“Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.”
—Albert Einstein

When James Bowie took his considerable reputation as a brawler and duelist, along with the famous knife his brother Resin had fashioned for him, to Mexico, married the daughter of the vice-governor of the province of Texas, and became a respected citizen of that republic, he would have considered it pure hogwash had someone suggested that he had ceased to be an American. Bowie, like most Americans of the first half of the 19th century, did not think of his Americanness as a mutable quality, it being something as unquestioned, and as unreflected upon, as the stages of the moon or the points of the compass. It had nothing to do with either polities per se, or legalistic notions of civic membership. He was an American by language, culture, and worldview, as well as by all those qualities, including the way a people walk and talk, that set them apart from all others. He was an Anglo-Celtic adventurer, tall with fair skin, red hair, and blue-gray eyes, who could mix easily with either the best of Southern gentility or the toughest of frontier roughnecks, an example of a particular type that the Mexicans would learn to fear and hate.

This is not to say that Bowie was not, at least for a time, a loyal citizen of his adopted country. He was lord and master of thousands of acres of Texas lands, wealthy and apolitical. His troubles with Mexico, the ones that brought about his violent death a scant three years later, began following the deaths of his wife and two young children in the great cholera epidemic of 1833. Bowie had little contact with the American colonists of Texas before that, but now—as the foremost bard of Texas’s heroic age, T.R. Fehrenbach, wrote in his narrative history cum folk epic Lone Star—”blood called to blood,” and the legendary frontiersman “drifted into the Revolution.”

Bowie was not alone in thinking the colonists’ rebellion his own: Cincinnati, Ohio, supplied the rebels with the “Twin Sisters,” a pair of field cannon that Sam Houston deployed in the final showdown with Santa Anna at San Jacinto; New Orleans supplied the Texans with a volunteer contingent, the New Orleans Grays; and Stephen F. Austin, the great empresario of Texas colonization, went to the United States, hoping to rouse the people of Kentucky and Tennessee to the American cause in Texas. They responded as he had hoped they would, bringing their vaunted long rifles, as well as their natural love of a good scrap, with them. William Barrot Travis, commander of the garrison at the Alamo after Bowie fell ill, saw nothing strange in addressing his famous letter of February 24, 1836—both a call to arms and a statement of defiant intent to fight to the last man—to the “people of Texas and All Americans in the World.” True to his word, Travis died there together with Bowie and Davy Crockett (himself born in the “State of Franklin”), and 180-odd comrades-in-arms, on March 6, four days after the Republic of Texas had been declared.

The fact that none of these men perceived a particularly strong connection between formal citizenship and their personal and collective identities as Americans is bound to be puzzling to many citizens of the modern American multicultural state. The America that they belonged to was not something that many of us would recognize as such. The spacious, seemingly endless leagues of territory that stretched before them to the Pacific stirred the American imagination with mythical tales of Eldorado just over the next rise. The inevitable march of the Americans to unsettled areas itself worked against a purely territorial sense of Americanness, and their sense of particular identity was sharpened by the confrontation of white and red men on the violent edge of the American states. As is so often the case, the clash with the “other” helped to fuse the Christian, English-speaking, northern European communities along the Atlantic seaboard and beyond into a nation, a nation that would remain the vital core of what we now call “America.”

The events surrounding the Texas revolution took place some 30-odd years before most modern observers, including many political scientists, developmental theorists, and sociologists would venture to say that an American nation, fully developed or nascent, was in any wav present on the North American continent. A minority would differ; and here, in the clash between “modernists” and “primordialists,” lies the essence of the conflict over the study of nationalism.

For the primordialist, nationalism is an extension of “primordial” family, clan, and tribal ties to a larger group. Nations, large groups of people who are conscious of such a bond, existed long before nationalism as an ideology developed in the 18th century. The ancient Egyptians, Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans all possessed a sense of identity, uniqueness, and destiny that closely resembled the self-defining characteristics of modern nations. They also conducted wars, made treaties, collected tribute and taxes, composed epics about their ancestors, formed religious cults, and liberated “their” lands from foreigners. They told mythic tales of their nation’s founding, of Romulus and Remus, Abraham and Moses, never doubting that Providence had selected them for special tasks. Nationalism, then, is a natural, though not inevitable, development of the kinship tic.

The “modernist” views this claim as so much sentimental claptrap, and asserts that nations are a unique development of the modern age, a product of structural transformations in early modern Europe’s economic, political, and social superstructure. New commercial relationships demanded both the destruction of the old order and the creation of new social bonds in place of the old communal ones. Industrialism demanded a more mobile and fluid population. The centralized bureaucratic state would serve both purposes well: state-sponsored intellectuals would dream up “national” mythologies, and centralized educational systems would standardize language and homogenize regional cultures, making Germans out of Bavarians and Prussians, Frenchmen out of Normans and Gascons.

The modernists claim that a system of homogenization developed that more or less made people interchangeable parts in the vast machine of the industrialized world. Their economic and structural determinism strongly influenced developmental theorists, who saw “nation-building” as a route to modernity for the developing world, and the “nation-builders” accepted the modernists’ determinism as a justification for their own universalist tendencies. Liberals or socialists for the most part, the “nation-builders” saw no reason why, if nations are completely artificial products of economic, political, and social structural changes, a “world nation” might not be in mankind’s future. “Nation-building” was a “progressive” development for the Second and Third Worlds, but the First World, where the whole modernist project had originated, had already—or so it seemed to them—transcended the “national” phase, forming the core of the developing New World Order.

The fly in the universalists’ ointment is that such Utopian dreams are not supported by real world observation, and the party pooper who seems to have done the most homework on the subject is Walker Connor of Connecticut’s Trinity College. Ethnonationalism synthesizes some 30 years of Connor’s research into nationalist movements in various parts of the world, work that leads him to some very disheartening (for “nation-builders” and other universalists) conclusions. Connor asserts, among other things, that the “age of nationalism” is far from over, that multinational states are likely to suffer severe nationalist conflicts in the next century, and that attempted assimilation of disparate national groups by “immigrant states” is a very shaky proposition.

By contrasting “the literature on political development with actual political developments,” Connor concludes that “structuralist” sociologists have grossly overestimated the power of economic growth to overcome particular identities, while grossly underestimating the strength and resilience of those identities. Overall improvements in the standard of living have not, for instance, curtailed the growth of black nationalism in America, nor has the prospect of economic dislocation prevented Slovaks and Ukrainians from forming their own states. Of course, economic disparities can provide some national groups with a useful tool in a propaganda battle (hence the popularity of Marxism with various post-World War II “national liberation” movements), but nationalism appears to “operate remarkably independent from the economic variable.”

According to Connor, there are two problems that have led interpreters of nationalist phenomena down false trails. First, many influential scholars (Karl Deutsch appears to have done the most damage) have confused the situation by employing the language of “nation-building” (they mean state-building) in studying nationalist phenomena. If “nation-building” means state-building, then “nation” means state; “nationstate” means a centralized industrial state (Connor calls them “integrated states”); “patriotism” means loyalty to the state; a “citizen” of a “nation” is a formal member of a legalistic polity; and “nationalism” is merely a form of modernist political ideology. Modernists and “nation-builders” have discounted the “ethnic” factor in state-building projects, and have become confused—again by fuzzy language—about what, exactly, they are talking. In Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, a nation is called a “tribe,” and “nation-builders” tend to speak of “race” as an entirely separate ingredient of the socioeconomic “national” soup. Primordialists and modernists have simply been talking about two different phenomena, one that is related to human kinship and another that is not a state of consciousness or being but a process of social organization.

Connor clears the air by offering a more precise definition of “nation”; a nation, he says, is the largest group that imagines itself to be ancestrally related (thus his preference for the term “Ethnonationalism“). National identity, since it is an extension of kinship (real or imagined), will trump all others in a test of loyalties. It is largely an internalized psychological state that does not depend on the maintenance of external factors alone—such as language, religion, or race—and that can survive the loss of many of those external boundaries between “us” and “them.” The Irish, for example, who are physically indistinguishable from other inhabitants of the British Isles, have lost their language, but Irish identity thrives. Indeed, over 40 percent of those who responded to one survey conducted in Northern Ireland called themselves “Irish,” while the largest remaining group of respondents chose to identify themselves as “British,” or “Ulstermen.” Since those who call themselves “Irish” appear to be the same people who identify with Catholicism, and the “Ulstermen” those who are—nominally at least—Protestant, Connor asserts that many analysts, confused by modernist assumptions, tend to concentrate on the symptoms of nationalist conflict rather than on the real causes.

Thus, the conflict in Northern Ireland is assumed to be a religious one between “Catholics” and “Protestants” (despite the Marxism of some of the “Catholic” militants), and not one between Irishmen and Ulstermen. Both groups are erroneously assumed to share a common sense of “Irish” nationality. If only religion would go away, many liberals reason, all would be well in Belfast. Field research, however, supports Connor’s conclusions; as long as any external factors remain, however tenuous; as long as any memory of historical clashes is alive, however mythologized; as long as these peoples perceive themselves to be different, with different interests and loyalties, the war between the “Catholics” and the “Prods” will continue. They are two nations occupying—and having a claim to—the same territory, and all the wishful thinking in the world cannot change that truth about the conflict. This confusion of symptoms and causes, produced by foggy terminology, accounts for the tendency of analysts of all stripes to underestimate the psychological power of national identity. This error contributes to the second problem in nationalist interpretation, the problem of false assumptions.

When the modernist or “nation-builders-builder” position is adopted uncritically, as it often is by scholars and political elites, then a whole set of erroneous assumptions about political, economic, and social development inevitably follows. The “universal nation” and “opportunity society” so beloved by both Hillary Clinton liberals and Newt Gingrich conservatives are not mere slogans dreamed up by Jack Kemp while he showered with black football players, but are, rather, part and parcel of the ideological freight that the modernist engine carries in tow. Like Lenin in his sealed train, it is a plague bacillus, an organism that infects the body politic after having been carried deep into enemy territory, often under a false flag.

Connor attacks the assumptions produced by this infection head on. Modernization, according to him, does not weaken “ethnic” identity among minorities in a multinational state. It does tend to homogenize like groups, such as Northerners and Southerners in America, but it only increases the national consciousness of Mexicans, Chinese, and other nationalities by highlighting their “otherness” through increased frequency and duration of contact with the dominant group. Contrary to modernists’ assumptions, the more unlike groups come into contact with one another, the less they can abide each other’s company. Any effort to homogenize unlike groups by force or design is likely to backfire. In Spain, Franco’s efforts to eradicate Basque, Catalan, and Galician consciousness “seems only to have magnified them,” and the same could be said of Soviet efforts to “Russify” Ukrainians, Tartars, Estonians, and Chechens. This observation has particular importance because few “nation-states”—states that are coterminous with a particular nation—actually exist. Most states are binational or multinational, and First World states, already feeling the strain of ethnic friction, will probably fail completely to assimilate Third World immigrants in large numbers. The new immigrants are comprised of national groups from Asia, Africa, and Latin America who, because of their vastly divergent external badges of identity (boundary markers that do so much to perpetuate internal consciousness) cannot credibly be anything besides the “other” when contrasted with the majority of Americans.

This illusion of the homogenizing power of modern societies is based on the historical viability of multinational states, in the form of kingdoms and empires, prior to the “age of nationalism.” In many cases, these premodern polities remained stable for centuries. This convinces developmental theorists that “tribalism,” “racism,” and “separatism” must be infantile disorders associated with the “nation-building” phase of modernization, and proper indoctrination in “human rights” and “democracy” are the cure. What this view ignores is the structural changes in economic, political, and social organization (not to mention ideology, in particular the notion of self-determination and its bastard cousin, multiculturalism) that have made rule by aliens so onerous in the modern era. Disparate national groups were able to live together, more or less peacefully, in a single feudal polity because they had few direct contacts with one another. In premodern multinational states, especially those where varying nations were territorially based, the lack of contact tended to prevent clashes of interest, between subject peoples and between the imperial Staatvolk and its subjects who lived in their tribal or clan-based villages far from the metropolitan center. Low-tech communications and transportation allowed the local group to live within the framework of familiar folkways; agricultural economies kept most people at work in the regions where they were born. Neither the subject nation’s, nor the metropolitan’s, cultural survival was threatened by such an arrangement. Modernization has changed all that, and the New World Order of trans-state government and trans-state corporations now threatens both First World and Third with national degradation. Neither history nor the “age of nationalism” has reached its end, and those political elites who think it has arc a danger to the societies they rule.

Connor’s work challenges not only the feeble nostrums of the universalist left but the hopes of many on the traditionalist and libertarian right as well. He gives the structuralist devil his due: times and socioeconomic structures have changed, and Connor does not challenge the assumption that modernity—the world of the “integrated state” (James Burnham’s “managerial state”)—has altered the consciousness of nations. The survival of nations is not questioned; nations have survived, indeed they have flourished as never before, in the modern era, but the conservative’s main concern is not simply the physical survival of his people, but their survival as what?

The decentralized republic of our forebears was an agrarian one, as economically and socially supportive of the traditionalist philosophy of the early Americans as the feudal social structure was of medieval Christendom. Liberty and tradition thrived in such a world. The question remains whether either can survive, not only in a multicultural America but in the prepackaged, cellophane-wrapped, capitalist America many “conservatives” want to sell us. 


[Ethnonationalism: The Quest for Understanding, by Walker Connor (Princeton: Princeton University Press) 226 pp., $14.95]