BIOGRAPHY & BRIEF INTRODUCTION
Eric Hobsbawm was born into a Jewish family in 1927 to an Austrian mother British Father. When he was born, they were living in Alexandria. Soon after, they moved to Austria. Following his parents’ death, he moved to Germany to live with his aunt who adopted him and his sister. When Hitler came into power in 1933, they moved to England. He experienced the rise of fascism in Vienna and Berlin. His political stance and historiography were likely affected by this cosmopolite background.
Hobsbawm graduated from the University of Cambridge and lectured in Italy, the U.S., England, and South America. He became a member of The Association of Socialist Pupils at the age of 14 and of the Communist Party when he was 19. During the Soviet Invasion of Hungary in 1956, most of its members left the British Communist Party, but Hobsbawm and a few colleagues did not. Yet he protested the Soviet invasion of Hungary and was in favour of the Prague Spring.
The main reason why he held on to the Bolshevik Revolution ideals so long and while all his colleagues were leaving the party is that he had experienced both anti-Semitism and fascism. In 1994 during an interview he claimed that if the Soviet Union had succeeded in creating a true communist society, it would have been worth the deaths of the twenty million people who perished under Stalin. Additionally, he never denied Stalin’s truculence and never criticized Stalin for being a nationalist. But it should be remembered that he never chose to become a Zionist either. On the other hand, during another interview in 2002 he said; “In Germany there wasn’t any alternative left. Liberalism was failing. If I’d been German and not a Jew, I could see I might have become a Nazi, a German nationalist. I could see how they’d become passionate about saving the nation. It was a time when you didn’t believe there was a future unless the world was fundamentally transformed.” Hobsbawm also paid dearly for his Marxism in terms of a reportedly decade-long stymied career trajectory.
Do you agree with him that one cannot be a good historian of the nation and a nationalist at the same time?
ANALYSIS OF HOBSBAWM’S NATİONALİSM
So, in his view, what is a nation? Hobsbawm, while in essence re-hashing a Gellnarian view, ultimately refuses to settle on a single definition of the nation, arguing that objective definitions are doomed to fail because exceptions can always be found (Hobsbawm: 1990 5). This does not mean, however, that Hobsbawm has no tangible theory of nationalism (Hobsbawm: 1990 9-10);
- Hobsbawm defines nationalism as the ideology that the political and national units should coincide.
- He views the nation as a changing, evolving, modern construct that is brought into being by nationalism, and not the other way around.
- He agrees that there are certain political, technical, administrative and economic conditions necessary for the emergence of the nation, such as the existence of administrative and educational infrastructure.
- Finally, Hobsbawm believes nationalism is constructed from above, although it needs to be studied from bellow as this is where it takes root and is most powerful and volatile.
Furthermore, there are three phases to the development of nationalism according to Hobsbawm (1990 12):
- A preliminary phase in which the idea of the nation is purely cultural and/or folkloric;
- A pioneering phase wherein political campaigners begin to try and raise awareness and mobilize the nation;
- And finally, the stage at which nationalist movements acquire mass support, an occurrence which can come to pass before or after the birth of the state.
In his analysis, Hobsbawm’s primary concern is how and why some nations accomplish the transition from phase 2 to phase 3. In other words, why do certain nationalist movements gain mass support and not others? He proceeds to dissect the rise and evolution of various nationalist movements, largely in a European context. However, throughout his historical analysis, a conclusion can be reached: For a nationalism movement to be successful, the nation needs to be “imagined”, it needs to be of a certain size and – the real determining factor – it needs to have a national economy to drive it. Without the necessary economic factors, it would never succeed.
The imagining of the nation can involve three historical aspects
- Historic association with a state (which is driven by an economy)
- Long-established cultural elite (to create the culture and impose it from above)
- A capacity for conquest (less critical today)
While the decidedly leftist Hobsbawm generally undertakes a fairly materialist review of history, he does leave surprising room for a constructivist case, albeit n elicits, or ‘top-down’ one:
“For this reason they are…constructed essentially from above, but which cannot be understood unless also analyzed from below, that is in terms of the assumptions, hopes, needs, longings and interests of ordinary people, which are not necessarily national and still less nationalist….That view from below, i.e. the nation as seen not by governments and the spokesmen and activists of nationalist (or non-nationalist) movements, but by the ordinary persons who are the objects of their action and propaganda, is exceedingly difficult to discover” (Nations and Nationalism Since 1780, emphasis mine).
Especially within the last 200 years, relatively new phenomenon such as the ‘nation’, ‘nation-state’, national symbols, national reflexes, and nationalism were formalized and were established through newly invented traditions. In The Invention of Tradition, he and Ranger offer a collection of essays about how and why different traditions are invented, what purposes these traditions have and continue to serve. As the concept relates to Nationalism, the construction of historical narratives is widely recognized as a common means of strengthening the legitimacy of a claim to a geographical region, self-autonomy, or even solidifying a sense of group identity to serve a nationalist agenda. It represents a somewhat cynical view of nationalistic phenomena, but it is a theme which Hobsbawm shares with many more contemporary theorists in the field. Hobsbawm distinguished between three types of invented tradition (Hobsbawm 1983: 9):
- Those establishing or symbolising social cohesion and collective identities
- Those establishing or legitimatising institutions and social hierarchies
- Those socialising people into particular social contexts
Moreover, he stresses that studies of the distant past can prove especially crucial in modern political contexts such as the negotiations of national and ethnic identities. For example, is it any coincidence that the Scottish referendum is occurring in 2014, the 700th anniversary of one of Scotland’s most famous battles (Bannockburn) against the “would-be English overlords”?
Here is an interesting little blurb on how this has potentially manifested in Scottish Highland culture: http://www.history.utoronto.ca/material_culture/rmclean/html/trad.htm
CASE STUDY: AFGHANISTAN
Hobsbawm’s views on what drives nationalist movements may be extremely useful in explaining why repeated attempts to develop a unified Afghanistan have ostensibly failed. It is arguably a better fit to analyze rival ideas of the nation held by the country’s different ethnic groups than some “hypothetical all-embracing Afghan nationalism”. Nevertheless, the process of nation building under conditions of independence continues at the present time, with inter-ethnic relations fundamentally altered by the changes in power relations brought about during three decades of warfare (beginning in 1978 with the civil war). Indeed, some specific features of the development of nationalism in Afghanistan have contributed to its present crisis, compounded by the failure of rival leaders to create any stable form of government, and what fragile unity the country gained in the wake of the civil war under the Taliban-affiliated government was in turn steadily eroded, as the politics of Afghanistan have been heavily influenced by NATO countries via their effort to “stabilise” and democratise the country. In 2004, the state’s new constitution was adopted and a president – Hamid Karzai – was (theoretically) democratically elected in 2004, winning a second five-year term in 2009, again on the surface suggesting a strengthening central state.
It has been argued (Hyman, 2002) that in modern Afghanistan, the national or patriotic idea remained very weak and undeveloped, “altogether lacking appeal or influence except in a small and unrepresentative educated urban, literate class whose members were often in important respects in culture cut off from the mass of the rural or tribal population” (p. 300). In short, nationalism cannot exert ideological appeal until the majority of Afghanistan’s population are integrated into the collective life of society. This, of course, would involve the creation of one over-arching, unifying “Afghan Tradition” a la Hobsbawm.
While before this narrative remained in essence one dominated by a tribal aristocracy, the Taliban focused on the role of Islam in Afghan society as legitimizer of authority (97% of Afghanistan’s population consider themselves Muslim). While Islam has been a unifying force against foreign and non-Muslim invaders (including in recent anti-NATO sentiment), it has however never been enough in itself to unite all the ethnies of Afghanistan in the past.
The Taliban movement, which began in 1994 among Pashtuns of Kandahar, is engaged on a mission to create a pure Islamic state in Afghanistan. Afghan nationalism as such is not an important element in the Taliban worldview, yet the Taliban had and have as a basic goal to reunite the entire territory of Afghanistan. Moreover, the xenophobic isolationist stance of Afghan nationalism under the Taliban continues to exploit popular Afghan suspicions of Western plots and interference to that end.
On the surface, it may have at times seemed that Afghanistan would disintegrate under into its constituent ethnic components or a plethora of new mini-states emerging out of the wreck of war, but it has not. During the war, there grew and remained popular autonomous sentiment demanding the withdrawal of NATO troops, culminating with the June 2013 security handover from NATO to Afghan forces. Clearly, there can be little sense of a pan-afghan ethnically or linguistically-based nationalism, so why does it remain increasingly content in its new democratic form? Again, perhaps Hobsbawm has the answer.
Perhaps the increasingly viable, growing economy of the state encourages nationalist rhetoric on the part of the new state government, as Hobsbawm might suggest? The economy of Afghanistan has significantly improved of late due to the infusion of billions of dollars in international assistance and investments,as well as notable improvements in agricultural production. Most interestingly, the new government claims that the country holds up to $3 trillion in untapped mineral and oil deposits, one of the richest mining regions on earth. However, due to the conflicts, it remains one of the least developed countries in the world, ranking just 175th on the United Nations’ Human Development Index.
In Afghanistan, as elsewhere, the writing and rewriting of history has been intimately linked to currents and fashions in national politics. State-promoted historical writing for journals or special publications has tended “slavishly to follow official policy” (Hyman, 2002). This supports Hobsbawm’s theory that constructed societal meanings and narratives (i.e. invented traditions) are a tool of national unification employed by would-be state powers in order to propagate their own legitimacy:
“We should expect it to occur more frequently when a rapid transformation of society weakens or destroys the social patterns for which ‘old’ traditions had been designed, producing new ones to which they were not applicable, or when such old traditions and their institutional carriers and promulgators no longer prove sufficiently adaptable and flexible, or are otherwise eliminated; in short, when there are sufficiently large and rapid changes on the demand or the supply side” (1983, 4-5).
This is certainly the case in Afghanistan. However, Afghanistan remains under the influence of competing narratives and traditions which, coupled with the as-of-yet sub-par economy, might explain why Afghan nationalism is not yet fully developed as a unifying popular force.
Sources & Further Reading:
- Hyman, A. (2002). ‘Nationalism in Afghanistan’. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 34 (2), p. 299-315.
CASE STUDY: INSURGENCIES IN MYANMAR
The Kachin people, living mainly in northeastern Myanmar with a population of 1.5 million people, are traditionally hill dwellers. They see themselves as largely Kachin and not at all Burmese, even though the state of Kachin belongs to Myanmar (and previously Burma). Nationalistic feelings in Kachin are high because they long for their own national sovereignty and do not want to be ruled by the government of Myanmar.
The Kachin people are dissatisfied with the central government. They see any forms of initiatives carried out in the state of Kachin as ‘Burmanization’, which they have been trying to resist throughout the years. For instance, the government has been attempting to build Buddhist pagodas in the Kachin state. While Buddhism is the state religion of, the majority of the Kachin people are Christian. The Kachin people have their own language, own religion and own distinct culture. In addition, their territory (homeland) is rich in jade and timber that they did not want the central government to exploit what they see as theirs. The Kachin state produces quality jade, which is currently being controlled by the central government.
As a result, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) was formed. It is one of the largest resistance organization in Myanmar against the central government. Under KIO, it has an armed wing called the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). There are several accounts of clashes between the KIA and the Burmese army as the Kachin people attempt to fight for their own independence via force. Even though the KIA signed a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government in 1994, they did not disarm or surrender and they continue to recruit, train and mobilize soldiers.
In Hobsbawm’s theory of nationalism, he believes that political and economic reasons are the drivers of nationalist sentiment. He did not place emphasis on cultural and ethnic elements and he sees them as secondary factors for nationalism. In fact, he claims, “if the nation had anything in common from the popular-revolutionary point of view, it was not, in any fundamental sense, ethnicity, language, and the like, though these could be indications of collective belonging” (Hobsbawm, 1990, p.20)
Discussion Questions: Are cultural and ethnic factors the main driving force of nationalism in this case? Or is it that the KIO is playing the ethnic card in order to garner more support for political and economic reasons, as Hobsbawm might suggest?
Sources & Further Reading:
Kachin state on Map of Myanmar: http://www.freekachin.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/map.gif
CASE STUDY: QUÉBECOIS NATIONALISM
Québecois nationalism is a clear example of a nationalist movement that just fell short of reaching Hobsbawm’s third phase of nationalist development (1990: 12), the phase in which a movement goes from being an elite construct to having mass appeal. Based on the result of the 1995 referendum, Québec was teetering on the edge of attaining critical mass, but failed to do so. As a result, the movement lost steam and has, for the most part, been benched.
How can the failure of this movement be explained? Québec certainly has the necessary size, sitting today at just over 8 million. With its comprehensive education and mass media, it also had the technical and administrative conditions necessary. Consider Hobsbawm’s two main themes and determine if Quebecois Nationalism includes them: a robust “imagined community” and the national economy to drive it.
If anything, Québec is good example for the power of the invention of tradition. Consider the name used to represent the nation. Today most nationalists within La Belle Province consider themselves Québecois. Very few, if any, would associate with the term Canadiens. Yet, this is the banner that the early French Canadians used to distinguish themselves from the British. The very notion of Québecois is a manufactured one that has little connection with the original French settlers of the country. Indeed, even the widely celebrated national holiday, St-Jean Baptiste Day, was only celebrated with regularity at the very end of the 19th century and today bears little resemblance to the original holiday with its religious character.
This leaves economic factors to blame for the failure of movement. This is clearly a complex issue since many attribute Canada’s poor economic situation in the early 80s and 90s to the rise of Québecois nationalism in the first place. That said, the failure of the movement to gain enough traction could still be attributed to economy of the province. Québec is a resource-driven economy that, for the most part, is centered on the extraction and export of its many natural resources, making it reliant on foreign import markets. It is also the Canadian province with the most comprehensive social welfare system in place, one which costs the province billions every year. Many believe that the maintenance of these social programs would be impossible without the support of the Canadian government which casts doubt on the viability of Québec as an independent state. These economic factors could explain the failure of Québecois nationalism.
Discussion Question: While I have approached Québec as a case of failed nationalism, is it? Could the rise of the PQ, the provincial nationalist party, be a re-emergence of the movement?
In addition to his historical analysis of the development of nationalism, Hobsbawm also has a strong normative vision of nationalism. Hobsbawm’s opinion of nationalism is a negative one. While Gellner acknowledged the dangers of nationalism, notably that attempts to create a homogenous state can lead to persecution and even genocide, Hobsbawm fully embraces the view that nationalism is bad, referring to nationalist movements as the instigators of “difficulties and cruelties” (1977: 4). When examining the causes of nationalism, he describes the “anguish and disorientation” (1990: 177) as the “symptoms of the sickness” (1990: 177) which drive nationalism. This is hardly the noble portrayal of the patriotic spirit of a nation.
The normative question that Hobsbawm is trying to answer through his work, which he views as the central problem of our age, is how to organize the coexistence of multiple ethnic/religious/linguistic groups. As described in the article by Beiner on the Nairn-Hobsbawm debate, while Nairn views the proliferation of states as beneficial, Hobsbawm, as analysed by Beiner (1989: 175), objects to this idea for a number of reasons:
- Smaller states are more vulnerable to the dictates of capital.
- Due to their limited scope, nationalist movements are often blind to pressing moral global issues, like global social justice or the environment.
- The world cannot actually be divided into monocultural units, since even tiny political units will face issues of heterogeneity. Indeed, multinational states that institutionalize pluralism would be safer for cultural minorities than smaller “nation-states” attempting to homogenize their populations.
- The desire for ever-smaller states is not politically coherent. Given that nations are not real, but constructed to begin with, there would be no limit to the number of states that would need to be created for each nation to have their own.
In fact, Hobsbawm is a proponent of larger, more stable, multinational states. While he does not seem to have an answer to this own question, he remains optimistic that as long as there are functional multinational states around such as Britain, there is hope (Beiner 1989: 174).
Discussion question: Are multinational states viable? Can multiple nations peacefully coexist in the current political system? Are their countries we could cite as success stories? Would Britain even qualify as one of these given the Scottish referendum on the horizon?
Post authored by Killashandra, Madison, Min, & Özge