Review of Warwick Debates on Nationalism
On October 24th, 1995, two of the best-known scholars of nationalism participated in what has now become known as the “Warwick Debate on Nationalism” under the host of Edward Mortimer at the Warwick University. Each respected speaker presented thoughts and approaches to the study of nationalism that have laid the foundation for two separate, yet prevalent suppositions toward nationalism: Anthony Smith’s primordial approach and Ernest Gellner’s modernist theory.
When reviewing the discussions of intellectual masters, it is important to establish the strengths and weaknesses of their arguments before determining a superior concept. Without having any previous knowledge of nationalism, one could easily understand Anthony Smith’s well-organized and cleanly explained argument as he begins with clear definitions of nationalism, nation, and state. Each definition is important as they highlight the fundamental difference between primordialism and modernism: when nationalism began.
Smith’s definition of nationalism is an ideological movement that achieves and maintains sovereignty, unity, and the identity of a human population. His definition of a nation is a named population that shares a territory, myths, culture, memories, and offers an economy, common rights, and duties for its population. And his definition of a state is a legal and political concept that is a public institution of coercion and extraction within a territory.
Smith’s definitions are essential to his argument of primordial origins of nationalism because the nation represents a fulfillment of the needs presented in a nationalist movement. According to these definitions, a nationalist movement, or nationalism, would be seeking the autonomy, unity, and identity of its community. Thus, this ‘need’ could be fulfilled in Smith’s definition of a nation being a community that shares a historic territory, single economy, common rights, and duties for all members. These definitions take away the political agenda that is often associated with nationalism in the modern period.
Another strength of Smith’s case is in his acknowledgment of a form of modern nationalism that began from the need to fulfill the demand that changes in the modern world brought forth. This is where his definition of a state is likewise essential because it then becomes the fulfillment of this new ‘need’ of the people. Smith intently adds that a state is not a community. Herein lies the single most important concept that Smith implies, which is that modern nationalism is a continuation of the heritages, cultures, and territory that are found in pre-modern national communities.
Smith refers to this concept as the “ethno-symbolic approach. ” Staying true to his politician technique of covering his footprints, Smith quickly notes that this is not a theory, simply an approach. This gives his approach the flexibility to cover a lot of ground, both chronologically and non-chronologically, without being subject to concentrated scrutiny. Smith terms the ethno-symbolic approach by stating that many, not all, modern political nationalisms cannot be understood without understanding their connection to their ethnic ties and memories, and in some cases, to their pre-modern communities.
Smith asserts that the ethno-symbolic approach offers a slight guide as to which populations nationalism will grow among and in what direction such movements may go. Smith notes that the importance of the role of memories, values, myths, and symbols can be seen in the common actions of nationalism by adding that nationalism “often involves the pursuit of ‘symbolic’ goals – education in a language, … the preservation of ancient sacred sites, the right to worship in one’s own way, have one’s own courts, schools and press, wear particular costume, and so on….
Smith concludes his explanation of the ethno-symbolic approach to nationalism by stating that nations and nationals are necessary in the world, and that because people generally have a tie to their nation and feel that their nation fulfills the important political and social needs, it would be near impossible to separate them from their national allegiances. Besides his assertion that nationalism existed before the pre-modern period, Smith distinguishes three major flaws within the modernist theory of nationalism. First, is that such theories are broad and abstract, lacking the ability to relate to specific cases or areas.
Next, Smith finds flaw in the theme of materialism that modern nationalism often creates. Smith believes that nationalism can begin in “all kinds of socioeconomic milieux” and that this materialism is often “misleading. ” However the most dominant flaw in the modernist’s theory is the complete denial of the role ethnic ties and cultural sentiments in nationalism. In an intellectually thrilling contrast, Ernest Gellner responds to Smith’s idea of a pre-modern nationalism by posing the question, “do nations have navels? ”
This question literally attempts to find the source of creation of a nation, or ‘do nations have a creator(s)? Gellner strongly establishes that nationalism gave birth to nations, and not vice versa. And nationalism itself does not have an intended creator, as it is a direct result of the economic and scientific changes that ensued with the modern period of the 18th century. Thus, Gellner’s main objective is delineated, that nationalism is a purely modern phenomena. Gellner then defends this concept against what Smith would see as irrefutable evidence written in history by defining the role of culture in history. Gellner separates history into three pockets of time, the pre-agrarian period, agrarian period, and the industrial period.
In Gellner’s argument the role of culture in the agrarian society was to place people within an established and stable, hierarchical structure; yet, in contrast, the role of culture in modern society places strong emphasis on a “literate codified culture,” that Gellner refers to as the ‘high culture. ’ In short, the maintenance of this one’s membership within this educated high culture becomes the focus of culture, which in turn brings in the idea of a state. This responsibility of this maintenance of high culture falls upon an institutional state that can provide education, protection, and finances.
Admittedly, it would be difficult for Gellner to make such a case and openly deny the significance or existence of a sense of nationalism before the modern period, but Gellner does just that, stating that not only are most nations ‘navel-less,’ but if they do have a navel, it is entirely irrelevant to the study of nationalism. Gellner is able to make the argument on the grounds that not only could nationalism not exist in the agrarian society, but the presence of ethnic ties in modern nationalism are merely an irrelevant navel to a recently born concept.
As previously discussed, Gellner asserts that culture in the agrarian society was vastly different than culture in modern society. Culture in the agrarian society, according to Gellner, was either too small to actually be considered a culture, but rather an intimate community with no real ability (or need) to formulate a political movement, or that the society had too large of communities, like empires, that were made up of various cultures and mini-communities with no real connection to a national identity.
The strength of Gellner’s theory lies within the idea that any remnant of heritage or ethnic ties found in modern nationalism are simply the ‘navel,’ of the cycles that began before the creation of the nation that were necessary to its creation, but irrelevant to the study of nationalism. If Gellner had provided substantial evidence, he could have disproven Smith’s case with this one simple concept. Like Anthony Smith’s case, Gellner builds his ideology strongly off of his own definitions of a nation, state, and nationalism.
Yet, he does not clearly outline his definitions within the argument, which leads to gaps in his hypothesis (the definition of a state is vaguely outlined, and the primary gap falls within the lack of a definition for a nation). It is my personal opinion that definitions within a debate process are crucial and represent the foundation of one’s concept, thus, because Gellner chose not to properly define his idea of nationalism, nation, and state, his logic is now put into the terms that Smith outlined. This is the first weakness within Gellner’s response.
Fortunately, we can refer to Gellner’s second book on nationalism for such definitions of a state, which can be represented by the institution of power that delineates the division of labor and the enforcement of labor, and of a nation, which can be seen as the recognition of two men based on culture within the same nation as well as the recognition of certain rights and duties within this shared community. The next weakness with Gellner’s rebuttal is his focus on the connection of modernism and nationalism. Gellner relies heavily on the impact of his ‘navel’ argument, as it is his main defense against primordialism.
Yet, this defense does not answer to the limitations that Smith pointed out in the modernist approach to nationalism. This leads to Gellner’s biggest flaw, and ultimately to his ideas becoming inferior to that of Smith’s within the debate: that Gellner’s concept is too general. The language within Gellner’s argument seems to focus on terms like “sometimes,” and “in general,” or “generalize. ” This is problematic because before Gellner even began his rebuttal, Smith accused is theory of being too general and all-inclusive without sufficient proof.
In fact Gellner’s only real evidence of modernization giving birth to nationalism is the example of the Estonians creating for themselves a culture out of nothing, he then sums up his evidence with the broad statement, “ it was created by the kind of modernist process which I then generalize for nationalism and nations in general. ” This leads to the crowning of the superior argument within the debate: Anthony D. Smith and his ethno-symbolic approach on nationalism. I find Smith’s definitions to be more plausible.
These definitions open up the possibility that rather than nationalism being a recent phenomena, it was simply a transformation of nationalism that is being reflected by a change in culture and necessity. This ‘need’ in the pre-modern society was for a nation (because as Gellner pushes, the idea of a state did not yet exist). A nation being a social and cultural, territorial community of shared history and culture with common rights, duties, and a single economy, is the fulfillment that nationalism, the ideological movement for achievement and maintenance of autonomy and identity within a human population.
And in the modern society, a state is the fulfillment of the need that is presented by modern nationalism. Thus, nationalism is a continuous throughout history, and modern nationalism can be seen merely as a growth of its original form due to the changes that modern society brought. Another evidence of Smith’s ideological superiority within the debate is Gellner’s lack of evidence to support his main idea. Gellner does not provide enough support to uphold the notion that ethnic ties are simply a ‘navel’ to the modernly born nation.
Moreover, Gellner does not properly or thoroughly disprove the existence of pre-modern nationalism. Finally, it is in Smith’s style that he is successful in alluding direct scrutiny because he does not make his claim a definite theory as Gellner does. With a definite and narrow theory, like Gellner presents, it can be easy to bring forth evidence that refutes the theory, and Smith avoids this flaw by including an approach that can explain pre-modern and modern occurrences of nationalism.
So it is with Smith that I award the victor of this debate because I find his case solid and I agree with his ideology that while nation-states may be modern, their origins “can be traced to earlier ethnie. ” Benedict Anderson would more than likely strongly disagree with my conclusion. I feel that Anderson would have strongly agreed with Gellner’s concept of the ethnic ties being simply the navel to a modern phenomenon. Anderson would have seen the references to the cultural roots as supplementations to an ‘imagined community’ built by nationalist’s thought.
While I would like to say the Brubaker’s heavy critical approach to the study of nationalism would have thrown him either against both Smith or Gellner, or even closer to Gellner in their similar “anti-myth’ approaches, I am going to say that Brubaker would have agreed with Smith in this particular debate. Brubaker stressed that nationalism was not always state-seeking, saying that he does not “think nationalism can be well understood as nation-based, state-seeking activity. Brubaker continues that by adding that to focus only on the state seeking nationalism is to “ignore the infinitely protean nature of nationalist politics. ” The final scholar of nationalism that I would like to mention is that of E. J. Hobsbawm. Obviously, Hobsbawm would have supported the theory of Gellner, believing that the term ‘nation’ belonged a “historically recent period” that related directly to a modern territorial state and having actually derived his definition of nationalism directly from Gellner’s theory.
However, I do feel that Hobsbawm would not have placed so little of significance upon the historical influences of heritage and culture. Hobsbawm acknowledged the substantial role that cultural community represented, he just thought it was a modern tool brought about by nationalists as a “historic mission. ” In essence, Hobsbawm believed that nationalism picks and chooses what it needs to survive, and the politicizing of culture was one of those survival tools; consequently, I feel that Hobsbawm would have supported Gellner’s reason.