Backgrounds of Nations: Anthony D. Smith on the Past and Present of Nationalism

10 August 2012, 15:52

Since the European Spring of Nations of the 19th century, nationalism has been a crucial factor of social and political processes in different countries and a driver of international ones. For the majority of people living in the so called Old World, nationalism is a term widely used by researchers, politicians and publicists, while for many Ukrainians it still has an ideological and political meaning. In the Soviet Union, nationalism was considered to be solely “Ukrainian” and was accompanied by the word “bourgeois” to stress its negative sense.

Anthony D. Smith, one of the most authoritative European researchers of nationalism, considers the phenomena of nation and national identity to be the features of ancient, medieval and even antique civilizations. Ukrainian Tempora publishing house recently published a translation of the book by Professor Smith entitled Cultural Foundations of Nations: Hierarchy, Covenant and Republic. The author spoke to The Ukrainian Week about the current role of nationalism and the prospects of a national state.

U.W. What is the image of modern world nationalism; is it positive or negative?

The core doctrine of nationalism, as I like to call it, is a very abstract one. It says that the world is divided into nations, and each has its character, its destiny, its history, that people should belong to a nation, that the loyalties of a nation overrides all other loyalties, that nations should be free and express themselves fully and that a world of peace and justice is the one that’s founded on free nations. This is what the doctrine actually says – whether you regard this as a good thing or a bad thing. In itself it doesn’t lead in any particular direction, as far as crimes are concerned or indeed as far as benefits are concerned, except the desire for freedom. What has happened is that in each case, this doctrine has been married to other particular ideas of particular nations, particular ethnic communities, particular political communities, which change the tenor and the tone of that core doctrine. For example, in Poland they had an idea that Poland was a crucified Christ, which had to be resurrected. Nowhere is this part of the doctrine of nationalism. In France they believed that France is a beacon of civilization, rationalism, progress and so forth and that this is for them the meaning of their nationalism, it’s not in the doctrine as such. Each national community, each ethnic community has added something, something specific, which accords with their particular circumstances, the particular lot in which they find themselves. And therefore we have many nationalisms; we have one doctrine, but many nationalisms. Now, how are you to decide whether nationalism is good or bad, if you have so many nationalisms and you can only judge the core doctrine, which you may agree with, or you may disagree with, but in itself, it doesn’t have the immediate implications which the particular nationalisms clearly do have.

So at the abstract level nationalism is neither good, nor bad. At the particular level it very much depends on the nature of the additional motifs, ideas and notions, that are imported into the nationalism. Thus Czech nationalism may be liberal or bourgeois, for example. And other nationalisms may be anticolonial or perhaps working class or peasant nationalisms, depending on the situation of that particular group.

U.W. Is the process of globalization the opposite force to nationalism and the formation of nations. Is it possible that this form of state could disappear in the future?

I think we are witnessing a transformation of classic national states, because borders are more porous, economic interdependence is much greater. But I doubt if we are witnessing the end of nation states entirely, and certainly not the end of nations. The sense of national identity is something separate from having a nation state. Although a nation state can certainly reinforce it, without question. But if all states were suddenly to be abolished, there would still be national identities. Even Marx regarded that as the case. There’s a passage in which he says that nation is one of the things that will remain in the socialist, classless society.

As for the past, everything is not as simple.It is certainly true that the doctrine of nationalism which I outlined didn’t appear before the 18th century. But the nations, the idea that there were national communities long antidates that. I mean you can only read medieval literature to find many descriptions of what we would call nations – English, Spaniards, French, Germans, Italians and so on. Even if those particular countries didn’t actually exist as states, for example Italy didn’t, but Italians were clearly marked out, French were marked out, Germans – by language, customs, geography, a variety of factors, sometimes religion of course, though not within Christendom in the Middle Ages –they were mostly catholic. But if we move east, there was a conflict between the Orthodox and Catholic. Any of these markers could distinguish other peoples. The nationalism or nation doesn’t reside in the language or in the religion, but is a sense of community that is felt by the people and by outsiders. A community that usually has a myth of common descent (they may have no common descent at all, they usually don’t but they have a myth).

I think we have to be quite careful when we say that nations, as opposed to nationalism, are a stage only of capitalism. Besides I would argue that capitalism wasn’t the only factor that was important in generating the world of nation states, which is something new perhaps. There were many other factors involved; the rise of the state itself was important, the bureaucratic state, this was particularly important.

U.W. Would you say that Ukraine is a typical example of a nation state in the process of creation, of formation and that the things still can go either way?

Yes, with one provision. Correct me, if I’m wrong, but as I see it, Ukraine is divided into Western and Eastern parts. I mean in terms of historic and cultural orientation and also in terms of the fact that many Russian settlers are in the Eastern part. This may make for further complications, for a new state setting out on the path of nation-building. It is certainly true that in the area of Kyiv there was a very old state, Kyivan-Rus, and subsequent to that, when it was destroyed by the Mongols, there were various Cossack formations – Hetmanates and so on. The growth of a separate Ukrainian national identity is traced from the 17th century onwards. Certainly, by the 19th century there was an educated class, there were famous poets and so on, who were pressing the case for a Ukrainian state, a Ukrainian nation. As I recall, Ukraine did get its independence very briefly in 1918. But I have to say that there has been a two-fold problem: one is this division that I mentioned between East and West, which you can find in other countries trying to build themselves, but there is another factor – the Great Russian brother, as opposed to the Little Russian brother, as they like to call it and the overshadowing of Ukraine by Russia, which had long claimed that there wasn’t a separate nation there, but that there was a variant of their own culture.

U.W. Is Russia itself in the process of becoming a normal nation state? It was an empire for a long time, with a complicated identity. And now Russians have the chance to build a nation state in the West European meaning of the word. Is this what’s happening? Is Mr. Putin, who said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the biggest catastrophe of the 20th century, a Russian nationalist or a Soviet imperialist?

Putin is trying to build a strong state in Russia. I don’t think it’s an empire. First of all, I don’t think he’d be allowed to, but secondly, I don’t think that’s his aim, As I understand it, it’s to make Russia not only a strong state, but also a great power in the world. That seems to me the main focus and purpose of his actions. And to this end, he is prepared to use whatever means are at his disposal, including the use of oil and gas and so on as economic tools. I don’t think he has ambitions for an empire, but he may feel that as a great power, those states that border Russia should be regarded as within Russia’s field of interest, but I don’t think that he wants to annex them. It is very difficult to define, whether Russia could be a nation state of a European model. It is difficult to say whether America is a state in the same sense. It’s stretching the term greatly. You see, we are used to using a West European standard and I’m not sure that it works at all. We have to think of “nation” in a very different way. “Nation state” is a difficult term. Strictly speaking, it means that one nation has one state. But if there are many separate nations within the state, this cannot be the case, for example in Britain. I prefer to use the term “national state”, rather than “nation state”. The latter implies that you have usually a dominant nationality and you have a legitimating ideology of nationalism as the focus of the state. It’s a looser term. Even in France, which is considered to be the measure of all things, there are the Basques, the Bretons and the Alsatians, who are not French. Not all of them are assimilated. So I’m dubious about the term “nation state”, there are only a few nation states. The Danes almost get there, the Portuguese almost get there, but very few are actual nation states. Walker Connor, a prominent scholar, counted that about 10% of the world states are monoethnic.

U.W. Michael Spence, a Nobel laureate in economics, recently said that nationalism is one of the forces for economic success. Would you say that studying these phenomena can help countries and societies to use nationalism as an advantage?

There are many theories of nationalism. Certain elements of the study of nationalism may be useful. For example, I have put forward the proposition that a state divided among many ethnic groups will find it much more difficult to cohere and therefore to inspire a sense of self-sacrifice in the members, which nationalism requires. A state where on the whole there has been a dominant ethnic group will find it easier to do so. It doesn’t mean that a state has to consist only of the one ethnic group, but it does help to have a dominant ethnic group which will provide the focus for restructuring of the state along national lines. Beyond that, I’m not at all sure that there are any particular lessons that can be learned. Japan’s nationalism was achieved in a very special set of circumstances. It’s an island, it was in competition with the United States at the time and there was the effect of the destruction of the war. All these factors have to be taken into account and they are not replicated elsewhere. So it is very difficult to say that here is an element of a general approach to nationalism that we can take and apply everywhere. I don’t think that’s the case. It is however important to compare cases of nationalism. That is what the study of nationalism leads us to do – to compare the experience of different areas, different countries and so on. It makes us more sensitive to the pitfalls and the difficulties as well as the possible chances of success. It also of course makes us aware of the general factors at work, which have led to the rise of nationalism itself, and also to the way in which nations, which were largely elite nations in the Middle Ages, were transformed into popular, mass nations.


Anthony D. Smith is Professor of London School of Economics, President of the Association for the study of Nationalism and Ethnicity. He has dedicated most of his life to relevant studies. His first book Theories of Nationalism was published in 1971. He subsequently published fifteen more studies on this subject.

Anthony D. Smith. The Cultural Foundations of Nations: Hierarchy, Covenant, and Republic. – Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (March 11, 2008)


Nationalism and national identity were greatly influenced by world wars and other important events, though the core of national ideology did not change after its first intrusion into the politics of 17th century Western Europe. Since then, it had strengthened ancient national ideas and feelings and provided ethnic communities, willing to become political nations, with action plans. Having got rid of its previous historical forms, nationalism became available for the objectives of national mobilization and legitimation on all the continents. Nationalism will most probably play this role, as long as the need of cultural identity is linked to the aspiration of strengthening people’s sovereignty.

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