Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Smith on the resources nationalists can draw upon

These quotes are from Anthony D. Smith, Myths and Memories of the Nation (Oxford University Press, 1999), Chapter ten: The Resurgence of Nationalism? Myth and Memory in the Renewal of Nations.

Previously published in the British Journal of Sociology, Volume no. 47, Issue no. 4, December 1996.


The real question raised by the present spate of ethnic nationalisms is not, why they have re-emerged now, or why they proliferate in an era of globalization, but how we can explain both the continuing power and the diversity of expression of ethnic nationalisms.

The usual account of the power and variety of nationalism is some version of modernization theory. Its basic proposition is that modernity in one of its many guises requires the formation of nations. Some regard nationalism as a response to incipient industrialization and the nation as a necessary and functional element of industrial modernity. Others seek to derive the nation and nationalism from the modern rational state and its self-reflexive capacities, or from the interests of sub-élites who use national arguments to wrest control of the state. Still others regard nationalism, and nations, as ideological constructs of intellectuals and professionals seeking to undermine ancien régimes and establish modernized states in societies committed to the ideal of progress, or to control the mass mobilization of a democratic era.

Now, in general terms it may be true that the processes of modernization, variously defined, create the conditions for the formation of national states and the spread of ‘nationalism-in-general’ and in this respect each of the above modernization perspectives undoubtedly captures an important aspect of the phenomenon of nations and nationalism. At the same time, they are incapable of explaining the paradox of variety and persistence in nationalism, of why nations and nationalisms have such staying power in the modern epoch, yet manifest such vast differences in their content and style of expression.

This is because they fail to take seriously three sets of components, or resources, that underlie all nationalisms: the uneven distribution of ethno-history, the varying impact of religious ideals, and the differential nature and location of the ‘homeland’ or ancestral territory. By exploring the nature and influence of these sets of ethnic-symbolic resources, we are able, I believe, to give a more convincing account of the power and variety of modern nationalisms.

Let me start with uneven ethno-history and a general proposition. As I intimated, any identity is based on memory conceived of as an active principle of recall of earlier states of activity and experience of that person. By analogy, collective cultural identities are based on the shared memories of experiences and activities of successive generations of a group distinguished by one or more shared cultural elements. Ethnic identity in turn may be seen as the product of shared memories of collective experiences and activities of successive generations of a group claiming a common origin and ancestry. Ethnicity in turn may be defined as the sense of collective belonging to a named community of common myths of origin and shared memories, associated with an historic homeland.

Ernest Renan had long ago, of course, recognized the significance of shared memories of great sacrifices and battle experiences for the formation of nations. But collective memories range more widely. They include recollections not only of wars and their heroes, but of religious movements and their leaders, migrations, discoveries and colonizations, foundations of cities and states, dynasties and their kings, lawcodes and their legislators, great buildings and their architects, painters, sculptors, poets, musicians and their immortal works. Above all, the idealized memories of a ‘golden age’, or golden ages, of virtue, heroism, beauty, learning, holiness, power and wealth, an era distinguished for its collective dignity and external prestige.

It is notoriously difficult to disentangle the elements of genuine shared memory from those of exaggeration, idealization and heroization which we associate with myth and legend, since there is usually more than a kernel of truth in the latter. But we can say that the more faithfully recorded, better documented and more comprehensive a golden age, the more impact it can exert over later generations and epochs of that community (or in some cases other communities). In this respect, Periclean Athens can have a greater and more varied impact for modern Greeks and others than, say, Kievan Rus can have for modern Ukrainians.

Now there is nothing fixed or immutable about a golden age or the principle of its selection. Successive generations of the community may differ as to which epoch is to be regarded as a golden age, depending on the criteria in fashion at the time. For some it will be a golden age because it boasted religious virtuosi, saints and sages; for others because great art, drama, music and philosophy flourished; for still others because the community enjoyed its greatest territorial extent and military power; or pioneered great moral and legal codes and institutions. Thus the ethnohistory of a community may boast more than one golden age from which to choose, and different sections of the latterday community may look back to quite different golden ages, as with modern Jews who look back nostalgically to the Davidic and Solomonic kingdom, or revere the era of the Talmudic sages or dream of the Golden Age of Spain with its many poets and philosophers.

The ideal of a golden age is not simply a form of escapism or consolation for present tribulations. For later generations, the standards of golden ages come to define the normative character of the evolving community. They define what is and what is not to be admired and emulated. They define what is, and what is not, distinctive about that community. They define an ideal, which is not so much to be resurrected (few nationalists want actually to return to the past, even a golden past) as to be recreated in modern terms. Even the Jacobin leaders who dreamt of emulating Brutus the Consul, Cincinnatus and Leonidas had no intention of founding an agrarian city-republic in France, only of transposing the ethos and heroism of republican Rome and Sparta to French soil.

A second function of the ideal of a golden age is the sense of regeneration which it stimulates. Just as ‘our ancestors’ created a great culture or civilization, so surely can ‘we’, runs the leitmotif. This is important, exactly because most nationalisms, viewed from inside, start out from a sense of decline, alienation and inner exile, and go on to promise renewal, reintegration and restoration to a former glorious state. The nationalist mythology into which the memory of the golden age is inserted is one of humble, if special, origins, miraculous liberation, glorious efflorescence, divisive conflict, inner decay, even exile--and then national rebirth.

A third function of the golden age is its suggestion of potential through filiation. The emphasis is always on the descendants of heroes, sages, saints and poets having within themselves, in virtue of their blood relationship, the inner resources to become like their glorious forefathers and foremothers; and hence the inherent capacity of grandsons and granddaughters and their descendants to give birth to a civilization and culture worthy of the golden age. So the community will be purified of alien accretions, and by returning to its former faith and purity will be renewed and restored ‘as in the days of old’. In this respect, the golden age reveals to the latterday community its ‘authentic’ (usually pre-industrial and rural) self and bids it rediscover and realize that self under quite different conditions.

Finally, the memory of a golden age is closely linked to a sense of collective destiny. The road that the community expects to take in each generation is inspired and shaped by its memories of former heroic ages. Their values and symbols form the basis and spur to heroic feats of communal self-sacrifice in the future, a future that can become as glorious and fulfilling as the days of old. Memories of Irish golden ages, pagan and Christian, endowed Irish men and women with a vision of a resurrected Ireland and inspired Irish nationalists to heroic self-sacrifice on its behalf. In early twentieth-century Egypt, two visions of a resurgent Egypt, the one strictly Egyptian and territorial, the other Arab and ethnic, competed for the loyalty of Egyptians; the secular, territorial vision drew on the memories of Pharaonic grandeur to underpin a separate Egyptian destiny, whereas the more religious, ethnic vision harked back to Islam and the Fatimids for the Arab destiny which it sought. In other words, the ideal of self-renewal and the vision of collective destiny are built into the collective memory of a golden age and justify all the sacrifices that citizens may be asked to make.

So much for the concept and general functions of the golden age. In concrete historical instances, golden ages, like the ethno-histories of which they form the high points, are unevenly distributed across the globe. Just as some communities can boast full, rich and well-documented ethno-histories with more than one golden age, others must be content with only shadowy memories of a collective past and its heroes. Slovaks, for example, had great difficulty disentangling their ancient past of ‘greater Moravia’ with ninth-century heroes like Svatopluk from the better-known and fuller records of the Bohemian kingdom of the Czechs. To this day, Ukrainians seek to disentangle their closely related culture yet separate past with its golden ages in Kievan Rus and the Cossack hetmanates from the much more all-embracing culture and better documented Muscovite and ‘Great Russian’ golden ages. One must add that it is not only large and powerful nations with long-independent states like Russia, China, Japan, France and Spain that can boast rich, well-documented ethno-histories with more than one golden age to emulate. Smaller, but ancient communities like the Irish, Armenians and Jews can also point to several golden ages in their long and well-recorded ethno-histories.

On the whole, those communities with rich ethno-histories possess ‘deep resources’ on which to draw, and so can sustain themselves over long periods and maintain an extended struggle for recognition or parity. Even where they lack political and military security, their successive layers of cultural resources underpin their political claims as well as their sense of common ethnicity. This is not to say that ethnic nationalisms will only emerge in communities able to boast rich ethno-histories, but simply that such communities are unlikely to disappear or be submerged and, once aroused, can continue their struggle for long periods under adverse circumstances. Communities that lack these well-documented ethnohistorical resources may well rise up in protest, as have the Moro and Eritreans. Some of them may even succeed in gaining independence after a long struggle, but whether, in the absence of such cultural resources, they will be able to sustain their new-found sense of community forged in battle, remains an open question. If they cannot create out of their prolonged struggle an ethno-history and even a golden age of heroic resistance to be recalled and emulated in times of crisis, they will not have those ‘deep’ cultural resources to fall back upon when internal conflicts and dissensions break out. In these as in other cases, history must be turned into ethnic myths and shared memories must become the basis of an ethno-heritage.

On the other hand, their very lack of rich ethno-histories relative to other better endowed neighbours stimulates these culturally peripheral and politically disprivileged communities to remedy this deficiency in a world where power stems from culture, in the same way as relative economic deprivation often spurs resentment and political emulation. Thus analysts would do well to focus on the comparative politics of uneven ethnohistory, and more especially of golden ages, if they wish to understand both the power and variety of ethnic nationalisms.


The second major set of ‘deep resources’ on which different nationalisms can draw relates to religious belief, and more particularly to myths of ethnic election.
The general proposition here concerns the relationship between popular mobilization and sanctification. In order to mobilize large numbers of people, leaders and movements need to appeal to either material and status interests or promise individual salvation, or both. For many, status interests at least are served by a promise of individual and collective salvation. Now salvation in turn requires men and women to sanctify their lives and situations through correct belief and practice on the part of each member of a community of believers, and through the periodic ritual and moral renewal of that community.

Where a population is defined through processes of sanctification as a community of shared faith or belief, such a community tends to underpin and redefine populations united by shared memories and myths of origin, and thereby impede their politicization. To memory and myth are added collective beliefs and rituals; yet these selfsame beliefs and rituals may prevent the population in question from conceiving itself in any other way than as a ‘faith community’ or acting outside the limits of traditional orthopraxy, as occurred for some time with both Arabs and Jews.

One of the most important and influential of these collective beliefs is the myth of ethnic election. This singles out the community as a ‘chosen people’ entrusted with a sacred mission to proselytize or crusade or act as standard-bearer of the true faith. The mission sanctifies the community and the world and its fulfilment brings closer the salvation of the community and the world of which it forms the epicentre.

This is the general form of election myths that we encounter among so many peoples and communities in history from the Neo-Sumerian revival under the Third Dynasty of Ur and the ancient Egyptians of the New Kingdom to medieval Catholic France and early modern Protestant America and modern Afrikanerdom. In all these cases, election myths attach redemption through sanctification to a community of shared memories and myths of origin, turning it into a chosen people entrusted with a sacred task in the world’s moral economy and thereby helping to purify and set that community apart from outsiders. Here we have a potent source of the moral exclusiveness of so many ethnies, their belief that by being entrusted with a sacred mission they stand in a position of superiority at the moral centre of the universe.

Among some communities, a stronger form of election myth has emerged. This is the idea of ‘the covenant’, the belief in a once-for-all contract between the community and its god, which requires the members of the community to fulfil certain ritual and moral obligations which define their sacred mission in return for which the deity will accord the community a special status, protection and privileges. The covenantal scheme was pioneered in ancient Israel, but it has been adopted elsewhere by such communities as the Armenians, Ulster Irish and Afrikaners. The ideal of a covenant as the source of their ethnic election has given these communities of shared memory and origin myths a durability and self-renewing capacity which forms one of the bedrocks of their contemporary political struggles.

Covenanted peoples manifest a particular intensity and persistence in their sense of ethnic election which validates their orthodoxy and sustains their communal practice through continual acts of sanctification. These in turn strengthen their belief in collective salvation through the periodic mobilization of a sacred community. In this way, the community’s shared memories and origin myths are drawn into the covenantal scheme and are reinterpreted as sacred events in the formation and mission of a holy people.

There are a number of important consequences of such myths. Ethnic election myths, and particularly covenantal schemes, confer on the communities that evolve such beliefs an extraordinary sense of rectitude and moral superiority. This contrasts starkly, and indeed often compensates for, the many hardships and tribulations endured by the ethnic elect. These myths endow the persecuted, exiled or subject community with a determination and moral fibre which enables the community (if not all its members) to withstand a harsh fate, thereby providing the people with what Herder would have regarded as a deep well-spring of energy (Kraft).

Second, myths of ethnic election offer the members of a community a chronological scheme of status reversal. The elect may be persecuted now and subjects today; but in time their sufferings will be recognized and their virtue rewarded. They will, in the end, triumph over their enemies and attain the goal of their journey in history. This is particularly vividly expressed in covenantal schemes of which the Israelite Exodus from Egypt stands as the prototype, but it also applies to peoples without a clear covenantal scheme like the Catholic Irish or the Welsh who nevertheless regard themselves as an elect community. Conversely, the triumphant elect, those communities that are regnal and dominant like the Castilian, French or Amhara, credit their high status and privilege to the fulfilment of their sacred mission and the virtue of their members.

Linked to the ideas of mission and status reversal is the broader ideal of collective destiny which draws on the concept of chosenness to chart a unique path for the elect community. Reinforced in its mission by a sense of election, the nation can look forward confidently to a unique and glorious future commensurate with its true status. This sense of a distinctive and peculiar destiny has become, in secular form, part of the rhetoric of party politicians and statesmen; but it also has important moraleboosting and unifying functions in times of crisis and danger, as in Churchill’s or de Gaulle’s speeches to the British and French during the Second World War.

Fourth, ethnic election myths and especially covenantal schemes draw a strict boundary between the members of the elect and outsiders who cannot be redeemed. It is because they have accepted the obligations of their sacred mission that they have in turn been sanctified and chosen as a community. Conversely, it is because the outsiders have rejected those obligations and that mission that they have become profane and excluded, even damned. Such a sharp boundary demarcation appears to justify the ethnic elect in programmes of self-purification through exclusion and segregation of outsiders.

Finally, ethnic election myths are demotic. The energy they tap is that of the people, the whole community and not a particular segment; similarly, it is only through the mobilization of the people, the whole community, that the sacred mission can be achieved. The mission in turn requires every member to fulfil their sacred duties and regards every member as being equally eligible to enjoy the privileges of ethnic election--something that is particularly clear in covenantal schemes which are always contracts between whole peoples and their god.


The third set of ‘deep resources’ relates to historic territories and more specifically an ‘ancestral homeland’.

In general, a specific geographical area or space becomes associated with a particular collectivity, in the eyes of its members and of those around, in so far as it provides the location and arena for, and is felt to contribute uniquely to, key moments or turning points in the past experiences of the collectivity. The mountains, rivers, lakes and forests of a particular geographical space have afforded a special place and provided the scene for historic events--battles, treaties, revelations, oaths, shrines, migrations and so on--associated with a given community, and in subsequent lore have become an indispensable part of the shared memories and mythology of that community.

For ethnies a particular geographical area has become associated with a given community either as the traditional place of origin (in the origin myth) or as the locus of its liberation, settlement and golden ages. The association is threefold: first, as the unique and indispensable setting of events and experiences that moulded the community; second, in so far as the ethnic landscape is felt to have influenced and contributed to the course of events and the efflorescence of the community; and third, and perhaps most important, as the final resting-place of our forefathers and foremothers. These shrines underline the way in which a special space has come to belong to a particular community and, reciprocally, the community has become part of a specific land and particular ethnic landscapes. So, the land becomes ‘our’ territory and the ‘eternal home’ of our ancestors, an ancestral homeland, a motif that figures prominently, along with the paeans to ethnic landscapes, in the folklore and cultural heritage of ethnic communities.

This relationship between people and land is the product over the longue duree of continual myth-making and the recitation of shared memories. Through the elaboration of folktales and legends and the performance of rituals and ceremonies, successive generations are reminded of various periods of their ethnic histories, and above all, of their golden ages.

In this way, a particular territory and specific landscapes are historicized. They become essential elements of the community’s history, and the land becomes an historic homeland.

The association is even stronger where the ethnie is also a community of believers, animated by a unifying faith and cult. In these circumstances, the ancestral and historic homeland becomes also a ‘sacred territory’. A holy people must be located in an equally sanctified land, a land conferred by the deity on a sanctified people as a reward for correct belief and conduct in the execution of their sacred mission. The terms of the covenant between the community and its god requires a sacred arena set aside for the fulfilment of the spiritual mission, a ‘promised land’ When the community is sundered from it, it is said to be in a state of spiritual exile; spiritual redemption therefore requires its restoration to the ‘promised land’.

Interestingly enough, the sanctification of the land came later, as a result of the community’s sense of election, of being set apart from its neighbours in the pursuit of the sacred mission with which God had entrusted the people. Thus the land of Canaan, though it figured prominently in the early formulations of the Covenant between God and Abraham as a reward for its fulfilment, did not become sacred in the eyes of the ancient Israelites and Jews till the late eighth century B.C., although it was long revered as the site of burial of the patriarchs and other holy figures.

There is an alternative scenario. Here the elect must search for, and discover, a promised land, a territory that a community of believers will sanctify through the performance of moral and ritual actions in building an ideal ethnic and civic community. It is the believer-pioneers themselves who, in creating their New Jerusalem whether on the African veldt or the American prairie, will realize the promise of a land whose features are integral to the utopia which they hope to build in fulfilment of their sacred mission.

In both cases, the historic homeland becomes sacred partly through the same processes of myth-making and shared remembering as occurs in all ethnic communities, but also through the special heroic acts of moral and ritual conduct of a community of believers and its religious heroes. It is the memory of their example in moments of revelation and crisis that creates a special bond of holiness between the community and its homeland, as well as the piety and awe which surrounds the tombs of prophets, poets and holy men and the sepulchres of righteous kings and warriors, laid to rest in the land of their people.

The ancestral land also links memory to destiny. For it is in the reborn land, the homeland which is renewed, that national regeneration takes place. The sacred land of our ancestors is also the promised land of our descendants and posterity. It is only on our ‘native soil’ that we can realize ourselves, that the nation can become truly free and authentic again. Hence the liberation of the land from oppressors is not simply a political or economic necessity; it is demanded by a unique history that requires fulfilment in a glorious destiny through the rebirth of a community on its own terrain.

The ‘deep resource’ which an ancestral, even a sacred, homeland offers, is not isolated from the other deep resources. Usually the three sets of resources are combined. Shared memories of golden ages are always associated with attachments to ancestral homelands, even where these are not sacred territories; and myths of ethnic election require both ancestral homelands for their execution, and usually a standard or model of inspiration for future generations, the memory of a golden age in which the sacred mission was heroically fulfilled. Hence the tendency for the three sets of deep resources--ancestral homelands, golden ages and myths of ethnic electionto combine and recombine in varying forms and degrees, thereby endowing many ethnies with great resilience and staying power down the ages.


Bay Area National Anarchist said...

Fantastic essay, I would like to see more article in this line of thought.

fellist said...

Yea, Smith is interesting because he's a respected academic whose every work legitimises ethnic nationalism.

I'm inclined to think he has Israel's interests at heart in doing this but a great deal of it is transferrable.