Year XL, 1998, Number 2 - Page 108
The Theory of the Nation*
More than a hundred years ago, in his famous lecture, “What is a Nation?”, Ernest Renan observed that the idea of nation, “apparently clear,” is “easy to seriously misunderstand”. Even today the state of confusion clouding the literature on the nation has not substantially changed.
What is new is the fact that the tide of history is sweeping the nation-states away. In a world which every day is becoming more and more closely interdependent, the nation-states merely survive as a vestige of other times.
New forms of statehood and legitimacy of power, based on multinational and federal principles of political co-existence, are emerging and tending to replace the old, declining order of the nation-states.
If these tendencies are real, one may fairly claim that the time is ripe for a comprehensive understanding of the national reality. Indeed, systematic clarity of thought always comes at the end of a historical cycle. Hegel was right to consider the capacity to understand the contemporary world a premonitory sign of the approaching twilight of an era: “Philosophy… always comes on the scene too late… When philosophy paints its grey in grey, then has a shape of life grown old. By philosophy’s grey in grey it cannot be rejuvenated but only understood. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk”. In other words, if the national order has indeed run its course, its features are now becoming fully recognizable, because lit by twilight.
Yet the contemporary literature on the nation-state, if it has lost its former apologetic tone because of the exhaustion of its object, has not on the whole made perceptible progress towards defining and explaining the nature of the nation. The case of Eric Hobsbawm is emblematic: in his book, Nations and Nationalism since 1780, having stated that without some understanding of the concept of nation the last two centuries of history are incomprehensible, he then fails to define nation. “This book” he writes, “assumes no a priori definition of what constitutes a nation. As an initial working assumption any sufficiently large body of people whose members regard themselves as members of a ‘nation’, will be treated as such”. Throughout the book, Hobsbawm does not go beyond this first assumption, which in truth is scarcely very illuminating.
In what was to be his last interview on the national question, Albertini observes that “Hobsbawm symbolizes very well the literature on the nation, based on rigorous scientific criteria, but which somehow has always evaded the question: what is the nation? People study the nation as if it were a given, already known even before they start studying it. Whereas what has to be ascertained is precisely what is the nation, who controls it, by what title, and for what motive, or to ask oneself whether the nation is not simply the illusory representation of something else”. Because of the apparent incontestable evidence of a world organised into sovereign states, distinguished from each other on the basis of nationality, scholars tend to assume the existence of nations as an indisputable fact.
When a new political thinking asserts itself, it begins by contesting the established order. Its first task lies in identifying the essential features of the object it proposes to demolish. Mario Albertini’s contribution towards understanding the sense of contemporary history is bound up with the values linked to the current federative movement in Europe, which marks the end of the era of nationalism, begun with the French Revolution. From this viewpoint, and spurred by the political motivation to overcome the limitations of the nation-state, Albertini elaborated a new conceptual framework which cast light on hitherto unknown aspects of the national reality and gave a scientific basis to the critique of the idea of the nation.
Albertini’s essay on The Nation-State, which began to circulate in 1958 and was published in 1960, contains most of what we know (or should know) on this topic. The problem which Albertini tackled was that of identifying, within the broad category of the state-form, the typical aspects of the nation-state. The analytical method used by Albertini is the ideal type, proposed by Max Weber. It does not reproduce the entire reality of the nation-state (which would be impossible), but isolates, by a comparative process, some aspects “by one-sided accentuation of one or more points of view and by the synthesis of a great many diffuse, discrete, more or less present and occasionally absent concrete individual phenomena, which are arranged according to those one-sidedly emphasized viewpoints into a unified analytical construct”. The ideal type therefore constitutes a model which aims to impose order on the chaos of empirical data, identifying and explaining a specific historical and social reality.
The starting point in Albertini’s research was a critique of the objective criteria for defining the nation, such as race, language, religion, and so on, as in Renan’s above-quoted lecture, held at the Sorbonne in 1882. None of these criteria stands up to close empirical analysis.
One interpretation of the nation is based on the assumption of a natural bond, which can be framed into the idea of race. This assumption lacks any scientific basis. The only aim for which the idea of race has been (and continues to be) used is to justify discrimination, to feed racial hatred, and to create and maintain hostility between human groups. It is true that genetically transmitted biological characteristics are distributed along a continuous line in the various parts of the world, so that in each human group the prevalence of certain characteristics can be observed. However, the prevalent characteristics of a group gradually converge with those of contiguous groups, so that it is impossible to distinguish a particular group on the basis of distinct biological characteristics. On the other hand, genetics and anthropology have shown that mental characteristics are not directly determined by biological characteristics, while hereditary characteristics and the biological evolution of the human species are conditioned to a large extent by historical and social factors, i.e. by the sum of norms regulating reproduction and matrimony, which in turn depend on the productive system, on the structure of political organisation and on the form of the culture.
A second criterion to define the nation is based on the supposed existence of a “living organism”, i.e. of an entity endowed with a life of its own, distinct from that of the individuals who compose the national group. The nation would be identified by the existence of characteristics common to members of the group (language, religion, territory etc.). First of all, the identification of a nation by language is unsustainable. There are cases where the same language is spoken by several nations (for example English or Spanish), while peoples who speak different languages are citizens of the same state and consider themselves as belonging to the same nation, like the Swiss or Belgians. The same applies to religion. There are nations in which several religions are practised, as in Switzerland or Germany, and religions, like Catholicism, which are professed in many nations (France, Spain, Italy, etc.). Equally unfounded is the idea of natural frontiers. Borders have a political, not a geographical origin. They are continually changed in the course of history as a result of wars, treaties, marriages, i.e. events determined by politico-strategic or dynastic interests.
Finally, custom and tradition are not uniform elements within a nation. Within the borders of a nation one may identify more important differences than those existing between neighbouring belonging to different nations. Consider for example the differences between a Lombard and a Sicilian, and between a Lombard and a Swiss citizen from Ticino Canton.
Equally baseless is the voluntaristic or elective concept, proposed by Renan, although seeking the basis of the nation in the individual consciousness constitutes progress in the right direction, which is to base the definition of the nation on observable behaviour. The subjective criterion, identified by Renan, consists of the “wish to live together” or “a daily plebiscite”. This is a brilliant formula expressing a idealised conception of the political process. It represents the nation as the terrain of free individual choice, hiding the fact that individual actions are conditioned and at times determined by political power.
The historiography has shown that the formation of the nations, far from being the fruit of a democratic will, is rather the result of the imposition of a power seeking a unifying principle over a territory whose borders are drawn by force. When we are born, we acquire our nationality without choice. At no time subsequent to our birth is an entrance ticket offered with an option to accept or reject it. On the while it is relatively easy to change religion or party, change of nationality is subject to stiff conditions, beginning with residence for a determined number of years in the state whose nationality one wishes to acquire.
In short, if we take for granted that the existence of nation-states is founded on consensus and, more precisely, on the belief in their legitimacy, the fact remains that, as Albertini observed, Renan’s formula does not show “how… the will to live together... as a nation” is formed. On the other hand, Renan does not explain what distinguishes national ties from the ties which unite other groups which depend on voluntary membership (such as a hunters’ association or a religious community).
To Renan’s formula (the will to live together) Albertini prefers that of “loyalty”, used by Hans Kohn. It includes passive attitudes towards power, in compliance with a realistic view of political life.
Albertini’s method is to define the nation on the basis of the empirical observation of individual behaviour, resolving the collective entity into the sum of individuals who form it, and collective actions into the sum of individual behaviours. Now, national behaviour is, as an initial approximation, loyal behaviour towards an entity no better defined: the nation. The concept of loyalty is therefore identified as the characteristic typical of national behaviour. Albertini stresses that, on the basis of this concept, Kohn “was able to turn the history of nationalism upside down, shifting the perspective away from national principles in order to view the characteristic typical of nationalism: the linking of various experiences to a single centre of reference, the nation”. In consequence, Kohn showed that nationalism “does not depend on tradition, on language, or on the state, but on the individual’s close political and cultural identification with his nationality, observable at the end of the eighteenth century and at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and extended to the economic field only during the last part of the nineteenth century”. In other words, the typical aspect of national behaviour does not lie in the linguistic, cultural, or traditional aspect of the action being considered, but in loyalty to the nation, justified by a supposed community of language, culture or traditions.
Kohn, using the approach of the history of ideas, studied verbal formulations of the conduct loyal to the nation. It is a valuable study in historical reconstruction, which enabled him to observe when this behaviour was manifested for the first time in history. Kohn maintains that although there were hints of it before, nationalism first became established with the French Revolution. This thesis distinguishes him from authoritative historians, such as Werner Kaegi or Edward Carr, who have also made an important contribution to the study of the nation-state, and yet see the national experience as beginning with the dissolution of the mediaeval unit and the formation of the modem state. The historical period running from this time to the French Revolution may be called the incubation of nationalism, during which, with the Industrial Revolution and the bureaucratic state, the historical and social and institutional conditions for the nation-state were prepared. Only after the French Revolution did the supreme loyalty of individuals, i.e. the highest loyalty in the hierarchy of collective values, formerly reserved for king and religion, shift towards the nations.
To clarify the meaning of this change Kohn distinguished two forms of nationality: “natural” and “artificial”. What is natural in man is “the tendency… to love his birth place or the place of his childhood sojourn, its surroundings, its climate, the contours of hills and valleys, of rivers and trees”. Equally natural is “the preference… for his own language, as the only language which he thoroughly understands”. Nationality in this sense is a territorial or linguistic tie and corresponds to the nation in the etymological sense of the word (natio means the place where one is born). It is to be distinguished from “artificial nationality”, in which we find the same elements (attachment to territory, language and common origins), but extended to a territory and a population of much broader dimensions, which implies love for unknown cities and populations with no associated memory. This form of nationality, Kohn explains, is “an artificial product of historical and intellectual development”.
In harmony with this point of view, Nietzsche coined the distinction between Nächstenliebe and Fernstenliebe, love of the nearest, and love of the far away. But it should be pointed out that cosmopolitism is also a form of love for far-off things. Here Albertini stressed that, alongside natural nationality, (he calls it “spontaneous nationality”) there is a “spontaneous super-nationality”, which consists of “universal values”, for example “the Christian republic and the European republic of men of letters, which linked individuals beyond state frontiers”.
Kohn’s history of nationalism is a history of ideas, understood in the most ingenuous form. From this perspective, the formation of nations is presented as a process which has purely ideal origins, instruments and objectives. The underlying facts, i.e. the historical circumstances, as conditioned by the mode of production and by the structures of power and the economy, which have allowed national ideas to be affirmed in a particular country, at a particular time, and in a particular form, have an insignificant role in the narration of events.
In consequence of this choice of method, Albertini observes, “the facts have given Kohn the response already contained in the question; and the event in question [the formation of the nations], preconstituted by the selection of facts, appeared to him purely ideal”.
At this point Albertini examines the objective aspect of national behaviour, the history of facts. Guided by Boyd Shafer’s work on nationalism, Albertini studied the process of unification of human behaviours, in particular the behaviours of political dependence, whether linguistic or religious, within those states which, beginning with the French Revolution, were to become nation-states. The consolidation of absolute monarchies on territories corresponding approximately to the current nation-states, the linguistic unification of these territories, and the division of Christianity into national religions, led to the formation of the modern bureaucratic state. The gradual political, economic and social unification of the current national territories culminated in the Industrial Revolution, which brought down the barriers which isolated individuals into many small self-sufficient agricultural-artisan communities. Consequently, behaviours became increasingly linked to the state, because individuals demanded state intervention to guarantee that social relations at national level were carried out in an orderly way.
But, while Shafer qualified this behaviour as “national”, confusing the formation of the modern state with that of the nation, Albertini emphasises that these are two distinct processes. He calls the development of unified behaviour on vast territories co-extensive with the nations, and its association with the state, the “premises of nationalism”. But at the same time he points out that such behaviour did not take on a national character until the French Revolution, in the sense that only then did the nation become the object of supreme loyalty.
Indeed, as Shafer had shown, whereas in the Middle Ages the scale of loyalties was so ordered that an individual felt himself “first of all a Christian, secondarily a Bourgognois, and only in third place a Frenchman”, and bearing in mind that these feelings of belonging had a very different significance from today, in contemporary society practically all men are united and divided by their attachment to a single object: their nation.
“The passage from the pre-national to the national situation, according to Albertini, “took place when, once the ideas relating to past collective experiences had fallen away, individuals could become aware of how their various actions were linked on the political level, and expressed their situation in terms of loyalty to the group constituted by this link, the nation”.
The coming of the era of nationalism coincided with a in the principle of legitimacy of power. The French Revolution, the event which contributed more than any other towards defining the significance and values of contemporary consciousness, marked the passing from one historical era to another with the fall of the ancien régime and the affirmation of nation-states. The change which sums up the whole significance of this stage of history is the passage from the principle of dynastic legitimacy by divine right, to that based on the new ideologies of democracy and nationalism.
The organism onto which the national principle was grafted was the sovereign state, which was formed on the ruins of feudal society and had defined its own individuality, affirming itself as an independent power in the states system, and as a higher power than the other centres of power, chief of which was the Church, operating within the state.
It should be pointed out that the prevalent conception of the state in the age of the ancien régime was something very different from the present one. The state had an authoritarian structure: belonged to the absolute sovereign, whose power over both possessions and subjects were unlimited. Consequently, the interests of the state were identified with those of the sovereign.
The national principle on the other hand meant the affirmation of the popular state, based on popular sovereignty. The national movement fought for the recognition of every people’s right to become master of their own destiny. It thus pursued two aims, one domestic and one international. On the internal level, it struggled to make the peoples aware of their unity by assigning the same democratic rights to all individuals, who thus acquired the capacity to participate in determining the state policy. On the international level, the principle of self-determination of peoples allows the realization of national independence, and in this way bases state foreign policy on the will of the people, without interference from other states.
At this point however it is as well to carefully distinguish between the aims of the democratic and of the national principles, as the evolution of history shows the levelling and oppressive character of the nation state more and more clearly, and brings out the contradictions between this form of political organisation and the values of freedom and equality. The basic value of the democratic ideology is political equality, whereas the goal of the national principle is to put the state into the hands of the people.
While democracy has no borders, because its goal is universal equality, nationalism serves to justify the existence of distinct political communities and hence of state borders. This feature of national ideology explains how the latter has succeeded in bending democracy, a universal ideology, to the requirements of a world divided into sovereign states, independent and in conflict between each other. The fact is that behind the sovereign nation, raison d’état has continued to operate, with the old needs for security and might, which required that freedom and equality were sacrificed to security when the survival of the state was in danger.
In substance, what characterizes loyalty to the nation, according to Albertini, is that it is not simply presented as loyalty to the state and to its constitutional principles, but is at the same time a loyalty towards other ethical and cultural values and towards an organic social entity, a collective personality, namely the nation, which does not correspond to any community definable in clear conceptual terms. The most characteristic innovation introduced by Albertini in the theory of the nation lies in relating the concept of nation to the notion of ideology.
When Renan said that “oblivion and even historical error represent an essential factor in the creation of a nation”, he opened the way towards this kind of interpretation. With this phrase he allowed it to be understood that devotion to the nation is based more on forgetting than remembering, more on error than on historical objectivity; and even on invented memories, in other words on real falsification.
But it is the conception of ideology as false consciousness, introduced into the political culture by Marx, that is Albertini’s point of reference, because it showed that representations of social reality can be distorted or disguised because of power relations. What people are and do, precisely because subject to social conditioning, does not correspond fully to their own self-awareness. “The ideas of the ruling class are, in every age, the ruling ideas”: this phrase emphasizes that the essential function of the ruling ideas is to consolidate the power of the ruling classes. The function of objectively representing social reality is secondary to this.
However, ideology is neither a purely imaginary representation of reality nor simply a lie. Every ideology, to unfold itself effectively, must also contain descriptive elements, which make it credible and consequently likely to gain support.
As Gustav Bergmann showed, mystification occurs whenever a value judgement is mistaken for an assertion of fact. This is a normal phenomenon in the political field, because political power is a social relationship in the presence of which the mind often, instead representing reality, hides or deforms it.
Albertini’s great contribution was to have extended the notion of ideology, which Marx had linked to class positions, to power relations within the state. Albertini defines the nation as “the ideology of the centralized bureaucratic state” and national feeling as “the ideological reflection of the ties binding the citizen to his own nation-state”.
While natural communities are held together by spontaneous bonds formed without any intervention of power, nation-states, because of their size, have created an artificial bond by imposing linguistic and cultural unity on all populations settled on the territory of the state (fusion of state and nation). National consciousness, as a phenomenon diffused throughout the population, is therefore the consequence (and not the premise) of the formation of the nation-state and of a precise political programme, first devised by the Jacobins during the French Revolution, which undertook to impose unity of language, culture and traditions on all populations settled on the territory of the state. This involved destroying all links with communities greater and smaller than the state. Thus for national governments the fusion of state and nation became the basis for demanding exclusive loyalty of the citizens and for developing an aggressive foreign policy.
Albertini’s essay on the Risorgimento confirms this hypothesis: “The history of the formation of the Italians”, he wrote, “is… a chapter in the history of the concentration of political power in Italy”.
At this point we have to ask ourselves why the fusion of the state and the nation is a phenomenon typical of the European continent. It produced states with a high degree of integration among the citizens and an equally high degree of centralization of power, so that the material and ideal resources of the country were subject to the direct control of central government. In contrast, Great Britain and Switzerland (essentially an island on the European continent), while having developed a bureaucratic state, have maintained a decentralized structure in their political institutions and a multinational society, so that state and nation do not coincide.
Historians of the Rankian school particularly, using the category of raison d’état, have shown that the strong politico-military pressure suffered by the states of the European continent on their borders impelled them to centralize their power; and this institutional system could not survive without developing the image of a society as homogeneous as its power was centralised.
In conclusion, the definition of the nation achieved by Albertini yields two important results.
First of these is the identification of the nature of national behaviour. “Much behaviour, relating to almost all spheres of human experience, shows, alongside its specific motivation, a second motivation, that of reference to ‘France’, ‘Germany’, ‘Italy’ and so on”. For example, “a German in Germany… is struck by a monument of art or by a beautiful landscape and thinks: ‘How beautiful Germany is!’. It goes without saying that an example of beauty in nature or art is not an example of the aesthetic genre ‘Germany’, which does not exist, but of the Gothic or Romanic, of mountainous or lacustrine, etc. This is a case in point, where the specific motivation of aesthetic appreciation joins another: that of loyalty, or at least of reference, to Germany”. As has been said, what marks national conduct is loyalty. The objective reference of this behaviour is the state, which however is not thought of as such, but as an illusory entity, to which are linked cultural, aesthetic and sporting experiences, whose specific character is not national. At the basis of this is a power relationship. Individuals who attend national schools, celebrate national festivals, pay national taxes, and do national military which prepares them to kill and to die for the nation, express their behaviour in terms of loyalty to a mythical entity, the nation, an idealized representation of centralized bureaucratic states. This idealization of is the mental reflection of the power relations between individuals and the nation-state, and serves to consolidate the latter.
In the second place, Albertini’s research, by identifying the criterion which distinguishes the state group (the collection of individuals who have the legal requisites for citizenship of the state) from the national group (the collection of individuals who believe in the nation) has succeeded in giving a scientific definition of the national group. Empirical analysis shows that the two groups do not coincide: the national group is, in some respects, more restricted, and in others, broader than that of the state. For example, within the confines of the Italian state, the South Tyrolean community does not possess an Italian national consciousness, while beyond the confines of the Italian state there are communities which have an Italian national consciousness, while not Italian citizenship (for example some Italian communities resident in Istria).
Like the great innovators who have ventured into unknown regions, Albertini opened up new paths, the exploration of which will be the task of others (a whole school of thought).
Let us consider, for example, the notion of ideology. It has two meanings. In the more general acceptation, and in with common language, which uses such expressions as “liberal ideology”, “socialist ideology”, the term ideology means a system of political ideas, a political vision. Alongside this notion, there is another more specific one, according to which ideology is self-mystified thinking. Albertini explored the national ideology from this second perspective, while he concerned himself only marginally with the former.
If nationalism is an ideology and the nation-state is the institution which generates nationalism, one has to identify a method of analysis which allows the two things to be studied together. One possible method is that proposed by Albertini to define federalism, but which can be extended, as he himself suggested, to analyse other ideologies. According to this approach, in every ideology three can be distinguished: a value aspect, which defines the goal of the ideology, a structure aspect, which defines the political institutions, i.e. the form of organisation of power necessary to pursue that goal; and the historical and social aspect, which defines the historical and social conditions necessary for the affirmation of these institutions and these values. By analyzing nationalism in this way, one can formulate the hypothesis that the value aspect is the unity and independence of the nation, seen as superior values both to the individual and humanity; the structure aspect is the unified, bureaucratic and centralized state; and the historical and social aspect is an ethnically and linguistically homogeneous society, in which unity prevails over class and regional divisions.
* The following three papers were delivered at the Convention in honour of Mario Albertini: “Nation, Federation and Europe”, organised by the Faculty of Political Sciences, Department of Political and Social Studies of the University of Pavia (23rd-24th October, 1997).
 E. Renan, Qu’est-ce qu’une nation? Bizou, Press Pocket, 1992, p. 37.
 G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, tr. T.M. Knox, Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. 12-13. Originally published under the double title of Naturrecht und Staatswissenschaft im Grundrisse, and Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts, 1821.
 E. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780, Cambridge, CUP, p. 8.
 “Nazionalismo e alternativa federalista”. Interview with Mario Albertini, in Il dibattito federalista, X, 1994, no. 4, p. 38.
 M. Albertini, Lo Stato nazionale, Milan, Giuffre, 1960.
 M. Weber, The Methodology of the Social Sciences, Glincoe, IL, The Free Press, 1949, p. 90 (Originally published under the title Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre, Tübingen, Mohr, 1922).
 E. Renan, op. cit., p. 55.
 M. Albertini, Lo Stato nazionale, cit., p. 23.
 H. Kohn, The Idea of Nationalism. A Study in Its Origins and Background, New York, MacMillan, 1951.
 M. Albertini, op. cit., pp. 14-25.
 Ibidem, p. 50.
 W. Kaegi, Historische Meditationen, Zurich, Fretz & Wasmuth Verlag, 1946, vol. I; E.H. Carr, Nationalism and After, London, MacMillan, 1945.
 H. Kohn, op. cit., pp. 4-8.
 F. Nietzsche, Also sprach Zarasthustra, 1883-85, in Nietzsches Werke. Kritische Gesamtausgabe, Berlin, Gruyter & Co., 1968, vol. VI, t. I, pp. 73-75. Thus spoke Zarathustra, trans. 1954.
 M. Albertini, Il Risorgimento e l’unità europea, Napoli, Guida, 1979, p. 18.
 M. Albertini, Lo Stato nazionale, cit., p. 61.
 B.C. Shafer, Nationalism: Myth and Reality, London, Gollancz, 1955.
 M. Albertini, Lo Stato nazionale, cit., pp. 100 and following pages.
 B.C. Shafer, op. cit., p. 61.
 M. Albertini, Lo Stato nazionale, cit., p. 126.
 E. Renan, op. cit., p 41.
 K. Marx, F. Engels, Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy, edited by T.B. Bottomore and M. Rubel, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1965, p. 93.
 G. Bergmann, The Metaphysics of Logical Positivism, New York, Longmans Green and Co., 1954, p. 310.
 A precedent in this direction can be seen in Mosca’s concept of “political formula”. Cf. G. Mosca, Elementi di scienza politica, Bari, Laterza, 1953, pp. 108 and following pages.
 Albertini, “‘L’idée de nation”, in L’idée de nation, Paris, P.U.F., 1969, p. 13.
 M. Albertini, Lo Stato nazionale, cit., p. 143.
 M. Albertini, Il Risorgimento e l’unità europea, cit. p. 143.
 Cf., for example, O. Hintze, Staat und Verfassung, Göttingen, Vendenhoek & Ruprecht, 1962, Volume 3.
 M. Albertini, L’idée de nation, cit., p. 8.
 M. Albertini, Il federalismo, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1993, p. 91.
 I have developed this analysis of nationalism in L. Levi, Letture su Stato nazionale e nazionalismo, Turin, CELID, 1995.