Azar Gat’s Nations

I saw Razib Khan‘s review of Azar Gat’s Nations : The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism. Without intending to make it that long I posted a 1000-word comment there. Then I realised I could have posted it here.


I just read Nations last weekend. It’s interesting you [i.e., Razib] drew most of your examples from the Byzantines since Gat himself practically skipped over the distance between Roman and Ottoman. Yet Greek identity would be an excellent case study for discussion of modernist theories of nationalism versus what ever its opposite is. (I hate to use the word “essentialist”.)

Gat basically argues there is an objective pre-modern foundation, based on a cultural core, for many modern ethnic identities. But I think that misses the point.

Modernists (e.g., Hobsbawm, B. Anderson) do often overstate their case, but their major contribution was to stress the contingency of modern nation-states and the modern manifestations of nationalism — not that they are totally arbitrary constructions invented whole-cloth in a single generation. [*] It’s about arguing against the inevitability of the configuration we see today. We know the core of the Byzantine empire was Greek-speaking and Orthodox Christian. But there’s a kind of survivorship bias — because the modern state of Greece is the evolved remnant of a larger Hellenistic world, we tend to think of a continuously existing core Greek identity. Yet change just a few variables and you might have had several “Greek” states in analogy with the “Roman” states of Italy, Spain, France and Romania. In the reverse direction we might imagine many fewer Arab republics than the membership roster of the Arab League.

 [*] Not the nation-state in the abstract, but particular “actually existed” nation-states.

Now, maybe some nation-states we see today are more likely to have emerged than others, because of deeper reasons like geography, early adoption of agriculture, early state formation, linguistic consolidation, etc. Gat comes close to arguing that the division of French Indochina into those three particular ethnolinguistic states was inevitable, as opposed to Indonesia. China certainly looks more inevitable than Norway, but that could be a failure of imagination.

A key premise of modernists is, there was a persistent cultural gulf between the elites and the masses before modern times. Modern Greek nationalists have dug up many instances where Byzantine writers referred to themselves not simply as Romaioi (as we learn from the modern historiography of the Byzantine empire), but also Graikoi and Hellenes. I think those are thin, but let’s grant that — after all, many of the Byzantine elites were steeped in the pagan classics especially after paganism was long dead and hardly a threat. But did such feelings of ancient cultural unity and continuity exist, say, amongst the peasantry of the Cappadocian theme in the 10th century ? Gat points out there’s almost no evidence about the self-conception of the masses from premodern times. So what does he do ? He goes on to argue that the masses did have a self-conception roughly congruent with that of the elites.

Gat anticipates the “elite versus masses” distinction and the “customary objections to the common-sense proposition that Egypt was a national state” by focusing on religion, customs & ritual. But did that really a create a subjective sense of national identity in pre-modern times ? Despite the reams of facts presented, that’s far from demonstrated by Gat. Take the Greek war of independence. He points out, correctly, that the peasantry played a crucial role in independence ; and their awareness of themselves as Christians is part and parcel of modern Greek identity, even if the elites were motivated by more abstract European ideals. Sure, but then, why didn’t the Greeks revolt earlier ? Basically Gat’s answer is, they did ! So he recasts pre-modern wars, like the Serb rebellions against the Ottomans, as having a fundamentally nationalistic character defined around religion. The Taiping rebellion has been deemed a nationalist rebellion by modern historiography for some time now, but was the Red Turban Rebellion also a nationalist reaction, like the Indonesian war of independece from the Dutch ? Gat doesn’t reference the Red Turban rebellion by name, but I think his answer would be yes.

I don’t see the difference between modernists and Gat as empirical. I see it as ideological and axiomatic. Gat presents many broad facts and reinterprets them in the light of his thesis.

The modernists like Hobsbawm and Anderson talk endlessly about the role of mass compulsory education and the enforcement of a national langauge. Their greatest validation is that almost all non-western societies belatedly followed the western model of mass linguistic unification. Now I call that a “western model” only because of where it happened first, not because there is anything uniquely western about it. A striking feature of modern European societies is they became less diglossic earlier than non-western societies. In 1900 the gulf between the classical Chinese of the mandarins and the vernaculars was pretty vast.

And we know from the recent experience of non-western states most of them placed great emphasis on the standard language, sometimes to the point of suppressing dialects & regional languages. The Chinese do not actively suppress, but they make a big show of insisting Cantonese, Shanghainese et al. are dialects not languages. (Not to mention, what other country that size has a single time zone ?) The Arabs have this extraordinary attachment to “Modern Standard Arabic” even though it’s only acquired at school (and not even the same as Qur’anic Arabic), much like westerners acquire Latin. The subordinate place of the numerous vernaculars is seldom questioned. Pakistan is frequently cited as a failed state but it has had much better success in making the Urdu variant of Hindustani a national language, which is non-native to at least 90% of the Pakistani population, than India has had with its variant of Hindustani. (*) The Turks purged Ottoman Turkish to the point that no Turk can read it without highly specialised training ; and of course they ruthlessly stamped out everything else. The Indonesians, by contrast, adopted a divergent dialect of Malay instead of the dominant Javanese. The Greeks were arguing into the 1960s what kind of language (the faux-classical Katharevousa or the more “natural” Demotic) they should be learning at school !

The point here is not who succeeded at what and how and why. The point is the centrality of the language issue in the “national question” of so many disparate non-western countries. So why that centrality, if the “western” model of language assimilation & unification were mere eurocentric misextrapolation ? (Gat talks a lot about languages but frankly I don’t get what his point is. The artificial standard language did spread in pre-modern times, but the masses never learnt it until very recently.)

EDIT : (*) This was a casual comment. Yes, Pakistan inherently had an easier time of making Urdu the national language than India had of it with Hindi. See comments section.

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7 Responses to Azar Gat’s Nations

  1. Whyvert says:

    I agree that lots of nations are quite contingent. But I don’t see this as pro-modernist. Why must an anti-modernist think that it was inevitable that Austria become a nation?

    A Dutch nation exists, but given some reasonably probable counterfactual conditions in the Renaissance-Reformation era, the Netherlands might have become Deutsch rather than Dutch.

    But it was near-inevitable that there would not be a Franco-German nation stretching from the Pyrenees to the Elbe. There was of course a state that ruled that zone, but even had it survived I doubt it would have turned into a nation-state. Nations have ethnic origins.

    I do not see the modernist versus anti-modernist dispute as being about the contingency or inevitability of particular nations. It is about continuity versus discontinuity, also about the roots of nationhood and the importance of ethnicity.

    Religious nationalists may well think of their nations as existing through divine providence. But that’s a different story.

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  2. I did not realise there was a “modernist versus anti-modernist dispute” at all. I just thought it was Gat mostly arguing against something the modernists were not really arguing. But that’s okay, strawmen have a valuable place in book writing.

    But it was near-inevitable that there would not be a Franco-German nation stretching from the Pyrenees to the Elbe

    Well, contingent doesn’t mean anything is possible, so it’s difficult to imagine an already-formed France being merged with Germany.

    But in an alternate universe it would be conceivable to have a separate ethnostate linking Provence/Pays d’Oc, Gascony, Savoy plus Liguria and Piedmont from Italy, with no Romance element at all in what is today northern France plus Belgium. That might have been more Celtic in the northwest and more Germanic in the northeast.

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  3. Whyvert says:

    I also agree with what you say about mass education and attempts to enforce a standard language. This does highlight something distinctive about modernity. Nation-building as a conscious project is now far more widespread, oftentimes as part of catch-up modernization. It does not always succeed though.

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  4. Whyvert says:

    Have a good holiday! I’m also off in Aug, and now pondering what reading matter to take. I haven’t yet read The Son Also Rises, but not sure how readable it is.

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  5. Vijay says:

    “Pakistan is frequently cited as a failed state but it has had much better success in making the Urdu variant of Hindustani a national language, which is non-native to at least 90% of the Pakistani population, than India has had with its variant of Hindustani. ”

    I see these comparisons in literature all the time, but they are not valid. It is easier to view India as an EU or a subcontinent with several population an linguistic groups. It i much more easier for a Naga, Manipuri or Tamil to learn English than Hindi, because of script differences and cultural differences. In a sense, Pakistan is like the Hindi belt or an agglomeration of a few states of India. If India had been the cow belt (UP, MP, Bihar and Rajasthan), there would have been no issue making Hindi a national language. Since the country extends much more than a fe cow belt states, there as never a goal to make a national language, but Hindi was more a first among equals. Again, a EU perspective helps; if English were to be made a EU “national” language, the Poles and Spanish will howl; however, English is the defacto first language, and in Holland and Germany, the transplants speak English.

    However, the centrality of a language to the nationhood is not being questioned. India has a duality in this aspect: English is the language of work, commerce an modernity; Hindi is a language for the hoi-polloi. However, the suffering of the nation is not due to the lack of common language; the states in India with the best claim of common language are the poorest.

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  6. yes razib made the same observation and I agreed with him over there that the indo-aryan cohesion of pakistan aka punjabistan and lack of major dravidian languages with any literary traditions made a big difference. I should have clarified that remark with an asterisk because it wasn’t really my point to compare successes of India and Pakistan in the national language realm. after all Pakistan totally failed to make any headway with Urdu in Bangladesh before 1971 which is understandable given the extreme pride of the Bengali in his language and culture.

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  7. FredR says:

    “I don’t see the difference between modernists and Gat as empirical. I see it as ideological and axiomatic. ”

    It’s political. As Gat points out in the beginning of the book, modernist nationalism theory was developed by diaspora Jews, often after they had been displaced a few times. Gat, on the other hand, is Israeli.

    A much more interesting book on these themes is Anthony Smith’s “The Ethnic Origin of Nations.” Gat strikes me as very superficial compared to Smith.

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