Friday, November 30, 2007

Nationalism series: What is missing in Hans Kohn's theory

Hans Kohn is one of the earlier critical writers on nationalism. I am always amazed how we, the generation of the late '90s-early '00s forget that an entire intellectual dialog took place before the '80s and that we can learn a lot from those dust-covered books forgotten on the bookshelves in the library.

I'm reading Hans Kohn's 1955 book Nationalism, Its Meaning and History. There's not much out there, on the all-powerful net, about Kohn (1891-1971), except a Wiki page. Yet, reading Kohn, one starts seeing the thread to which Ernest Gellner, today considered the father of nationalism studies, was responding. All of a sudden, the importance of the discourse flowing from one mind to another becomes almost visible.

So what is Kohn saying and what is he missing about nationalism? In a nutshell, his theory is that nationalism is a will, a sentiment, a state of mind, mostly referring to and pertinent in politics. "Nationalism - he writes - is a state of mind in which the supreme loyalty of the individual is felt to be due the nation-state" (p. 9). This state of mind emerged, according to Kohn, in the 18th century, initially in England (beginning with the 17th century), where it was facilitated by ideas of individual freedoms and rights and by the Puritan messianism. Building on previous social structures, English nationalism emerged as a civilized, universal and peaceful concept (though one gets to wonder from whose perspective...). The corruption of nationalism comes with German Romanticism and subsequently with the passion of the French Revolution and the Central & Eastern European national 'awakenings'.

Beyond the obvious problem of the typology civilized/ barbarian nationalism, there are some further things missing from Kohn's otherwise challenging and norm-breaking account of nationalism:

- there seems to be an implied assumption that nationalism, at least in its 'civilized' version - where it's mostly about securing the right balance between individual and collective - is peaceful and liberating. Should this be so, I think it ignores a crucial aspect of nationalism: that of establishing the boundaries of the nation against the boundaries of others, who are not only intrinsically dangerous (because they are not 'us'), but also somehow inferior.

- there is an assumption of pre-existing nationalities before nationalism (something more akin to Anthony Smith's ethnies) which allows Kohn to speak of French or Italians before the creation of the nation-states.

1 comment:

buchi said...

What you forgot to mention was that kohn was actually a rational cosmopolitan. He neither ignored nor underestimated the power of difference in making of a nation. Hence I disagree with your analysis!

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