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World: Scholar Explains Diversities Of Nationalism

  • Charles Fenyvesi



Washington, 7 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- There are almost as many definitions of what a nation is as there are examples of nations around the world, according to British academician Paul Gilbert. And consequently, he argued, there are almost as many definitions of movements based on such communities as there are nationalist movements.

Because of this enormous diversity of definitions, Gilbert says in his new book, "The Philosophy of Nationalism," there is an enormous confusion about just what nations and nationalism are. And his book represents an effort to catalogue and classify the various definitions that have been offered by scholars and political leaders up to now.

The University of Hull (in Great Britain) professor begins with the eighteenth century German philosopher Johann von Herder, who argued that a nation is "the most natural state" -- a kind of extended family -- and that any political organization larger or smaller than that family is inherently "unnatural."

While most modern definitions acknowledge Herder's view, Gilbert suggests that this "naturalistic conception" of the nation is only one of the possible definitions. More than that, Gilbert says, this definition suffers from a fundamental flaw.

As he points out, "a nation as conceived by naturalists can exist even if its members do not think that it exists," a situation that reeks of the idea of false consciousness and allows political groups to manipulate people toward their own ends.

Other theorists of nationhood, Gilbert points out, focus on the consciousness of the people as a critical defining element. The French writer Ernst Renan, for example, argued that "the existence of a nation is a daily plebiscite," a continuing discussion as to whether the particular community exists or not.

Renan's ideas contributed to an entire school of thought which Gilbert labels "voluntarist." According to Gilbert, that school holds that nations arise and remain in existence when this is "desired" by their members. And as he notes, the reverse is also true: when that desire "evaporates," then "the nation perishes."

Until recently, Gilbert notes, most theorists of the nation have focused on the ethnic dimension, on the sense that the nation was an extended or imagined community in much the sense that Herder originally defined it.

But recently, they have devoted ever more attention to another kind of nation and another kind of nationalism: the civic nation and the civic nationalism on which it is based.

A civic nation, Gilbert says, consists of people bound together not by imaginary or real blood ties but because of a common commitment to certain values. And civic nationalism is thus any set of ideas or a movement that promotes such ties.

Because nations and nationalisms are so varied, Gilbert argues, many of the debates about them are never really joined. Without recognizing the situation, advocates of one kind talk past advocates of others, and consequently, the understanding of each for the other is almost always weak.

Only by acknowledging just how diverse these things are, Gilbert concludes, can both observers and participants hope to gain the understanding they need to protect the human communities that form of the basis of most states and movements today.

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