Of Small Nations: An Interlude

by David J. Lobina

Last time around I said I would bring this series on language and nationalism to an end by considering an actual example: the case of Catalan nationalism, a discussion likely to be testy. I still intend to do that, and to be a bit argumentative about it to boot; however, it has occurred to me in these last four weeks that the follow-up between the first three posts and the case study of Catalan nationalism is not as smooth as it should be. This is because of an issue I brought up in the last post, where I rather briefly mentioned that the Catalan case exemplified what is sometimes called a peripheral nationalist movement, in contrast to core nationalist movements. To this I should have added that in the case of peripheral nationalisms the historical process that turns a state or a country into a nation-state is slightly different to what is the case for core nationalisms – additional factors are involved – and this point deserves to be spelled out a little bit. I shall do just that this week, and I will come back to the Catalans, finally, in the next post.

As explained in the previous three posts, it is certainly noteworthy, though not at all surprising, that the word nation seems to have been initially used in history as a place name and only much later did the politically-laden term of nationalism actually appear. The feeling of belonging to a particular place, after all, has plausibly been a feature of human gatherings for centuries and it is not intrinsically tied to the concepts of “nation” or “nationalism” per se.

In medieval Europe at least, the village where a person was born was typically that person’s “country”, as the historian Henry Kamen has chronicled, and this sentiment was still present in many parts of the world well into the 20th century. For instance, the Belorussian-speaking people of Polesia, a historical region stretching from modern Poland to Russia, simply replied ‘from here’ when asked about their nationality in a 1919 census, and even as recently as the 1950s, we have the curious case of captured Egyptian soldiers during the second Arab-Israeli war who seemed to know very little about their own country, instead identifying more strongly with their local villages.[i]

A “state” in the Weberian sense of a polity that is sovereign over a specific territory and has the monopoly on the use of violence within that territory may be as old as the written word, but even in long-established countries such as England and Portugal, which by the 12th century were largely sovereign kingdoms with more or less stable borders, the state only came to be organised along nationalist lines recently. For most of their history, these two countries have been ruled by various royal families, often not native to the land at all, in fact,[ii] and the territory itself was under the control of the aristocracy in the form of fiefs – estates of land to which unfree peasants were attached in service to a lord. A feudal kind of order according to which vassals would pledge allegiance to a lord and the lord to a king (by volition or stealth, but certainly through tax collection), the nobility had a high degree of autonomy over their lands, from jurisdiction to the use of force. Premodern European states were disunited entities, a situation that is more striking still the further back we go in history.

There couldn’t have been any widespread nationalist feelings during this time – the age of feudalism, stretching from the 9th to the 16th century – as under such conditions there couldn’t have been a single national identity encompassing the inhabitants of what by now were rather large countries.[iii] There was no common and universal schooling at the time, and thus little to no education of any sort for the vast majority of people, most of whom were peasants or labourers. There wasn’t much of a shared language, as I have argued in this series, certainly not one that was widely spoken by the population at large. The elites – the clergy, royals, nobles, etc. – did start to communicate with each other in their own common (mostly, written) language from the 15th century or so (literacy was obviously the preserve of the elites), but it wasn’t until the 18-19th centuries that any one of the “elite” languages then available would become the standard and sole language of the state. There have been myriad languages, and varieties of languages, in any one region of Europe up until modern times, both within different strata of the population and between regions.

This general situation was the norm in Europe until the 19th century or so, and in some cases in a more dramatic fashion. Italy was nothing more than a collection of disparate city-states and kingdoms before its “resurgence” in the 19th century, its unification the result of war and conquest, with the northern region of Piedmont fully in control by the end of it all. One Piedmontese statesman famously stated at the time that the next task after creating Italy was to create Italians, and this was not a flippant comment to make, as Eric Hobsbawm once pointed out: only about 2.5% of the population of the entire Italian peninsula at the time spoke the Florentine vernacular that was to become the official language.[iv]

As explained in the linguistic update of nationalism, the situation started to change in the 18-19th centuries on account of the two historical processes Ernest Gellner has stressed in his studies on nationalism: the development of an elite “high culture”, and the social effects of industrialisation (the invention of printing, the establishment of universal, compulsory education, etc.). These two conditions are absolutely central to any country or state eventually becoming a nation and they account pretty well for what took place in newly unified Italy and Germany as well as in older countries like England and Portugal.

The transformation of these four countries into actual nation-states are examples of what has been referred to as core national movements.[v] In the case of peripheral national movements – nationalist movements that arise within “core nations”, from where these movements might want to secede – the rise of a national identity requires a further set of conditions. The political theorist Miroslav Hroch has studied peripheral movements in eastern Europe extensively and has described these conditions in terms of a historical process encompassing three different phases, taking place in parallel with Gellner’s two main conditions, and often in support.[vi]

The first phase is characterised by scholarly interest in the language and history of the non-dominant people, perceived to be oppressed in some way. The central feature here is the work of the poets and scholars who help reform the nation’s “mother tongue”, and who often, furthermore, delineate what they see as a common national past. This stage is akin to what is often called cultural nationalism, which is how the nationalist phenomenon usually starts in both core and peripheral movements, as the historian Hans Kohn argued long ago.[vii]

The second phase involves numerous campaigns of political and patriotic agitation led by small groups of intellectuals and thinkers with the aim of winning people over for the national cause. This stage constitutes the beginning of political nationalism in peripheral areas, as the raison d’être has often been the advocacy of the interests of their own country, often to the detriment of another. Indeed, such movements have generally advanced that the realisation of a people’s assumed identity can only be realised through the establishment of a nation that is independent of the nation-state that dominates them.

The third and last stage involves the rise of a mass national movement demanding recognition, autonomy, and eventually an independent nation-state of their own. Mass movements have been central to the whole national enterprise in a different way, and here too we can trace the relevant events to the 18-19th centuries.

The American and French revolutions brought with them a significant shift in people’s attitudes towards their states (previous revolts were arguably more “local” in nature). No longer a matter of the king being the state and the nobles the lords of the land, the population increasingly demanded a say in the affairs of what after (some) linguistic and cultural homogenisation they would have regarded and accepted as their own country. And when a mass of people recognise and adopt a national identity a state can soon become a nation. The result is a double-barrelled phenomenon: a population demanding a role in what they now regard as their state, bringing about the end of feudalism, and a situation in which a state becomes a nation-state once the population adopts a national identity.

The end-result, as in the case of core nationalisms, is a familiar one and involves the most recognisable characteristics we typically associate to nationalism, such as the collective identification with a large territory instead than with a village or town; the feeling of kinship with fellow citizens, even if they are far removed from each other, making a nation an imagined sort of community (Benedict Anderson’s famous phrase); the adoption or implicit acceptance of many myths regarding a nation’s history and common past; a patriotic feeling that often manifests in the perception of a country’s honour and shame; and, last but not least, some kind of hostility towards outsiders, especially foreigners.

And just as was the case for core nationalisms, there is the question of whether Hroch’s preconditions for national revival, to allude to the title of his book, are at all just and natural, given that these conditions too exemplify a top-down exercise in social engineering. It is a curious feature of the politics of modern nationalism that many proponents of peripheral nationalisms are not at all exercised by this state of affairs,[viii] and it is precisely in these terms that a discussion of Catalanism and its most recent history may be most useful.


[i] Henry Kamen, European Society 1500-1700 (London, England: Routledge, 1984). Kamen points out that in feudal times most villages were controlled by the local nobility through various assemblies and councils, and thus the allegiance of villagers was often rather fluid (pp. 16-18). See, on Polesia, Miroslav Hroch, European Nations (London, England: Verso, 2015), p. 104, and on the Egyptian soldiers, Thomas Meany, “The Idea of a Nation”, The Point Magazine Issue 22 (June 12, 2020).

[ii] The kingdom of Portugal was founded by a branch of the (French) House of Burgundy and was briefly ruled by the (Austrian) House of Hapsburg in the 17th century, while in England the (French) Norman and Angevin houses both ruled for a long time and even the present-day United Kingdom is (nominally) headed by a house which openly bore its original German name until the First World War. I’m referring to rather ancient royal houses, some medieval, and in such cases the use of labels such as French or Austrian should be regarded as identifying loose, geographical regions only.

[iii] A central characteristic of feudalism is the fragmented, or parcellised, as Ellen Meiksins Wood terms it (The Origin of Capitalism, London, England: Verso, 2002, p. 143), form of sovereignty then the norm throughout Europe, with different levels of variability between countries, and within each country.

[iv] Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780 (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 38.

[v] Tom Nairn, “Marxism and the Modern Janus”, New Left Review, 94 (Nov-Dec 1975): 3-29.

[vi] Miroslav Hroch, Social Preconditions of National Revival in Europe (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1985). Though Hroch’s work is focused on peripheral national movements, the overall framework can be employed to characterise core national movements too; every national movement was at one time or other a peripheral and therefore a minority affair.

[vii] Hans Kohn, The Idea of Nationalism (New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1944). Kohn thought that nationalism was a state of mind (p. 9), and there is certainly some truth to this, as I argued on the psychological underpinnings of the nationalist ethos. The more recent historian Caspar Hirschi, The Origins of Nationalism (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2012), has traced cultural nationalism back to humanist intellectuals from the 15th century, though in the case of peripheral nationalisms this phenomenon properly pertains to the 18-19th centuries, either in terms of a revival of sorts (as in the case of Catalonia within Spain, more or less a peripheral national movement, as mentioned) or as a first appearance altogether (as in Estonia or Slovakia; see Hobsbawm, op. cit., pp. 165 et seq., for some comments).

[viii] As a case in point, take this 2012 op-ed (a Spanish-language article) by Ramón Zallo, Emeritus Professor at the University of the Basque Country, and an expert on, and indeed proponent of, Basque nationalism. In this article, Zallo alludes to Hroch’s three stages of national revival (without mentioning Hroch at all, actually) and simply takes them for granted as a natural phenomenon in history, further stating that Catalonia and the Basque Country are in phase 3, with other regions of Spain in either phase 2 or somewhere between phases 1 and 2 (with the expectation of further progression in some cases). What is particularly galling about such discourse is the failure to realise that what is typically coercive and even repressive of core nationalisms is also present, in potentia, in peripheral nationalisms too (as I pointed out last month).