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Thursday, November 01, 2001

Book Reviews

Nationalism is Dead. Long Live Nationalism

The Necessary Nation by Gregory Jusdanis. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 261 pages, 2001, $55.00.

Nationalism is gradually regaining its respectability in the eyes of scholars and observers of current affairs. The Necessary Nation is a book that adds weight to the growing corpus of works that seeks to understand rather than merely demonize nationalist ideology.

An ideology that fascinated some of the sharpest minds of the nineteenth century, nationalism saw its status tumble in the twentieth century in the wake of the rise of fascism between the two world wars. After suffering academic denunciations in the post-1945 era, nationalism fell out fashion, as well as out of college and university curricula.

To be sure, the world remained divided into nation-states. But in a clear repudiation of the excessive emphasis on the glories of a single nation exploited by the dictators who caused the Second World War, nation-states gravitated toward bigger umbrellas. The United Nations tried to stress cooperation among nations and supported human rights rather than national rights. The developed world divided into Western and Eastern transnational alliances: NATO, the Warsaw Pact, the European Economic Community, COMECON.

Scholars followed suit. After a few trenchant repudiations of nationalism, they turned their attention to what seemed to be the emergence of a post-national world. One could barely find a book on nationalism in print in the 1960s and 1970s.

When nationalism re-appeared on academic screens in the early 1980s, it was in an emasculated form. First came UCLA historian Eugen Weber’s account of French nationalism between 1870 and 1914. A whole century after the French revolution, Weber wrote, nationalism had not really taken root in the French provinces. As lofty as its ideas were, nationalism had to be inculcated into the peasantry’s consciousness, a process he described as the transformation of “peasants into Frenchmen.”

Soon after Weber demythologized the purportedly inherent strength of nationalist doctrines and showed them to be a tool in the hands of the state, Cornell professor Benedict Anderson delivered an even stronger blow. Nationalism, he suggested, in what was to become an oft-repeated phrase, was an “imagined community,” in other words, a construct of people’s minds.

Within the academic world, Anderson’s slim volume finished off the job that Weber’s much bulkier study had begun. Nationalism was labeled a “construct,” an artificial concept located in people’s minds rather than in reality.

The real world thought otherwise, however. Less than a decade after Imagined Communities appeared in 1983, the collapse of Soviet-style socialism in eastern and central Europe was followed by a revival of nationalist sentiment – along with violence and ethnic cleansing.

Did the emperor have clothes, after all? Confronted with the realities in eastern Europe, academics, journalists, and newly minted “experts” turned their fire on “cultural nationalism,” the specific brand of nationalism supposedly indigenous to that part of the world. They blamed the culturally and ethnically defined nationalisms in the former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union for all the violence.

The dichotomy between “cultural” (or “ethnic”) and “civic” (or “political”) nationalism is an old one. It was German nineteenth-century thinker Friedrich Meinecke who first suggested that nationalism could be divided into two categories depending on its underlying principles. Cultural nationalism defined the nation according to cultural traits – descent, language, religion – and it appeared in central and eastern Europe, where the existence of multiethnic empires made national boundaries extremely hard to determine.

Civic nationalism, in contrast, was a more territorially based and thus politically oriented nationalism that embraced all inhabitants of a particular region. Clear borders meant less reliance on cultural distinctions. France and the United States were prime examples of countries where this brand of nationalism prevailed.

It took several years into the Yugoslav conflict for observers to raise doubts about the wholesale blame for it that was put on cultural nationalism, or to contest the view propounded by political scientist Samuel Huntington that what was occurring was a “clash of civilizations” between the civilized Western and the uncivilized Eastern worlds. Area specialists and reflective journalists who witnessed the Soviet and Yugoslav break-up at close hand countered with evidence showing that persons with base political motives were manipulating cultural nationalism. The violence was bred by political interests, and aided – but not caused – by nationalist beliefs in cultural differences. It was not culture; it was its political manipulation that caused the violence.

Gregory Jusdanis, professor of modern Greek at Ohio State University, offers his own defense of cultural nationalism. Princeton University Press exaggerates when it claims on the book’s jacket at that this is a “controversial” look at nationalism. This is not the first defense of cultural nationalism, although perhaps the publisher meant that it is the first of its kind from within the realm of “cultural studies,” the field that Jusdanis declares he inhabits (p. 67).

Jusdanis criticizes “culturalists” who consider national culture as something separate and unaffected by social dynamics, and he has harsh words for his colleagues in cultural studies who limit themselves to unproductive social criticism. In doing so, he lapses into rare flashes of jargon, in what is an eloquently written text, declaring that “in the hands of post-poststructuralists, culture becomes a hermeneutics of negation rather than a safety net against anomie.”

Jusdanis proposes a three-part thesis. First, nationalism can be a socially positive force and the nation “should be perceived as a positive institution in human society” (p. 4). Second, all nationalisms are by definition both political and cultural, or, in his words, “culture became political when it became national” (p. 6). Therefore, distinctions between good political nationalism and bad cultural nationalism are redundant.

Third, Jusdanis argues that the cultural aspects of nationalism are a necessary mechanism that helps all latecomer nations adapt to the strictures of modernity. This is because these cultural aspects reassure people at times of great shifting changes. As he puts it, cultural nationalism “allows elites in postcolonial and belated societies to understand their ‘backwardness’ as well as to try to overcome it.” Nationalism, he adds, “promotes modernization by reassuring the Volk that its way of life will survive because it, rather than the monarchy, the church, or the colonial ruler, now forms the life and structure of the state” (p. 10).

Of these three points, it is the extraordinarily insightful presentation of the third one regarding cultural nationalism and belatedness that makes this book well worth reading. This point is developed mostly in his fourth chapter, in which, for once, he uses mainly one country as an example, choosing Greece in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The starting-point is his suggestion that nationalism “begins” when people compare the relative standing of nations, and many specialists on Greece would agree that this perception is at the core of modern Greek life.

Jusdanis’s other main points, nationalism as a positive force and the defense and de-demonization of cultural nationalism, are ideas that several others have already developed. Nonetheless, his way of expressing those viewpoints are interesting. However, in regard to his remarks about globalism, and federalism as an ideal system that can accommodate contemporary nationalist and ethnic tensions, most readers will require more thorough explorations.

Readers are bound to be intrigued by this study, but whether or not they will be persuaded by its theses depends on whether they can keep up with the frenetic pace so common to works of cultural studies. There is constant geographical moving around and referencing of sources, along with seemingly inexhaustible name-dropping of theorists. All this is compounded by the author’s combination of theoretical and historical sources. His bibliography runs to an astonishing 32 pages.

Jusdanis uses history as a means of making concrete what otherwise would be the type of abstract “culturalist” treatment of nationalism he deplores (p. 70). Yet because his is a cultural-studies approach, aside from the chapter where he focuses mainly on Greece, all other chapters offer a dizzying array of brief examples taken from tens of countries all over the globe at different historical moments. It all makes for an excitingly fast-paced reconsideration of nationalism, but there is a risk of more traditionally minded readers suffering from intellectual motion sickness. Thus, rather than offering the final word, Jusdanis’s book functions as an invitation to think through and pursue further the rehabilitation of cultural nationalism.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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