Year XXXVII, 1995, Number 1 - Page 62

 

 

THE NATIONAL IDEA*
 
MARIO ALBERTINI
 
 
Premise.
 
It is commonly held that people can change their political convictions but not their nation. Mankind is conceived of as being divided up into a collection of nations that are separated by fundamental differences; and these differences are felt to be insuperable. In this perspective the nation appears as the necessary basis of the state, so much so that it becomes no longer possible to imagine the existence of a multinational state.
This conviction naturally does not prevent the establishment of relations between people of different countries; indeed, progress intensifies such relations every day. Yet if national differences were insuperable, these relations would be destined to remain continuously at the mercy of the ups and downs of international politics: peace would be eternally precarious, international trade uncertain, economic unions transitory, alliances reversible, and unions between states impossible.
And yet, if we seek to identify these differences by observing the actual situation without pre-conceived ideas, we become conscious of the fact that French Rhinelanders and German Rhinelanders, the northern Lombards and the people of Tessin, the inhabitants of Turin and Lyons, are much more similar to each other than are the inhabitants of Turin and Palermo, French Rhinelanders and the people of Marseilles, German Rhinelanders and Prussians, and so on. What does this mean? The fact remains that all the characteristics that are typically identified as signs or causes of the existence of a national group do not in practice explain nations at all. The characteristics most often talked about are: race, language, religion, territory, the state, history, custom and traditions.
 
Current Theories of the Nation.
 
The linking of the nation with race represents perhaps the most common attempt to explain nations (despite the discredit into which racism has fallen nowadays); so much so that the majority of dictionaries define the word “nation” directly with the word “race”, or with the word “breed”, which in turn is itself defined by the word “race”. It is not worth wasting much time to demonstrate the falseness of this linkage. It is sufficient to recall that: 1) in as much as it is possible to isolate rough groups of people with common exterior physical characteristics, it emerges that these groups do not in any way coincide with modem nations; 2) it is even more doubtful that it is possible to define racial groups genetically either; 3) it is scientifically proven that there exists no fixed relationship between people’s physiological characteristics and their psychological ones.
Language, in turn, does not explain national realities, since there exist multi-lingual nations (such as Switzerland, Belgium, Canada) and languages that are spoken in various nations (such as English, Spanish, etc.). On the other hand, even seemingly mono-linguistic nations were not so originally, and often in practice are not so even now: the “national” language was diffused over the whole territory only in the wake of the impact of the political authority through the state’s schools and the bureaucracy. This is what happened in France, on whose territory at least three languages were spoken in addition to French prior to the revolution (Langue d’Oc, Basque, Breton); as well as in Italy, where until a century ago Italian was exclusively a literary language that existed in addition to the regional dialects.
The same argument holds for religion. There exist nations, such as Germany, in which more than one religion is professed, as well as religions, such as Catholicism, that are professed in more than one nation. And where all the members of a nation profess the same religion, not infrequently (as in France) religious unity was obtained through the driving out or intimidation of minorities.
The same can be said for the territory and for the state. The territories and states that took on national characteristics at a certain stage of their development, have never kept the same dimensions through the course of history, but have been ceaselessly modified according to the vagaries of international politics, until assuming their current proportions. And the wars, conquests, treaties, and mergers that led to their current dimensions were certainly not determined by national requirements, but rather by the play of monarchs’ dynastic interests, and by political and strategic needs.
Customs and traditions are also not uniform within nations; indeed, as pointed out above, in general there exist differences within nations that are much more noteworthy than those that exist between neighbouring regions of different nations. Lastly, history does not explain nations (if not in the general sense in which history explains everything): it does not explain them if history is taken to mean political history, since in this way history is in effect reduced to the state and should be subject to the same criticism; it does not explain them if history is taken to mean the history of custom and traditions, for the same reasons that custom and traditions are erroneous discriminating criteria.
Finally, there has been a desire to discover the basis of the nation in the willingness to live together, in the “plebiscite of every day” (Renan). In this regard, it is important to note that this idea does not serve as an explanation until the “how” of this co-existence is specified. And specifying the “how” simply means defining the nation; hence even this formulation leaves the problem unresolved.
 
The Origin of National Behaviour.
 
What then are nations? In other words, what lies behind the idea that mankind is constitutionally divided up into wholly separate groups? The nation tends to be explained through race, language, custom, and so on, as noted above, and it is now clear that such representations are theoretically inadequate. But what reality, albeit in a deformed way, are such symbols supposed to represent? The nation can not be anything but this.
The reality that is aimed at through national language is generically composed of: a) the fact that a great number of behaviours, regarding almost all spheres of human experience, are held to contain, alongside their specific motivation, a second motivation, that of the reference to “France”, to “Germany”, to “Italy” and so on. This may seem abstract, but one example is sufficient to clarify it. Germans in Germany, or the French in France, etc., finding themselves faced with an artistic monument or a beautiful landscape, think: “How beautiful Germany is!” It goes without saying that the beauty of nature or art is not a species of the “German” aesthetic genre, which in fact does not exist, but rather of the Gothic, Roman, mountainous, and lacustrine genres instead. This demonstrates precisely that to the specific motivation of aesthetic behaviour has been added another: that of loyalty, or at least reference, to “Germany”; b) the group that emerges out of the fact that these behaviours, being commonly referred to, are thereby connected among themselves.
These considerations are sufficient to demonstrate that all this did not exist in the Middle Ages. Agricultural societies, typical of that age, did not even present, except for a very restricted elite, behaviours of a size equal to those of the current nations (that is, complementary and interdependent to the same extent). The lives of about 90 per cent of the population were carried out almost exclusively within the framework of small territorial units, beyond which concrete, stable and direct social relationships did not exist. As a result, those who think that the European nations existed, at least virtually, even in the Middle Ages, are not taking into account the fact that the populations that were settled on the territories corresponding to those of the current nations, even if in part they were to be found at times under the same king, were in reality divided socially by practically impassable territorial barriers, and were therefore unable to experience, even in an embryonic way, forms of integration that did not exist and were not in prospect.
These barriers began to fall with the beginning of the industrial revolution, that is with the qualitative transformation and irresistible expansion of the mercantile sector of agricultural societies (the introduction of the steam engine and mechanised looms, etc.). Where production took on this industrial character, economic behaviour rapidly acquired a size equal to the current European nations. And not only economic behaviour. There is no economic act that is not also legal, administrative, social, political, and so on. As a result, an ever growing number of issues, even in the sphere of political affairs, acquired the reference to the national dimension, and were therefore connected among themselves, differently according to the various characteristics of different situations.
 
The Nature of National Behaviour.
 
So far only the socio-historical phenomena underlying the development not only of nationalism, but also of the modem state and its liberal, democratic and socialist components, have been highlighted. What is specifically intended by national language manifested itself when and where not only economic, legal and political behaviour, but also behaviour comprising the intimate feelings of personality and of the fundamental affinity of groups acquired the reference to the modem state, and hence a second motivation.
This situation profoundly altered the social make-up which Europeans had been used to for a number of centuries. The frameworks of supreme political power and ordinary life, that had ceased to coincide for the vast majority of the population since the end of the city-state, were reunited. This is also evidenced by the fact that nascent nations employed the patriotic terminology typical of Greek and Jewish patriotism, including its application of religious terms to political life (altar of the fatherland, sacred borders, martyrs of the fatherland, and so on, as if each people had its own god).
There nevertheless exists an enormous difference between the Greek, Jewish and similar “national” experiences and modem ones. The former, given their small size, which made possible a large number of personal relationships among the group’s members, were maintained even when they were not sustained by a political power. Furthermore, the fact that religion and politics did not yet differ meant that there was practically nothing else beyond this network of quasi-personal relationships in which to participate on a daily basis. In this way, through being born in a city-state, the genuine sentiment of one’s own personality and of one’s own group bond (nationality in the etymological sense, which we will call spontaneous nationality) was effectively acquired, due to the sole fact of being born there.
The latter though, given their large size which comprehensively prevents the establishment of personal relationships, have created through the political power the sentiments of national personality and the national bond, but in a totally artificial and coercive way. In practice, the current large European nations are the result of the forced diffusion by the state to all their citizens of the language of a spontaneous nationality that previously existed within its structure (the langue d’oïl for France, Tuscan for Italy, and so on), and of the imposition of the idea, even if not of the whole reality, of the existence of a single custom.
 
What Nations are.
 
Two remaining questions need to be answered in order properly to define the nation and the nation-state:
1) How is it that these fusions were carried out in the states of continental Europe and not in Great Britain? The fact is that: a) in Great Britain, economic, legal and political affairs have been linked to the state, but not those comprising personality and fundamental group sentiments; b) notwithstanding the existence of a British patriotism, the Scots, Welsh and English consider themselves to belong to the Scottish, Welsh and English nations respectively; c) for this reason, Britons still make a distinction, albeit imperfectly, between the nation and the state. In other words, how can nations have been comprehensively established on the continent, but not in Great Britain?
The fact is that the European states system forced continental states to centralise, but did not promote this development in Great Britain. And the centralised state could not exist without creating the idea of a group that was as homogeneous as power was concentrated. Moreover, the means were available: state schools, universal military drafts, grand public rituals, the imposition on all cities, however different, of the same administrative systems and of supervision by the central authority, and so on. For this reason, the basis of modern nations was established in the economic sphere by the first stages of the industrial revolution, and in the political sphere by the centralised type of bureaucratic state.
2) Why was the state conceived of with the deforming symbols of the national idea, and not with the concept, which corresponded to the actual situation, of a certain type of political community? The fact is that every power situation is conceived of by individuals who experience it not through images that mirror reality, but through representations that are deformed by political prejudices and passions, namely ideologies.
It is sufficient to consider the fact that in centralised bureaucratic states, the protagonists of continuous and terrible wars, there existed not only a grand confluence of individually significant interests (economic, political, etc.), but also a military situation that forcefully constrained all citizens even during periods of peace, and that in war-time educated them en masse to fulfil the duty of killing and risking to die, not for the defence of their own individual liberties but for the group conceived of as a supernatural entity, and to the belief that this group had to be thought of as a separate reality, as being superior to individuals, and as being natural, sacred, eternal and so on.
At this point it becomes possible to state that the nation is, in a specific sense, the ideology of the centralised bureaucratic state. Given this ideological character, what counts in the national idea more than the representative content, which varies according to the situation, is the fact that without fail the national idea always refers to a centralised bureaucratic state.
 
The Overcoming of Nations.
 
The same factor that created the preconditions for the nations will destroy them. It has been noted that the industrial revolution influenced the dimension of economic affairs, to the extent that it constantly tended to broaden them. In the US, where state barriers did not exist, economic matters assumed a continental dimension long ago. In Europe they are currently taking on continental proportions. It goes without saying that this will give rise to the formation of a people and to the destruction of the exclusive sovereignty of the old nation-states. And, since the evolution of production is unstoppable, this will also come to pass in other continents, and will finish by going beyond continental dimensions, until the unification of mankind is achieved.
Nevertheless, while the nations will come to be destroyed in this way, what we have termed “spontaneous nationality” will not however be destroyed. The nations, being only the ideological reflection of the centralised bureaucratic state, will not survive its demise. Yet the “spontaneous nationalities” that depend on the spontaneity of custom (territorial “spontaneous nationality”) and of culture (cultural “spontaneous nationality”) will survive. Dante, Descartes, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Kant, and Dostoevsky were not created by the political power and no political power will be able to destroy them.


*This article was published in French in Le Fédéraliste, VII (1965).

 

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