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The Warwick Debates

The debate involving Anthony D. Smith and Ernest Gellner provides an elucidating perspective of what nationalism means to them. The arguments are persuasive and convey an almost neo-modernist look at the construct and pillars that fundamentally supports nationalism today. The debate has elevated a topic that some may consider mundane to that of erudite discourse worthy of further dissertation. ? In his words, Smith defines nationalism as “Ideological movement for the attainment and maintenance of autonomy, unity and identity of a human population, some of whose members conceive it to constitute an actual or potential “nation.

” Smith also posits that “Nationalism is elusive, even protean in its manifestation; and so we have to try to classify the rich variety of movements and ideologies if we are to make any progress in understanding so variegated a phenomenon. ” This show that he feels that nationalism is not static, but morphs or evolves over time. He also feels that there is no utter uniformity in nature of this observable fact about nationalism. The feeling of nationalism that is held by people is diverse and compelling.

Smith defines nation as “a named human population sharing an historic territory, common myths and memories, a mass, public culture, a single economy and common rights and duties for all members. ” He posits that a nation is created through feeling of nationalism; a tangible product of early industrialism, social mobility, greater public education and the need for an educated society. Nations exists in reality and not just merely an idealist’s construct. In his views, nations will continue to exist and will not be easily “deconstructed away.

” Smith feels that nations and nationalism are deeply intertwined, an inseparable union of time which is necessary in today’s world. He rightly argues that most nations are modern and feelings of nationalism has gained further foothold in recent times. Smith views nationalism today as a very powerful force that would impact and shape politics. This he feels that this is evident in that nationalism has been the center of many conflicts in several parts of the world including Asia and Africa.

He took time to argue that the definition of a nation is much different from that of a state which he defines as “Autonomous, public institutions of coercion and extraction within a recognized territory. ” In his mind states do not evoke the feeling of nationalism that nations do. It is worthy to note that he points out that some people feels that nations arose from an emphasis on materialism during the recent emergence of capitalism. Smith also pointed to the work of Benedict Anderson and Erie Hobsbawm who argued that nations were “Invented traditions.

” Predicated on symbolism, mythology and selected history. Smith Feels though that nations were not just modern construct, but based on somewhat primeval customs handed down through the ages. He also was at odds with the feeling that nations were predicated on materialism. He argues that nations can arise under other circumstances where wealth was absent. He further states that the ties that bind nations go back to early ethnic ties. Gellner’s response to the Smith’s compelling arguments provides for great reflection.

He sees a clear dichotomy in the views of primordialists such as Smith who believes that nations exists long ago and modernists such as himself who believes that “the world was created round about the end of the eighteenth century, and nothing before that makes the slightest difference to the issues we face. ” Gellner view this as a defining fundamental difference between himself and Smith. Gellner’s reference to Adam as not having a Navel at creation suggests that he feels that nations were modern creations and had no ties to the past.

This is a conflicting view to that of Smith who argues that older ethnicity not only impacted modern nations, but provided clear ties or connection to the modern version. Gellner argues that the ethnic and cultural community or “Navel” that forms the basis of Smith’s argument are absent from the history of some modern nations. Some national have a long history and some do not and so there is no constancy or similarity to the development of nations. Gellner argues that people like the Estonians did not even have a name for their group at the start of the nineteenth century.

In his views, the Estonians had no historical name to identify themselves, albeit they do now. Gellner argues that culture has been an important if not the most important part of the development of nations. He agrees with Smith that they were part of a nationalist population and that culture and shared symbolism existed. Gellner ended by saying: There is some continuity with Byzantium or at any rate with the clerical organization left behind by Byzantine church certainly; but some- times there is and sometimes there isn’t.

(6) So I would say in general there is a certain amount of navel about but not everywhere and on the whole it’s not important. It’s not like the cycles of respiration, blood circulation or food digestion which Adam would have to have in order to live at the moment of creation. You’d have to have a kind of fictitious past and the past would not be real. The cultural continuity is contingent, inessential. This shows that even though Gellner feels Smith is right about some aspects of the development of Nations, he is at odd with the tenets of Smith’s arguments.

Despite, Gellner’s compelling expose of what nationalism and nation mean, I am in agreement with Smith’s point of view that nations have connections and foundations in the past. This “Navel’ or connection to past generations has impacted modern society in many different ways and the nationalism of a people is based on their historical experiences. Gellner fails to recognize that these modern nations have their very foundation on the culture, symbolism and shared knowledge of past generations. A nation may be modern, but its people contain the teachings and shared beliefs of their forebears.

Man cannot start a nation without some historical perspective, shared knowledge and symbolism and an awareness of a culture that has been handed down from father to son and mothers to daughters. It is only through shared experiences that true nationalism can raise to the preeminence that it holds in modern society. Neo- modernist with their thoughts on the “now” fails to look at what truly binds a people together and thus give them a sense of identity. Even though the Estonians did not formally have a name for their group prior to the beginning of the nineteenth century, this does not mean that their modern nation arose overnight.

Their nations must have arisen from a collective and share culture, symbolism and a sense of belonging to a larger group. The debate may continue to rage and the answers may not be conclusive, but I firmly believe Smith to be on the right path.

References Smith, Anthony D. (1991) The Warwick Debates: Nations and their pasts. Retrieved March 12, 2009 from http://www. lse. ac. uk/collections/gellner/Warwick. html Gellner, Ernest. 1994) The Warwick Debates: Do Nations have Navels. Retrieved March 12, 2009 from http://www. lse. ac. uk/collections/gellner/Warwick2. html

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