Book Review: Les Grandes Theories du Nationalisme

Antoine Roger, a researcher at the Institute of Politics in Bordeaux, begins his admirable little book by declaring that “Le présent ouvrage vise à exposer et à mettre en ordre les principales interpretations du nationalisme” (“The work before you aims both to expose and to review in orderly fashion the principal interpretations of nationalism,” 1). In my opinion, M. Roger’s work has accomplished these aims, with a rare melding of pith and sophistication.

Roger follows his statement of the book’s aims with an acute observation:

Voici quelques années encore, il était rituel d’entamer une réflexion sur le nationalisme en déplorant la maigreur ou l’indigence des travaux théoriques disponibles. Ce temps n’est plus et c’est tout au contraire la profusion des sources disponibles qui frappe dès l’abord: le chercheur ou l’honnête homme qui souhaite décrypter tel ou tel mouvement nationaliste ne se meut plus désormais dans un désert conceptuel mais dans un véritable jungle.

Just a few years ago, there was a ritual of broaching discussions of nationalism by deploring the lack of theoretical works on the subject. Now, to the contrary, what strikes us is the overwhelming profusion of such works: the researcher or the curious soul who wishes to comprehend this or that nationalist movement no longer finds herself dying of thirst in a conceptual desert, rather, she must hack her way through a veritable jungle (1).

Roger himself hacks through the jungle in this fashion: he elaborates a “method of orientation” which will serve to “delimit the grand theoretic ensembles” and to “inscribe these into a logical framework.” Beyond simply “juxtaposing the various interpretations of nationalism,” Roger argues that the conscientious expositor “must focus on these interpretations’ complex relations of kinship” (1).

In elaborating his “method of orientation” for theories of nationalism, Roger challenges the dichotomy—largely created by Anglophone scholars—between “perennialist” and “modernist” theories of nationalism’s origins. In Roger’s view, this dyadic division is facile: he proposes instead that we conceive of theories of nationalism as arrayed along two axes: the first axis distributes the theories according to the degree of causal importance they ascribe to structural constraints (as opposed to individual agents’ intentions) in explaining the existence of nationalism; the second axis distributes the theories according to the degree to which they see nationalism as arising from mutually willed solidarity as opposed to domination by elites. To increase the analytic power of his typology, Roger turns from the determinants posited by theories of nationalism to also consider the forms that the theories posit nationalism as assuming. Roger argues that the major theories adopt one of two basic positions on this issue: some theories posit that every individual nationalism can only assume one form during any single period (Roger calls this the “monolithic” view), while others posit that during any single period a single nationalism may be riven by contestations of the form that the nationalism should adopt, contestations so sharply fought that no single form can be attributed to the one nationalism. To make the distinction clearer, Roger proposes to call those accounts of nationalism that take the monolithic view, “theories”; those that see contestation within particular nationalisms he proposes to call “logics.”

Roger schematizes his typology to improve comprehensibility. I will not reproduce the figure here, but if the left pole of the x-axis is taken to be the “strong structure” position, while the right pole is taken to be the “strong agent” position; and if the top of the y-axis is taken to be the “domination” position, while the bottom is taken to be the “solidarity” position; then we get a distribution in which “international Marxist perspectives” (such as those of Immanuel Wallerstein and Tom Nairn) are clustered on the upper far left; “internal Marxist perspectives” (Etienne Balibar) are clustered on the far left just above the x-axis; “primordialist theories” (Clifford Geertz) are on the far left just below the x-axis; and “sociobiological theories” are grouped in the lower far left. Just to the left of the y-axis, “logics of social emancipation” (Miroslav Hroch) are closest to the domination pole, while “logics of identity recycling” (Eric Hobsbawn) are just above the x-axis; beneath the x-axis, “logics of communication” (Karl Deutsch) are seen as less structuralist than “primordialist theories” and given to weaker views on solidarity than are “logics of homogenization” (Ernest Gellner). To the right of the y-axis, “logics of political redemption” (John Breuilly and Paul Brass) are seen as strongly domination-driven but only weakly agent-based, while “logics of political legitimation” (Liah Greenfeld) take a weak-domination, weak-agent, view. On the solidarity side of the weak agent-based column, “logics of cultural interaction” (Louis Dumont) take a weaker view of solidarity than do “logics of cultural reformation” (Anthony Smith). In the strong agent column, “theories of interests” (Nathan Glazer) stack up as strongly domination-driven, while “theories of identity competition” (Ronald Rogowski, Hudson Meadwell) take a weaker view of domination; on the other side of the x-axis, “theories of identity friction” (Walker Connor) take a weaker view of solidarity than do “diffusionist theories” (Hugh Seton-Watson, Hans Kohn, Elie Kedourie).

As the visually-minded reader will have noted, each of the “logics” is clustered close to the y-axis, thus avoiding the extremes of either agency or structure. In Roger’s view, to take an extreme position on this continuum is to necessarily take the “monolithic” view of nationalism that was discussed above. Because the “theories” are, according to Roger, mutually exclusive, while the “logics” may, he contends, in some cases be simultaneously employed, Roger devotes his expositions to the views of the authors of the “logics.”

The expositions of the “logics,” which take up most of the book, are serviceable and useful, so I shall not deal with them here, except to say that the elucidations of the views of Gellner and Hroch are particularly informative thanks to the use of several schemata. I should instead like to direct attention back to the master-typology, by which I think the book either stands or falls. In my view, it emphatically stands, as the typology of theories that Roger proposes is brilliantly clear, and a great help in clarifying the differences between the various theories of nationalism. I know of no other book that is as helpful in this regard.

I am, however, unconvinced by the claim that all theories which inhabit the extremes of the agent-structure divide necessarily take the view that every nationalism is “monolithic.” Prima facie, it would seem that there is nothing prohibiting the strong-agency view from positing that there might be differences among the agents over their best interests, which would thus lead to contestation over the form of the nationalism in question. And, even if Roger’s claim is true, it does not seem to me to be well-supported; nor are the relevant concepts defined as carefully as they might be. (What does it mean to say that a nationalism has a single form? We are not told.)

All this, however, is ancillary to the main point, which is that M. Roger has given us an excellent, indeed a brilliant, introduction to the grand theories of nationalism. It is unlikely that the book will be translated into English, but Anglophone teachers and students of nationalism could hardly do better than to get up enough French in order to employ its proposed typology. [Tom Donahue]