethnic and national conflicts today. The clash of rival nationalisms, ethnic and civic, is at the heart of the conflicts in the Middle East, India, the Caucasus and Balkans. We can also find it in more muted, but no less persistent, form in the West: in Quebec and Euzkadi, Scotland and Catalonia, Flanders and Corsica, wherever members of marginalised, threatened or aspiring ethnic communities seek to restore their heritage, language and culture.


What follows from this analysis? First, that in a world of political and cultural pluralism where states and ethnies operate with rival conceptions of the nation and its boundaries, ethno-national conflict is endemic. Second, that nations and nationalisms are a political necessity in a world of competing and unequal states requiring popular legitimation and mobilisa- tion (Smith 1995, ch. 6). Third, that because so many people feel their nation performs important social and political functions, it is going to take more than a Maastricht Treaty to wean them away from these deeply felt national allegiances.(4) And finally, because so many nations are historically embedded in pre-modern ethnic ties, memories and heritages, we are unlikely to witness in our lifetime the transcendence of the nation and the supersession of nationalism, of which so many utopians have dreamt!


1 These arguments about the role of nationalist 'agency' versus modern or pre-modern, structures' can be found in Breuilly (1993) and Smith (1991).

2 Gellner (1994), in distinguishing between time-zones in the development of nationalism in different parts of Europe, does implicitly introduce contingent historical elements to supplement his general theory.

3 Geliner is perhaps the only scholar to ofrer a full and explicit theory; but Nairn (1977, ch. 2), Breuilly (1993) and Mann (1995) offer partial theories of aspects and/or types of nationalism.

4 On the question on European integration and national identity, see Smith (1992) and Schlesinger (1992).

Ernest Gellner's reply

'Do nations have navels?'

Well I would like to begin by thanking the two previous speakers for the kind things they have said. Obviously it is a source of great pride to me that my student Anthony Smith should become the leading specialist on nationalism and is making such an enormous impact on the subject. I won't labour this but it is a fact that I am very proud of. Again my admiration of Edward Mortimer is connected with the fact that he is a rare - I mean most of the time you know he is a journalist, not an academic - he is a rare journalist who generally gets things right. He actually managed to cover an entire page of the Financial Times about me without a single mistake, which was an astonishing achievement, so it gives me special pleasure to correct him on a factual matter in what he has just said. My ancestors were not natives of Prague. They were provincial Bohemian petty bourgeois, but that's not of great importance.

Now to get to the heart of the matter. It's useful in a subject of debate, when the battle lines are clear, when you get a very, very clear issue. Anthony and I now tend to get pitted against each other on what has become one of the major dividing lines in the study of nationalism, namely, the dividing line between what I now call primordialists and modernists, where one side says that nations were there all the time or some of them were anyway, and that the past matters a great deal; and where the modernists like myself believe that the world was created round about the end of the eighteenth century, and nothing before that makes the slightest difference to the issues we face.

This is a clear dividing line which is important.

(1) Now the question is how do you decide between us? I mean, what I really have been wondering is by what kind of evidence can we establish the reality of the past? Most of you may know the debate in which Bertrand Russell asked tongue in cheek how do we know that the world wasn't created five minutes ago complete with memories? Well, how do you know? Maybe it was! What is the evidence? And of course some of the real debates of this kind are embedded in the division between the creationists and evolutionists.

(2) Was mankind the creator of Adam and did it slowly evolve? Well there is some evidence and of course the evidence was debated at the time this issue was very much alive, namely did Adam have or did he not have a navel? Now it's a very crucial question, you see. No, no, you may fall about laughing, but obviously if Adam was created by God at a certain date, let's say 4003 BC, obviously 1 mean it's a prima-facie first reaction that he didn't have a navel, so to say, because Adam did not go through the process by which people acquire navels. Therefore, we do know what will decide whether the world is very old and mankind evolved or whether the world was created about 6,000 years ago. Namely, all we need to find out is whether Adam had a navel or not.

The question I'm going to now address myself to of course is: do nations have navels or not? Now the point about Adam's navel of course is not as simple as you might think. It's perfectly possible to imagine a navel-less Adam because navels, once they were engendered by the original process by which they were engendered, perform no further function. I mean you could live navel-less and there is no problem.

Now on the other hand there are other aspects of a human organism, supposing creation did occur at a definite date and mankind was suddenly created, which are rather navel-like but which would have to be there anyway in a kind of misleading way. There are all kinds of rhythms; I'm not a physiologist, but there are all kinds of rhythms about one's breathing, about one's digestion, about one's blood-beat, which come in cycles and the cycle has to be continuous.

So even if Adam was created at a given date, his blood circulation or his food consumption or his breathing would have to be in a condition such that he'd been going through these cycles anyway, even though he hadn't been, because he had just been created. For instance, I imagine his digestive tract wouldn't function unless it had some sort of content so that he would have signs of a meal, remnants of a meal which in fact he had never had because he had only just been created.

Now it's the same with nations. How important are these cyclical processes? My main case for modernism that I'm trying to highlight in this debate, is that on the whole the ethnic, the cultural national community, which is such an important part of Anthony's case, is rather like the navel. Some nations have it and some don't and in any case it's inessential.

What in a way Anthony is saying is that he is anti-creationist and we have this plethora of navels and they are essential, as he said, and this I think is the crux of the issue between him and me. He says modernism only tells half the story. Well if it tells half the story, that for me is enough, because it means that the additional bits of the story in the other half are redundant. He may not have meant it this way but if the modernist theory accounts for half of 60 per cent or 40 per cent or 30 per cent of the nations this is good for me.

There are very, very clear cases of modernism in a sense being true. I mean, take the Estonians. At the beginning of the nineteenth century they didn't even have a name for themselves. They were just referred to as people who lived on the land as opposed to German or Swedish burghers and aristocrats and Russian administrators. They had no ethnonym. They were just a category without any ethnic self-consciousness.

Since then they've been brilliantly successful in creating a vibrant culture.(3) This is obviously very much alive in the Ethnographic Museum in Tartu, which has one object for every ten Estonians and there are only a million of them. (The Museum has a collection of 100,000 ethnographic objects). Estonian culture is obviously in no danger although they make a fuss about the Russian minority they've inherited from the Soviet system. It's a very vital and vibrant culture, but, it was created by the kind of modernist process which I then generalise for nationalism and nations in general. And if that kind of account is accepted for some, then the exceptions which are credited to other nations are redundant.

The central fact seems to me that what has really happened in the modern world is that the role of culture in human life was totally transformed by that cluster of economic and scientific changes which have transformed the world since the seventeenth century. The prime role of culture in agrarian society was to underwrite peoples status and peoples identity. Its role was really to embed their position in a complex, usually hierarchical and relatively stable structure. The world as it is now is one where people have no stable position or structure. They are members of ephemeral professional bureaucracies which are not deeply internalised and which are temporary. They are members of increasingly loose family associations.

What really matters is their incorporation and their mastery of high culture; I mean a literate codified culture which permits context-free communication. Their membership of such a community and their accept- ability in it, that is a nation. It is the consequence of the mobility and anonymity of modern society and of the semantic non-physical nature of work that mastery of such culture and acceptability in it is the most valuable possession a man has. It is a precondition of all other privileges and participation.

This automatically makes him into a nationalist because if there is non-congruence between the culture in which he is operating and the culture of the surrounding economic, political and educational bureaucracies, then he is in trouble. He and his off-spring are exposed to sustained humiliation. Moreover, the maintenance of the kind of high culture, the kind of medium in which society operates, is politically precarious and expensive. It is linked to the state as a protector and usually the financier or at the very least the quality controller of the educational process which makes people members of this kind of culture. This is the theory.(4)

Now this is the process, the creation process, my equivalent to that event of 6000 BC of years ago when humanity was suddenly brought into being, that is, nationalist humanity, and I agree with Anthony that we are a nationalist population. Anthony's case contains a number of points with which I would in no way disagree. Cultures, even a shared number of symbols and communication, were important even in the pre-industrial age. That is indisputable. So one's navel, one's culture, was important then as well. Culture is sometimes deeply loved and its members are aware of it, there is no shadow of a doubt. The ancient Greeks knew the difference between people who read Homer and those who did not read Homer. They knew the difference between people who were allowed to participate in the Olympic Games and those who were not. They had a deep contempt for Barbarians who fell into the negative class. In that sense obviously they were cultural chauvinists. All right, so cultures are sometimes conscious and sometimes they are invisible, they are sometimes loved and sometimes being invisible they are ignored.

Now sometimes, but this is unlikely, they have political institutions connected with them and aspirations to a political unit, but generally speaking the condition of the agrarian world was made for political units which were local intimate communities, smaller than a culture or much larger than a culture, for example large empires. There was nothing in the logic of the political situation to lead political units to expand the boundaries of the culture or not to expand beyond them. They tended to be smaller or larger.

Sometimes a culture had political expression, more often it did not. (5) Sometimes there is continuity between the cultures which were loved in the pre-industrial age and sometimes there is discontinuity. To pick on a point of detail, Anthony, I wouldn't say that there is either genuine folk memory or any preoccupation in modern Greece with Periclean Athens. There is some continuity with Byzantium or at any rate with the clerical organisation left behind by Byzantine church certainly; but some- times there is and sometimes there isn't.(6) So I would say in general there is a certain amount of navel about but not everywhere and on the whole it's not important. It's not like the cycles of respiration, blood circulation or food digestion which Adam would have to have in order to live at the moment of creation. You'd have to have a kind of fictitious past and the past would not be real. The cultural continuity is contingent, inessential.

Where does this leave us? I think Anthony was slightly unfair to me in saying that I was only interested in how it came about and not in the practical implications. Now obviously it does matter to predict which nations will assert themselves, which potential nations, which cultural categories, will assert themselves and which will not. I would say it is inherent in the situation that you cannot tell. You can indicate certain factors. Size is an obvious one, very small cultural groups give up. Continuity is another one, but not an essential one. Some diasporic communities have very effectively asserted themselves. Size, continuity, existence of symbolism are important, but again the Estonians created nationalism ex nihilo in the course of the nineteenth century.

I think Anthony was a little bit harsh on the economic determinists. When a cultural category is either systematically underprivileged in contrast with its cultural neighbours who may be territorially interspersed or on the contrary excites envy by advantages, that again provides motivation.(7) Size, compact- ness, presence of symbolism, motivation and historical accident. And given the fact that the agrarian world was enormously rich in cultural nuances whereas the modern world has only space for something of the order of 200 or 300 national states, not all the potential nations become real ones and many of them don't even try to, and I don't think you can have any kind of formula for identifying them.

So I am in fact interested in that problem, and perhaps our ditlerence of approach does make a difference in our anticipation, in that the modernists have a greater sense of the kind of navel invention as opposed to the sense of continuity of navel.

I think I have done my best to highlight the issues which are before us, and I think at this point it might be good to turn to the general discussion..


1 On the debate between primordialism and instrumentalism, see McKay (1982), and Eller and Coughlan (1993).

2 On this debate, see Gellner (1964).

3 For a historical analysis of the formation of the Estonian nation, see Raum (1 987).

4 The theory is fully set out in Gellner (1973, 1983).

5 This is elaborated in Gellner (1983, ch. 2); on ancient Greek chauvinism, see Fondation Hardt (1962).

6 On this question of continuity with Byzantium, see Campbell and Sherrard (1968, ch. 1).

7 On the economic aspects of nationalism, see Nairn (1977); on the nationalism of smaller East European communities, see Hroch (1985) and Gellner (1994).


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