Four Phases of Nationalism

The tendency for the velocities of outward change and inward transformation to be out of phase with one another is clearly enough demonstrated in the general history of decolonization.

If, keeping all the limitations of periodization in mind, one divides that history into four major phases--that in which the nationalist movements formed and crystallized; that in which they triumphed; that in which they organized themselves into states; and that (the present one) in which, organized into states, they find themselves obliged to define and stabilize their relationships both to other states and to the irregular societies out of which they arose--this incongruence comes plainly into view. The most obvious changes, those which caught and held the attention of the entire world, occurred in the second and third of these phases. But the bulk of the more far-reaching changes, those altering the general shape and direction of social evolution, occurred or are occurring in the less spectacular first and fourth

The first, formative stage of nationalism consisted essentially of confronting the dense assemblage of cultural, racial, local, and linguistic categories of self-identification and social loyalty that centuries of uninstructed history had produced with a simple, abstract, deliberately constructed, and almost painfully self-conscious concept of political ethnicity--a proper "nationality" in the modern manner. The granular images into which individuals' views of who they are and who they aren't are so intensely bound in traditional society, were challenged by the more general, vaguer, but no less charged conceptions of collective identity, based on a diffuse sense of common destiny, that tend to characterize industrialized states. The men who raised this challenge, the nationalist intellectuals, were thus launching a revolution as much cultural, even epistemological, as it was political. They were attempting to transform the symbolic framework through which people experienced social reality, and thus, to the extent that life is what we make of it all, that reality itself.

That this effort to revise the frames of self-perception was an uphill battle, that in most places it was hardly more than just begun, and that in all it remained confused and incomplete goes without saying--or would, had not the contrary so often been asserted. Indeed, the very success of the independence movements in rousing the enthusiasm of the masses and directing it against foreign domination tended to obscure the frailty and narrowness of the cultural foundations upon which those movements rested, because it led to the notion that anticolonialism and collective redefinition are the same thing. But for all the intimacy (and complexity) of their interconnections, they are not. Most Tamils, Karens, Brahmins, Malays, Sikhs, Ibos, Muslims, Chinese, Nilotes, Bengalis, or Ashantis found it a good deal easier to grasp the idea that they were not Englishmen than that they were Indians, Burmese, Malayans, Ghanaians, Pakistanis, Nigerians, or Sudanese.

As the mass attack (more massive, and more violent, in some places than others) upon colonialism developed, it seemed to create, in and of itself, the basis of a new national identity that independence would merely ratify. The popular rallying behind a common, extremely specific political aim--an occurrence that surprised the nationalists nearly as much as it did the colonialists--was taken for a sign of a deeper solidarity, which produced by it would yet outlive it. Nationalism came to mean, purely and simply, the desire--and the demand--for freedom. Transforming a people's view of themselves, their society, and their culture--the sort of thing that absorbed Gandhi, Jinnah, Fanon, Sukarno, Senghor, and indeed all the bitter theorists of national awakening--was identified, to a large extent by some of these same men, with the access of such peoples to self-government. "Seek ye first the political kingdom"--the nationalists would make the state, and the state would make the nation.

The task of making the state turned out to be exacting enough to permit this illusion, indeed the whole moral atmosphere of the revolution, to be sustained for some time beyond the transfer of sovereignty. The degree to which this proved possible, necessary, or even advisable, varied widely from Indonesia or Ghana at one extreme to Malaysia or Tunisia at the other. But, with a few exceptions, by now all the new states have organized governments that maintain general dominion within their borders, and well or badly, function. And as government shakes down into some reasonably recognizable institutional form-party oligarchy, presidential autocracy, military dictatorship, reconditioned monarchism, or, very partially in the best of cases, representative democracy--it becomes less and less easy to avoid confronting the fact that to make Italy is not to make Italians. Once the political revolution is accomplished, and a state, if hardly consolidated, is at least established, the question: Who are we, who have done all this? re-emerges from the easy populism of the last years of decolonization and the first of independence.

Now that there is a local state rather than a mere dream of one, the task of nationalist ideologizing radically changes. It no longer consists in stimulating popular alienation from a foreign-dominated political order, nor with orchestrating a mass celebration of that order's demise. It consists in defining, or trying to define, a collective subject to whom the actions of the state can be internally connected, in creating, or trying to create, an experiential "we" from whose will the activities of government seem spontaneously to flow. And as such, it tends to revolve around the question of the content, relative weight, and proper relationship of two rather towering abstractions: "The Indigenous Way of Life" and "The Spirit of the Age."

To stress the first of these is to look to local mores, established institutions, and the unities of common experience--to "tradition," "culture," "national character," or even "race"--for the roots of a new identity. To stress the second is to look to the general outlines of the history of our time, and in particular to what one takes to be the overall direction and significance of that history. There is no new state in which both these themes (which, merely to have names for them, I shall call "essentialism" and "epochalism") are not present; few in which they are not thoroughly entangled with one another; and only a small, incompletely decolonized minority in which the tension between them is not invading every aspect of national life from language choice to foreign policy.

Language choice is, in fact, a good, even a paradigmatic, example. I cannot think of a new state in which this question has not in some form or other risen to the level of national policy.3 The intensity of the disturbance it has thereby generated, as well as the effectiveness with which it has been handled, varies quite widely; but for all the diversity of its expressions, the "language issue" turns precisely on the essentialism-epochalism dilemma.

For any speaker of it, a given language is at once either more or less his own or more or less someone else's, and either more or less cosmopolitan or more or less parochial--a borrowing or a heritage; a passport or a citadel. The question of whether, when, and for what purposes to use it is thus also the question of how far a people should form itself by the bent of its genius and how far by the demands of its times.

The tendency to approach the "language issue" from the linguistic standpoint, homemade or scientific, has somewhat obscured this fact. Most discussion, inside the new states and out, concerning the "suitability" of a given language for national use has suffered from the notion that this suitability turns on the inherent nature of the language--on the adequacy of its grammatical, lexical, or "cultural" resources to the expression of complex philosophical, scientific, political, or moral ideas. But what it really turns on is the relative importance of being able to give one's thoughts, however crude or subtle, the kind of force that speaking one's mother tongue permits as against being able to participate in movements of thought to which only "foreign," or in some cases "literary," languages can give access.

It doesn't matter therefore whether, in concrete form, the problem is the status of classical as against colloquial Arabic in Middle Eastern countries; the place of an "elite" Western language amid a collection of "tribal" languages in sub-Saharan Africa; the complex stratification of local, regional, national, and international languages in India or the Philippines; or the replacement of a European language of limited world significance by others of greater significance in Indonesia. The underlying issue is the same. It is not whether this or that language is "developed" or "capable of development"; it is whether this or that language is psychologically immediate and whether it is an avenue to the wider community of modern culture.

It is not because Swahili lacks a stable syntax or Arabic cannot build combining forms--dubious propositions in any case4 --that language problems are so prominent in the Third World: it is because, for the overwhelming majority of speakers of the overwhelming majority of languages in the new states, the two sides of this double question tend to work out inversely. What, from the ordinary speaker's view, is the natural vehicle of thought and feeling (and particularly in cases like Arabic, Hindi, Amharic, Khmer, or Javanese--the repository of an advanced religious, literary, and artistic tradition to boot) is, from the view of the main current of twentieth century civilization, virtually a patois. And what for that current are the established vehicles of its expression, are for that ordinary speaker at best but half-familiar languages of even less familiar peoples.5

Formulated this way, the "language problem" is only the "nationality problem" writ small, though in some places the conflicts arising from it are intense enough to make the relationship seem reversed. Generalized, the "who are we" question asks what cultural forms--what systems of meaningful symbols--to employ to give value and significance to the activities of the state, and by extension to the civil life of its citizens. Nationalist ideologies built out of symbolic forms drawn from local traditions--which are, that is, essentialist--tend, like vernaculars, to be psychologically immediate but socially isolating; built out of forms implicated in the general movement of contemporary history--that is, epochalist--they tend, like lingua francas, to be socially deprovincializing but psychologically forced.

However, rarely is such an ideology anywhere purely essentialist or purely epochalist. All are mixed and one can speak at best only of a bias in one direction or another, and often not even of that. Nehru's image of "India" was doubtless heavily epochalist, Gandhi's doubtless heavily essentialist; but the fact that the first was the disciple of the second and the second the patron of the first (and neither managed to convince all Indians that he was not, in the one case, a brown Englishman, or, in the other, a medieval reactionary) demonstrates that the relation between these two routes to self-discovery is a subtle and even paradoxical one. Indeed, the more ideologized new states--Indonesia, Ghana, Algeria, Egypt, Ceylon, and the like--have tended to be both intensely epochalist and intensely essentialist at the same time, whereas countries more purely essentialist like Somalia or Cambodia, or epochalist like Tunisia or the Philippines, have been rather the exceptions.

The tension between these two impulses--to move with the tide of the present and to hold to an inherited course--gives new state nationalism its peculiar air of being at once hell-bent toward modernity and morally outraged by its manifestations. There is a certain irrationality in this. But it is more than a collective derangement; it is a social cataclysm in the process of happening.