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Political Theory in the Age of Nationalism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 September 2012


In this essay Seth argues that it is not the case that international relations theory has suffered because domestic theory has prospered, but rather that both bear the marks of a signal failure to grasp the implications of, and to theorize adequately about, nationalism. She argues further that this failure is partly rooted in the phenomenon of nationalism itself, for it encapsulates many of the tensions and contradictions of modern thought. Finally, she suggests that the transformation of the international system from a system of states to a system of nation-states has had profound consequences for international relations, consequences not fully grasped in international relations theory.

Copyright © Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs 1993

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1 Martin Wight in Butterfield, Herbert and Wight, Martin, eds., Diplomatic Investigations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968), 21Google Scholar.

2 Speech to the convention on April 24, 1793, quoted in Thompson, James Matthew, Robespierre, Vol. II (New York: Howard Fertig, 1968), 41.Google Scholar

3 These two articles appear as Numbers 34 and 37 in the alternative Declaration of Rights drafted by Robespierre and read to the convention on April 24, 1793 (See Ibid.). Robespierre did not succeed in having these clauses incorporated into the Jacobin-inspired Declaration and Constitution adopted on June 24, 1793.Google Scholar

4 Quoted in Gauthier, F., “Universal Rights and National Interest in the French Revolution,” in Dann, Otto and Dinwiddy, J.R., eds., Nationalism in the Age of the French Revolution (London and Ronceverte: Hambledon Press, 1988), 31Google Scholar.

5 Ibid., 30. Or was François Robert not more in tune with the nationalism of the Revolution when he urged his countrymen to “forget the universe,” for Frenchmen had become free precisely in order to “love the motherland” (Quoted in Clive Emsley, “Nationalist Rhetoric and Nationalist sentiment in Revolutionary France,”ibid., 43).Google Scholar

6 On theocratic kingship, see Ullmann, Walter, Principles of Government and Politics in the Middle Ages, 2nd ed. (London: Methuen, 1966), part II.Google Scholar

7 See Sir Filmer, Robert, “Patriarcha,” in Laslett, Peter, ed., Patriarcha and Other Political Works (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1949), esp. sees. III and IV.Google Scholar

8 Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan, ed. Macpherson, Crawford Brough (New York: Penguin, 1981), 602.Google Scholar

9 For Hobbes, of course, the Church lacked absolute authority even over spiritual matters (Ibid., 602, 525).Google Scholar

10 Ibid., 187–88.Google Scholar

11 One reason given for this was that the international state of nature was not destructive of civilized life in the same way as the “domestic” state of nature (See ibid., 188).Google Scholar

12 Locke, John, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Laslett, Peter (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, “Second Treatise,” sec. 128, p. 352; sec. 6, p. 271; sec. 128, p. 352; sec. 14, p. 276.

13 Pateman, Carole, The Problem of Political Obligation (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1979), 13Google Scholar.

14 If space allowed, the same could be shown, I believe, for the Enlightenment. George D. O'Brien, for instance, concludes, “Given the view of a common, intuitable human nature, Enlightenment politics can give no satisfactory account for the plurality of states.” In the Enlightenment view the only explanation for such plurality was “irrationalism”—loyalty to dynasties, outmoded religions, foolish customs (George D. O'Brien, Hegel on Reason and History: A Contemporary Interpretation [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975], 113).Google Scholar

15 Sir Filmer, Robert, “The Anarchy of a Limited or Mixed Monarchy,” in Filmer, “Patriarcha,” 285.Google Scholar

16 Ernst Renan, “What is a Nation?” (1882), in Zimmem, Alfred, ed., Modern Political Doctrines (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939), 203Google Scholar; Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verson, 1983Google Scholar).

17 Here I am paraphrasing from Kamenka, Eugene, “Political Nationalism—The Evolution of the Idea,” in Kamenka, Eugene, ed., Nationalism: The Nature and Evolution of an Idea (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1975), 14Google Scholar.

18 Mill, John Stuart, “Considerations on Representative Government” (1861), in Utilitarianism, On Liberty and Considerations on Representative Government, ed. Acton, H.B. (London and Melbourne: Dent, 1972), 393.Google Scholar

19 Ibid., 392. The reason for this, Mill goes on to say, is that “Free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities. Among a people without fellow-feeling, especially if they read and speak different languages, the united public opinion, necessary to the working of representative government, cannot exist.”.Google Scholar

20 Acton, Lord, “Nationality” (1862), in his Essays in the Liberal Interpretation of History: Selected Papers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 150.Google Scholar

21 Ibid., 158.Google Scholar

22 At one point Kedourie writes that nationalism “ultimately becomes a rejection of life, and a love of death…” (Elie Kedourie, Nationalism, 3rd ed. [London: Hutchinson University Library, 1966], 87).Google Scholar

23 Dunn, John, Western Political Theory in the Face of the Future (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 55, 6162.Google Scholar

24 Plamenatz, John, “Two Types of Nationalism,” in Kamenka, , Nationalism, 36.Google Scholar

25 Kohn, Hans, The Idea of Nationalism (New York: Macmillan Press, 1945), 330Google Scholar.

26 Plamenatz, “Two Types of Nationalism,” 33–34. Somewhat different categorizations include Carl ton Hayes, J., The Historical Evolution of Modern Nationalism (New York: Russell and Russell, 1968)Google Scholar, and Cobban, Alfred, The Nation State and National Self-Determination, rev. ed. (1969; New York: Crowell 1970).Google Scholar

27 For an interesting and critical discussion of this way of proceeding, see Chatterjee, Partha, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World (London: Zed Books, 1986), chap. 1.Google Scholar

28 Mazzini, Giuseppe (1805–72), The Duties of Man and Other Essays (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1961), 41Google Scholar.

29 Kamenka, Nationalism, 20.Google Scholar

30 Renan, , “What is a Nation,” 190Google Scholar.

31 Nairn, Tom, “The Modern Janus,” in Nairn, Tom, The Break-up of Britain, 2nd ed. (London: Verso, 1981), 348.Google Scholar

32 For my discussion of a rationalist and historicist nationalism's appeal to essentialism, see Seth, Sanjay, “Nationalism, National Identity and ‘History’: Nehru's Search for India,” Thesis Eleven 32 (1992)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 Cited in Marx, Karl, The Revolutions of 1848, ed. Fernbach, David (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), 78.Google Scholar Marx and Engels go on to say that “the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself as the nation,” although, they immediately add, “not in the bourgeois sense of the word” (p. 84).

34 Hobsbawm, Eric J., “Marx, Engels and Politics,” in Hobsbawm, Eric J., ed., The History of Marxism, Vol. 1 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), 249.Google Scholar For useful works on Marx and Engels's views on the national question, see Bloom, Solomon, A World of Nations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1941Google Scholar); Cummins, Ian, Marx, Engels and National Movements (London: Croom Helm, 1980)Google Scholar; Davis, H.B., Nationalism and Socialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1967)Google Scholar; and Rozdolsky, Roman, Engels and the ‘Nonhistoric’ People: The National Question in the Revolutions of 1848 (Glasgow: Critique, 1986Google Scholar).

35 For the theoretical reformulations undertaken by Lenin in this area and their political implications, see Seth, Sanjay, “Lenin's Reformulation of Marxism: The Colonial Question as a National Question,” History of Political Thought 13 (Spring 1992)Google Scholar.

36 Hobsbawm, Eric J., “Some Reflections on ‘The Break-up of Britain,’New Left Review, No. 105 (Sept-Oct. 1977), 13.Google Scholar

37 Nairn writes, “The theory of nationalism represents Marxism's great historical failure” (“The Modern Janus,” 329). Similarly, see Poulantzas, Nicos, State, Power, Socialism (London: NLB, 1978), 93Google Scholar.

38 Mayall, James, Nationalism and International Society (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 45CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

39 Walzer, Michael, Just and Unjust Wars (New York: Basic Books, 1977), 254Google Scholar.

40 Luban, David, “The Romance of the Nation-State,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 9 (Summer 1980), 396Google Scholar.

41 Luban views it as a conflict between universalism and particularism. He declares that what is “disturbing” about Walzer's argument “is its acceptance of the premises of nationalism”; in Luban's view, “Nationalism may have originated as ideology of liberation and tolerance; in our century it is drenched in blood. What Mazzini began, II Duce ended” (Ibid., 393).Google Scholar

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