Ernest Renan famously asked, Qu’est ce que la nation? Eric Hobsbawm adds to that question by asking, Quand est la nation? The question of temporality, first raised by Benedict Anderson in his seminal Imagined Communities, is addressed by Hobsbawm in this book.1 Anderson posits that the invention of the printing press was the catalyst in the development of the idea of the nation, but Hobsbawm places nationhood firmly in the modern period, specifically after 1780. Nations are a product of modernity, Hobsbawm argues, because the scientific and intellectual developments required to foster the birth of nations and nationalism do not occur until modernity. The rise of the liberal polity, the spread of literacy, the standardisation of languages, and urbanisation created a new consciousness that can be termed national.
For Hobsbawm, the French Revolution represents the crystallisation of revolutionary-radical ideas which are then spread throughout Europe by Napoleon’s armies. Sovereigns are suddenly asked to serve their people, and the Divine Right of Kings lapses. Hobsbawm notes that the 1825 coronation of Charles X at Rheims brought out a paltry 120 people to be cured of scrofula by the royal touch while in 1774, there had been over 2,400. This change in the role of the sovereign is interpreted by Hobsbawm as signifying a new national consciousness, divorced from the ties that linked serf to master under European feudalism. Furthermore, along the lines of Eugen Weber’s Peasants into Frenchmen, Hobsbawm sees the construction of unified national languages as promoting dialogue between various regions of an imagined community. This would arguably serve the same role as print capitalism, namely, bringing people into contact with a common frame of reference that would allow them to imagine their nation. Anderson remarks, “print-capitalism gave a new fixity to language, which in the long run helped to build that image of antiquity so central to the subjective idea of nation.”2 Similarly, standardisation of languages Liberals of the time saw linguistic unification as the method by which human evolution would be carried forward: the development of nation was unquestionably a phase in human evolution or progress from the small group to the larger, from family to tribe to region, to nation and, in the last instance, to the unified world of the future (38).
Hobsbawm takes note of the argument raised by some scholars, primordialists as Craig Calhoun labels them, that there existed a national consciousness even before modern nationalism, usually along ethic lines. Hobsbawn conveniently creates a new category of proto-nationalism, which is essentially nationalism without modernity. From Hobsbawm’s point of view, this makes perfect sense, since he defines “nation” as modern and political. Hobsbawm writes of this older national consciousness that it “had no…necessary relation with the unit of territorial political organisation which is a crucial criterion of what we understand as a ‘nation’ today.” (47) According to Hobsbawm, older forms of group relationships, be they at the kinship level or tribal, were neither territorial nor political. Proto-nationalism, usually based on ethnicity, is not enough to mature into nationalism (77) because there are numerous cases in which it has not been enough to form a nation-state.
Hobsbawm’s study is fascinating as it is compelling but its full use and limitations can be understood only by looking at the assumptions Hobsbawm has made. First, Hobsbawm defines the nation as modern and then goes on to explore European history over the last two centuries. There is no clear justification for his a priori understanding of nationalism. This is more problematic in the light of his subsequent dismissal of proto-nationalism as a force capable of ushering in “true” nationalism. The problem of national consciousness before modernity needs to be addressed fully if one is to take a position that defines nationalism temporally in modernity.
Secondly, Hobsbawm makes no attempt to explore ideas of nation and territoriality in the minds of the elites before modernity. Hobsbawm thus limits nationalism to a mass movement—the criteria which define nationalism for Hobsbawm necessarily involve large groups of people. Again, this hampers the understanding of national sentiment in the pre-modern era. For example, Leonardo Bruni’s famous History of the Florentine People (circa 1410) is replete with pregnant phrases that must necessarily be ignored under Hobsbawm’s formula. However, James Hankins has even commented that Bruni’s work was the first modern history book.3 Such views call for a reappraisal of Hobsbawm’s chronology of nationhood.
Another issue with Hobsbawm’s thesis is his complete disregard for non-Europe: aside from a few comments about India and Africa, he remains firmly focussed on Europe. In itself, this would not amount to much, but after Anderson’s provocative claim that nationalism was not indigenous to Europe but was brought to the continent from the New World, it is striking that Hobsbawm does not mention nationalism outside a European context. Furthermore, as an intellectual piece rather than a geographically contained work, an international selection of cases would make a more compelling argument than a European one. Perhaps this reveals his commitment to the modernity of nationalism, because modernity in Asia, Africa, and the New World was different, if the regions ever experienced “modernity.”
Finally, Hobsbawm is so focussed on the political manifestation of nationalism that he forgets to analyse its cultural component; after all, nationalism is primarily a cultural phenomenon that could manifest itself in other ways. Even within Hobsbawm’s European geography—particularly within it—the absence of German Romantic thought is curious. Philosophes such as Herder, Hegel, and Goethe are generally considered to be among the first nationalist thinkers of the modern era. Themes of Volk, Stamm, andUrsprung predominate in their works. Since literature and philosophy do not occur in a vacuum, the study of their milieu would be an interesting background to modern nationalist thought.
In conclusion, Hobsbawm presents an interesting work that serves as a launching pad for future research. If we are to accept his presumption that nationalism is modern, then his work makes perfect sense. Even if we reject his basis, we are still left with an excellent work that explores the impact modernity had on an older concept.
1: Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
2: Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991), 44.
3: James Hankins, Repertorium Brunianum: A Critical Guide to the Writings of Leonardo Bruni, (Rome: Istituto Storico Italiano per il Medio Evo, 1997).