Teaching Innovations

After the Wall: Teaching about Nationalism in a Tempestuous Age

Liah Greenfeld, November 1994

Editor's Note: This month's Teaching Innovations column addresses a topic currently receiving wide attention: the role that nationalism has played in world events and how it can be integrated into the history classroom. Liah Greenfeld (Boston Univ.), whose recent book Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity has received wide acclaim, addresses these questions in light of the mixed results from the collapse of communism. In a brief comment that follows, Lloyd Kramer (Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) supports Greenfeld's conclusions about the importance of the topic, while critiquing her method.

Today, in the aftermath of the so-called "revolutions" in Eastern Europe, it seems obvious that nationalism is a phenomenon as deserving of our attention as any. The collapse of communism, which was the cause of so much joy in the West, has not, by and large, resulted in the democratization of ex-Communist societies—if by "democratization" we mean the adoption of the ideals of liberal democracy. Instead, it has been followed by the resurgence of violent nationalist sentiments of the most dangerous variety, with which the liberal West is powerless to cope. It is clear now that Western observers and experts on Eastern Europe—in which I include Russia and other former Soviet republics—failed to predict the transformation that took place in the past several years; this, given that society is an open system, the future of which cannot be predicted by definition, is not such a big sin. It is far more important that, when it occurred, this transformation was misinterpreted. At the root of this misinterpretation, the consequences of which can hardly be overestimated, lies a profound misunderstanding of the nature of political reality in modern society, and specifically the lack of appreciation of the role played by nationalism. Had we paid it the attention it so eminently deserves sooner, we might be less surprised by the turn of events in Eastern Europe and better prepared for life in our post–Cold War world.

But better later than never. It is not a moment too soon, but neither is it too late to begin learning—and teaching—about nationalism. Nationalism is not a subject of mere topical interest. The normalization of the situation in Bosnia, for example, will not diminish its importance or relevance. As I have argued (in Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity, Harvard University Press, 1992), nationalism lies at the basis of modernity: neither modern history nor modern politics or society can be understood without reference to nationalism and understanding nationalism first. Even when modernity will become, as it may, a matter of the past, leaving history, politics, and society to be organized on different—as yet unknown to us—principles, what we call "modern" society will still have to be understood with reference to nationalism, and as a result, for historians, nationalism will likely remain important and relevant forever.

As recently as a few years ago, there was little interest in nationalism among historians—or for that matter among political scientists and sociologists, who as experts on the present bear a heavier responsibility for so obviously missing the point. Nationalism might have been mentioned in passing in survey or introductory courses, but very few specialized courses were devoted to it. When, in the fall of 1992, I was asked to teach a graduate seminar on the subject for the Department of Political Science at MIT, my Harvard students with an interest in the area had to enroll in it, because no comparable course existed at Harvard. The situation with regard to scholarship was not much better. In 1990, an editor at a respectable press believed that a book in excess of 130,000 words (approximately 300 pages in print) on "a [presumably marginal] subject such as this" was unadvised. Indeed, the two most (deservedly) famous examples of writing on nationalism in the previous decade, Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities (Verso Editions, 1983) and Ernest Gellner's Nations and Nationalism (Basil Blackwell, 1983), did not abuse the limited attention span of their audiences: each was about half that long.

Still, these two books reflected a renewal of interest in nationalism among social scientists, who were almost entirely oblivious of its existence before about 1975. This interest resulted in theories of nationalism: attempts at its conceptualization and explanation, such as Michael Hechter's Internal Colonialism (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975); Tom Nairn's The Break-Up of Britain (New Left Books, 1977); Anthony Smith's The Ethnic Origins of Nations (Basil Blackwell, 1986); Edward Tiryakian and Ronald Rogowski's The New Nationalisms of the Developed West (Allen and Unwin, 1985); and, more recently, Nations and Nationalism since 1780 by Eric Hobsbawm (Cambridge University Press, 1990), to mention the most prominent examples. This literature was an important addition to the histories of nationalism—the older tradition represented by Carlton Hayes's The Historical Evolution of Modern Nationalism (R. R. Smith, 1926), the works of Boyd Shafer and Louis Snyder, and most obviously, Hans Kohn's classic The Idea of Nationalism (Macmillan, 1944), which still remains indispensable as a starting point. Since nationalism, to use Max Weber's terminology, is a "historical individual," its understanding must begin with conceptualization; theory, therefore, is an essential element of its historiography and must complement history. This makes the new theoretically oriented literature on the subject relevant for historians. What makes it less relevant than it could be is its cavalier attitude toward history (characteristic even of some theorists who are historians by profession). Ernest Gellner's otherwise useful Nations and Nationalism, for example, dispenses with history altogether and bases its conclusions, instead, on the "experience" of fictional groups, such as Ruritanians, Megalomanians, and blue people.

The dominant theoretical approach reflecting this cavalier attitude is that of a structural explanation of the activation of ethnic characteristics in the conditions of modernization, and of their effectiveness as a basis for political mobilization usually oriented toward the establishment of a separate state. All the theorists agree that nationalism and nations are modern phenomena; most of them presuppose the existence of a link between nationalism and the state and, if sometimes implicitly, a fundamental affinity between nationalism and ethnicity, defined as identity naturally resulting from various ascriptive characteristics. Nationalism, in these theories, is assumed to be the product of modernization (most often its economic aspects), even when the argument puts an emphasis on the ethnic raw material out of which nationalism and nations are fashioned.

A more careful examination of the historical evidence, however, makes it apparent that the emergence of nationalism predated the central processes of modernization, such as industrialization, capitalism, secularization, and even the development of the modern state, as a result of which nationalism is more likely to be their precondition than an effect. Moreover, a careful examination of historical evidence inevitably reveals that nationalism is not a uniform phenomenon, as most of the theories imply, that the spread of nationalism does not necessarily follow the pattern of its emergence, and that, unless one begins in the beginning—with the exploration of the origins of nationalism as a "historical individual"—which is hardly ever done, one runs the risk of substituting a phenotype for genotype (or variable, historically contingent for constant and essential characteristics of the phenomenon) and of deepening the misunderstanding of nationalism.

As a sociologist, I may be more weary of ahistorical theory (i.e., there can be no social science without history) than of atheoretical history. Both, however, should be avoided as much as possible. By its very nature, nationalism, like so many other social phenomena, is an interdisciplinary subject. For best results, the study and teaching about nationalism should, therefore, combine an examination of the existing theories with that of the historical evidence taken from independent sources. In survey and introductory courses, any and all texts not specifically dealing with nationalism may be such sources, and when nationalism is introduced, a brief discussion taking into account major recent theories (as referenced above) may be all that is needed. Specialized courses on nationalism, of which there clearly should be more, are best organized around specific conceptual and historical problems or geographical areas.

Politically, the most urgent questions about nationalism today are: What is its worth to people? What is its function? Why do people, for the sake of what appears to them the interest of their nation, often act against their economic and other interests? Why, moreover, are they still willing to kill and die to defend this "national interest"? Unless these questions are answered, we won't be able to orient ourselves in a world in which nationalism, apparently, is again a governing sentiment; our policies will be by definition misguided and doomed to failure. The political significance of these questions adds to their intellectual importance, for in effect they raise the issue of the nature of nationalism. The answers given to these questions in the past have proved inadequate. The argument behind them was that nationalism is a functional prerequisite of capitalism (alternatively, industrialization) or of the modern state created by capitalism (industrialization). According to the logic of this argument, the transformation of capitalism (evident in the coming of the postindustrial society and the globalization of economy, for example) would necessarily change its systemic needs and, therefore, render nationalism (alongside the state) obsolete. However, recent events have made it abundantly clear that whatever is the state of capitalism and the fate of the state, nationalism is not obsolete. It arouses today the very same passions it aroused a hundred years ago, and for all its obvious lack of instrumental rationality, its appeal remains as strong.

The optimal way to address these issues precisely (that is, to answer the question, "What is the function of nationalism in the 1990s?") would be to conduct mass surveys in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, or in Somalia, Russia, Germany, France, or anywhere where the national sentiment is on the rise. Another way is to explore the origins of nationalism—Why did it emerge in the first place?—an important and realistic project, especially suitable for courses in history. (Among other things, such exploration would allow a historical, empirical examination of the links between nationalism and any number of the often-related-to-it phenomena.) Courses on the nature of nationalism should necessarily include an exploration of the origins of nationalism in general, as a phenomenon, and therefore of the first historical cases of nationalism: England, France, perhaps Russia. But units on the origins of more recent (and possibly wide-ranging) specific cases of nationalism—whether in Western or Eastern Europe, the Americas, Asia, or Africa—would also be useful.

I have proposed in my book on the subject that nationalism is, essentially, a matter of dignity. It guarantees people dignity and a sense of self-worth, which in a great number of cases cannot be supplied by anything else. If this is the case, the disappearance of nationalism is predicated on finding another means to satisfy people's craving for dignity. In certain circumstances, this function was fulfilled by Marxism. The question of Marxism as an alternative to nationalism may be the focus of an exciting course that could also examine the ways and reasons 40 to 70 years of Marxist rule affected or, as the case may be, did not affect the character of nationalism(s) in its subject countries. (Some excellent books, Jacob Talmon's Myth of the Nation and Vision of Revolution, recently in its new edition [Transaction, 1991]; Roman Szporluk's Communism and Nationalism [Oxford, 1988]; Walter Laqueur's Black Hundred [HarperCollins, 1993]; and Gale Stokes's The Walls Came Tumbling Down [Oxford, 1993] would make such a course even more exciting.) This, in turn, may throw light on the vexing reappearance of nationalism in place of communism in Eastern Europe, and the equally vexing failure of democracy to take root there.

The examination of the relationship between nationalism and Marxism may be combined with a discussion of the links between nationalism and democracy and lead to the consideration of different types of nationalism. As I have argued, it is important to recognize that there are different, sometimes dramatically different, nationalisms, and that their differences are reflected in every sphere of social life in their respective societies. Nationalisms may be individualistic and libertarian, or they may be collectivistic and authoritarian, depending on whether the nation is defined as a composite entity, or in unitary terms, as a corpus; and they may be "civic" or "ethnic," depending on the criteria of membership in the national collectivity (either identical with citizenship or presumed genetic). Individualistic and civic nationalisms provide a congenial environment for the growth of liberal democracy (in principle, individualistic-civic nationalism implies and develops as liberal democracy), while collectivistic, and especially ethnic, nationalisms tend to promote societies of a socialistic type, as we know it from historical experience, which may imply dictatorship or an authoritarian social structure. An emphasis on the links between nationalism and democracy on the one hand and socialism on the other, may make nationalism a focus of courses on political history and the history of political ideas.

The connection between nationalism and social structure is another subject worth teaching. It can be argued that the modern system of stratification, the class system, is a product of nationalism, that it was nationalism that made possible—and inspired—the transition from the society of orders, with its rigid social hierarchy, based on birth, and impermeable status categories. Focusing on the role of nationalism in the transition to modernity would contribute not only to an understanding of nationalism, but to an understanding of stratification and modern society in general, and, while putting it in comparative historical perspective, to an understanding of the feudal society out of which it emerged as well. (Marc Bloch's Feudal Society [University of Chicago Press, 1961] and Guy Chaussinand-Nogaret's The French Nobility in the Eighteenth Century: From Feudalism to Enlightenment [Cambridge University Press, 1985] provide such a comparative perspective.)

In general, its numerous ties and influences make nationalism a virtually inexhaustible subject. To begin somewhere, I would suggest the following most interesting (in that they are central to the understanding of nationalism), as well as often politically significant, issues as foci for specialized courses: (1) the function (and nature) of nationalism; (2) varieties and types of nationalism, their social and political effects, and possibilities of their mutual influence and transformation; (3) nationalism and communism; (4) nationalism and democracy; (5) nationalism and revolution; (6) nationalism and ethnicity; (7) nationalism and the state; (8) nationalism and economic development; (9) nationalism and modern culture (where, depending on the teacher's interests, one may include religion and secularization, language, literature, science, and art); and the one to sum them all up: (10) nationalism and modernity. In addition, naturally, courses on nationalism can also be effectively taught within a framework of regional or national histories (e.g., German nationalism, Russian nationalism).

As someone who has taught a variety of such courses, I can testify that the experience is rewarding intellectually, as well as pedagogically, and my students' evaluations, I believe, fully support me in claiming that I have not been the only one having fun. For students, courses on nationalism can be truly eye-opening, forcing them to reexamine their ideas about other phenomena, now studied in light of their relationship with it, and deepening their understanding of the past and present alike.

—Liah Greenfeld, a sociologist, is working on a study of national consciousness and political change in Russia and is currently teaching courses titled "Modernity in Comparative Perspective" and "Cultural Foundations of Modern Politics," which focus on some of the issues discussed above. She is a member of The University Professors at Boston University.