Anthony D. Smith
Nationalism and the Reconstruction of Nations


NOTE: Anthony D. Smith is one of most important contemporary scholars of nationalism. He is Editor-in-Chief of the scholarly journal Nations and Nationalism (Cambridge University Press) and is the author of many books on the subject including his "classic" The Ethnic Origins of Nations.


"Perhaps the central question in our understanding of nationalism is the role of the past in the creation of the present. This is certainly the area in which there have been the sharpest divisions between theorists of nationalism. Nationalists, perennialists, modernists and post-modernists have presented us with very different interpretations of that role. The manner in which they have viewed the place of ethnic history has largely determined their understanding of nations and nationalism today.

"For nationalists themselves, the role of the past is clear and unproblematic. The nation was always there, indeed it is part of the natural order, even when it was submerged in the hearts of its members. The task of the nationalist is simply to remind his or her compatriots of their glorious past, so that they can recreate and relive those glories.

"For perennialists, too, the nation is immemorial. National forms may change and particular nations may dissolve, but the identity of a nation is unchanging. Yet the nation is not part of any natural order, so one can choose one's nation, and later generations can build something new on their ancient ethnic foundations. The task of nationalism is to rediscover and appropriate a submerged past in order the better to build on it.

"For the modernist, in contrast, the past is largely irrelevant. The nation is a modern phenomenon, the product of nationalist ideologies, which themselves are the expression of modern, industrial society. The nationalist is free to use ethnic heritages, but nation-building can proceed without the aid of an ethnic past. Hence, nations are phenomena of a particular stage of history, and embedded in purely modern conditions.

"For the post-modernist, the past is more problematic. Though nations are modern and the product of modern cultural conditions, nationalists who want to disseminate the concept of the nation will make liberal use of elements from the ethnic past, where they appear to answer to present needs and preoccupations. The present creates the past in its own image. So modem nationalist intellectuals will freely select, invent and mix traditions in their quest for the imagined political community.

"None of these formulations seems to be satisfactory. History is no sweetshop in which its children may 'pick and mix'; but neither is it an unchanging essence or succession of superimposed strata. Nor can history be simply disregarded, as more than one nationalism has found to its cost. The challenge for scholars as well as nations is to represent the relationship of ethnic past to modem nation more accurately and convincingly.

"... nationalists have a vital role to play in the construction of nations, not as culinary artists or social engineers, but as political archaeologists rediscovering and reinterpreting the communal past in order to regenerate the community. Their task is indeed selective - they forget as well as remember the past - but to succeed in their task they must meet certain criteria. Their interpretations must be consonant not only with the ideological demands of nationalism, but also with the scientific evidence, popular resonance and patterning of particular ethnohistories. Episodes like the recovery of Hatsor and Masada, of the tomb of Tutankhamun, the legends of the Kalevala, and the ruins of Teotihuacan, have met these criteria and in different ways have come to underpin and define the sense of modern nationality in Israel, Egypt, Finland and Mexico. Yigal Yadin, Howard Carter, Elias Lonnrot and Manuel Gamio form essential links in the complex relationship between an active national present and an often ancient ethnic heritage, between the defining ethnic past and its modern nationalist authenticators and appropriators. In this continually renewed two-way relationship between ethnic past and nationalist present lies the secret of the nation's explosive energy and the awful power it exerts over its members."

Smith, Anthony D. "Gastronomy or geology? The role of nationalism in the reconstruction of nations." Nations and Nationalism 1, no. 1 (1994): 3-23. See pages 18-19.