What is a nation? It's complicated...
My learning journey at Stanford continued over the fall with a course on Russia and Ukraine. It was an eye-opening journey through a thousand years of history, starting with the quasi-mythical Varangians and ending with dueling speeches on history by Putin and Zelensky within the last year.
I was struck during the course, more than I have been in a long time, by the role of history and historiography in nation-making. Historians of proto-nations in some ways will a nation into being. Nehru, for instance, knew precisely what he was doing when he wrote his Indian histories in a colonial prison in the 1930s and 40s.
This is also undoubtedly true of how the Ukrainian story was kept alive in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.
Ukraine and nationhood
The Hetmanate was a proto-state that existed from 1648 to 1764. It became a quasi-autonomous polity under the leadership of the then-hetman of the Cossacks, Khmelnytsky (1595-1657). It is conceived of as the first Ukrainian state: Ukrainian nationalists and historians draw a line from the Hetmanate to the modern Ukrainian nation.
Russia also lays claim to Khmelnytsky’s Hetmanate in its historical myth-making through the Pereiaslav Agreement negotiated by Khmelnytsky. That treaty placed the Hetmanate under the protection of the Tsar.
In short, part of what is going on in Ukraine today is a fight for historical truth.
In my paper for the class, I linked theories of nationalism and national consciousness with this period. Here I’ll share my comments on two theories of nationalism to give readers a sense of the theoretical debate.
What IS this thing called a nation?
What is a nation, what is nationalism, and what is national consciousness? This is a highly fraught area of academic research — there are many competing theories. Like the idea of “identity,” nationhood is very squishy — these fundamental concepts are in fact hard to define, hard to analyze, and hard to generalize about.
I read Benedict Anderson on this topic more than a decade ago, and have used him in other work. I re-read him for this class and found his insights to be helpful.
Benedict Anderson and national consciousness
Anderson’s Imagined Communities immediately grabbed scholarly and popular attention when published in 1983, despite two other significant works on nationalism published that year (Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism and Anthony D. Smith’s State and Nation in the Third World).
Part of the appeal is the eponymous idea of an “imagined political community,” which positions the nation as a social construct. He goes on to bound this community as “limited and sovereign.” Each of these words, for Anderson, has a specific meaning.
“Imagined” should not be conflated with “imaginary.” Anderson clearly rejects Gellner’s conception of the nation as a “masquerade.” “Limited” can take many forms, but one such is geographic and goes towards explaining boundaries we see on a map. “Sovereign” implies relative freedom, autonomy, and self-governance. Finally, the word “community” itself is essential to define, and Anderson does so by characterizing it as a “deep horizontal comradeship.”
Anderson spends a portion of the book tracing the origins of national consciousness. According to him, understanding nationalism requires comprehending “the large cultural systems that preceded it, out of which — as well as against which — it came into being.” In his view, the two central “cultural systems” are religion and dynastic succession.
For Anderson, an essential contributor to the rise of national consciousness was the emergence of “print-capitalism,” which created a linguistic commonality coupled with a related “philological revolution” that led to unifying official grammars and histories. This is a very interesting idea that can be modified for our own time — we could use the term “internet-capitalism” — and I expect to look into this further, perhaps for my MLA thesis.
But there are, to put it mildly, other ways of understanding nationalism.
In 1979, a somewhat obscure scholar, Dov Ronen, wrote The Quest for Self-Determination. What is fascinating about Ronen’s work is that he locates in the individual what most other authors (including Anderson) describe in terms of impersonal and sometimes ill-defined collective forces. His thesis is worth quoting in full:
My thesis is that the “self” in self-determination is the singular, individual human being and not any aggregation of human beings. The quest for self-determination, at its core, is not a national or any other group aspiration, but the aspiration of the individual human being to the vague notions of “freedom” and “the good life.”
His answer to one obvious question — where does this end? — is to accept the implication: “each and every adult human being is, potentially, a kingdom in itself.” And it follows that “the identity does not bring about the quest; the quest rather creates an identity.” This focus on the individual contrasts with most theorizing about nationalism, which tends to speak of a “collective consciousness.”
A distinguishing feature of the Ronen framework is its predictive power. Writing in 1979, he asserted that “in the remainder of [the 20th] century pressure for the creation of possibly hundreds of new states is probable.” And so it has come to pass, as we can see in the various new states in Europe (including Ukraine). It also suggests the possibility of a great deal more fragmentation, perhaps accompanied by violence, in states we would have viewed as immutable just a few years ago. The United Kingdom comes to mind.
Arthur Waldron, in reviewing Ronen’s work, came up with an eloquent insight into what this argument leads to. He wrote that in the quest for self-determination, “nationalist groups are themselves created by politicians in order to oppose other politicians — with the goal, of course, of eventually establishing something to rule.”
In other words, Khmelnytsky’s Uprising and the Pereiaslav Agreement need not require complex frameworks and typologies of national consciousness or nationalism. Instead, they arguably could represent a straightforward desire on the part of Khmelnytsky and his forces to have the ability to determine their self and path.
Nationalism, then, is possibly more the product of individual self-determination that resonates with or arrests others and grows from there to be more generalized. I have not found anything other than Ronen’s work in the literature of nationalism with this angle on the matter.
Waldron wrote almost four decades ago, in the same review quoted above, that “despite almost a century of research and thinking, our understanding of nationalism remains, in the words of a definitive review, undeveloped.” He pointed out that theories of nationalism (and national consciousness, although he left that unsaid but presumably implied) “operate at levels of abstraction and causal remoteness that make them less useful in understanding specific situations.”
Since then, nationalism has been studied to death (head over to JSTOR and do some keyword searches to see for yourself). I think Waldron’s comments still hold.
The issue, of course, is that each national story is so bespoke that generalizations spawn endless exceptions. While I am an admirer of Anderson’s work and it has triggered an interest in “digital nationalism” in our own time as I said above, Ronen’s articulation, in its basis of self-determination in something much less complex than the dynamics of a “collective consciousness,” might give us something more concrete to hold on to.
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