Many years ago, Ernest Gellner spoke of the ‘dark gods theory of nationalism’. By this he meant that the dominant view was that, like some pestilential plague, ‘nationalism’ had been contained since 1945 but always threatened to escape from its Pandora’s box such that the bacterium then infected those with least resistance to it. ‘Thinking with the blood’ might become the order of the day. To be sure, Gellner did not think much of this theory to say the least, and spent much of his life showing just how ‘normal’ nationalism is. He is possibly turning in his grave today as if his work has counted for very little in countering this conventional wisdom. Here is an Italian commentator, Carlo Rovelli, writing in The Guardian newspaper: ‘Nationalist politics are spreading across the world, increasing tensions, sowing conflict, threatening each and every one of us’ (24th July 2018).
The context for this rediscovery of ‘dark gods’ is the rise of far-right nationalism across Europe and the United States. Driven by a dislike of ‘foreigners’ whose culture is thought to be alien to our own, ‘culture wars’ are back on the agenda. In early September 2018, the German Federal Agency of Civic Education (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung) ran a two-day event with the title: Wir zuerst! Nationalismus in Europa und Deutschland roughly translated as ‘Us First! Nationalism in Europa and Germany’.
The presenting reason was the activity of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (The Alternative for Germany) which took 12.6% of the vote (and 94 seats in the Bundestag) in the 2017 Federal Elections, and almost 30% in Saxony in the former GDR. And then in August, violent protests involving AfD took place in Chemnitz, previously known as Karl-Marx-Stadt (and which still has an unusual tourist attraction, and very large, and hollow, head of Karl Marx in the main square).
It seems especially unfair that such events happen in Germany, a country which has devoted so much time and resources to understanding and banishing its Nazi past. Indeed, the Federal Agency of Civic Education has a department devoted to understanding and combating ‘extremism’. The organisers invited myself and John Hutchinson at the LSE, among others to talk about the relationship between culture and nationalism.
We tried to provide a rounded view of the nature of nationalism, as befits the two main centres for Nationalism Studies in the UK, Edinburgh and London. We took issue with the notion that ‘nationalism’ was simply equated with the far-right, arguing that, at its most successful, nationalism was the benchmark for all modern societies, especially those in western Europe. As the cultural critic Raymond Williams pointed out over 30 years ago, ‘it is as if a really secure nationalism, already in possession of its own nation-state, can fail to see itself as “nationalist” at all’. This echoed Gellner’s point that the size, scale and complexity of modern societies require an explicit sense of loyalty and identification on the part of the population. Germany’s problem lay in the history of far-right nationalism, and hence there developed a preference for ‘constitutional patriotism’ (Verfassungspatriotismus), the political attachment to a liberal democratic constitution, an idea associated with the German academics Jurgen Habermas and Jan-Werner Müller.
The problem with the concept and its practice is that it emphasises ‘politics’ over ‘culture’, that it focuses on citizenship rather than national identity and nationalism. The great German sociologist Max Weber in the early part of the 20th century had distinguished between ‘staatpolitisch’ and ‘kulturpolitisch’, the former concerned with the power and integrity of the state, and the latter, the maintenance and promotion of national identity. For good reasons, the post-war German state had focused on the former and far less on the latter. A concern with ‘demos’ and not ‘ethnos’ had arguably allowed the far-right to capture the ‘cultural’ ground, using the slogan, Wir sind das Volk!, which the far-right group Pergida had stolen from the social and political movements which had brought down Communism in the old GDR in 1990. Put simply, if the post-war German state had ceded the ‘cultural’ ground to the far-right, and ceased to engage explicitly with who ‘we’ (wir) are and who the ‘people’ (Volk) are, then perhaps it is less surprising that the cultural ground, left empty by the state, was colonised by pernicious weeds like AfD. Two comments made to me remain in my mind: one from a teacher who said she did not know how to respond to a young boy who said he was proud to be German; another person wanted to know how to turn ‘bad nationalism’ into ‘good patriotism’.
The message? Discussing who ‘we’ are, what national identity means, and engaging with ‘nationalism’ in its multiple forms is de rigueur. Thirty years ago when Tom Nairn and I set up this Master’s degree in Nationalism Studies, I wrote the following:
‘Nationalism is full of puzzles. It is a form of ‘practice’ rather than ‘analysis’; it presents itself as a universal and global phenomenon, but is ineluctably particular and local; it is a feature of the modern age, but has its roots in something much older; it is essentially about cultural matters – language, religion, symbols – but cannot be divorced from matters of economic and material development.’
That still seems to me to be an approach worth taking.
David McCrone is Emeritus Professor of Sociology, and co-founder of the University of Edinburgh’s Institute of Governance.