Nation States; in what ways, if any, it precedes?

In what ways, if any, do nations precede states?


Nationalism and its diverse manifestations occupy a prominent place in the contemporary era that witnesses ethnic conflicts and violence in pursuit of state formations.  Ever since the dawn of nationalism, as a theory and practise, the meaning of ‘nation’ and ‘state’ and the relationship between the two  always puzzled philosophers, leading to serious intellectual discourse. There are many theorists who perceive that nation precedes state as nation is the binding force that creates and sustains state. However, another group of scholars argue that it is the state and its formal political existence that creates and reinforces nations and thus state precedes nation. Both views offer strong and coherent arguments to support their views, even though they have their own flaws, inconsistencies and weakness. Nevertheless, both the theories have undergone aberration, misinterpretation and alterations with a view to justify wrong or unethical actions in the name of nationalism.  Against this context, the present essay is a modest attempt to analyse these two positions on nation and state. The essay examines the basic postulates of both these assumptions and then critically evaluates their claims and perspectives on the basis of the contemporary world politics and resurgence of nationalism across the world.

Nation and State

Before examining the core question, nation precedes state or not, it is important to understand the meaning of “state”, “nation” and “nation-states”.

According to Ernest Renan a nation is a soul, a spiritual principle (Anderson, 2006). Nation is generally perceived as a condition of mind, feeling and togetherness. A nation can exist even without a state. Interestingly, Anderson defined nation as an imagined political community (Anderson, 2006). It is imagined because members of even smaller nations will never know their fellow members or meet them (Anderson, 2006). Yet they share a common feeling of togetherness that makes it a nation.

In simple words, a nation can be termed as a large group of people who unite together on the basis of many common factors including religion, race, language, common tradition, customs and culture.  Here, the feeling of togetherness is more important than the actual indicators of togetherness and unity. Thus the real basis of a nation can be simple imagination or myth. But unlike nation, state is essentially a political entity. According to Rejai and Enloe (1969) “State is an independent and autonomous political structure over a specific territory, with a comprehensive legal system and a sufficient concentration of power to maintain law and order”.  State is a concrete entity with political, legal and administrative dimensions. But nation is an abstract entity with cultural and psychological traits.  The features and manifestations of state and nation raise many questions about their emergence, existence and decline. Did nations emerge prior to state? Is it the state that constructs nations and nationalism? Let us examine these positions carefully.

However, it is very difficult to answer the question in straight forward manner. Emergence and development of nationalism and the formation of nation states largely depends on the political, economic and cultural context in which it operate. Therefore, in the case of some countries, it was the nation that emerged first and the strong affinity and togetherness among the people necessitated the formation of state, paving the way for strong nation- states. But in some other countries, the state was constituted first and spirit of nationalism was deliberately inculcated among the citizens to secure the political and administrative legitimacy of the state. This process is known as nation building and the strong state backed by imposed nationalism is called state – nations (Rejai & Enloe, 1969). There are other instances in which both nation and state evolved simultaneously and reinforce each other. Thus, there is no unilateral explanation on the state- nation debate. It is context specific and varies in accordance with the geography, culture and people.  There are some scholars who argue that nation precedes state in developed European countries where as state precedes nation in newly independent post-colonial states in Asia and Africa (Deutsch, 1966).  In other words, they assert that nation formation was organic and spontaneous in Europe (Rejai & Enloe, 1969). But it is deliberately imposed from above in the case of developing countries. The following sections will examine these arguments.

Does Nations Precede States?

As mentioned above, the relationship between the concepts of ‘state and nation’ was always problematic in social science discourse. It is generally argued that a strong sense of nationalism preceded the formation of state in 19th century Europe except France. The French Revolution popularised the concept of nationalism and the Industrial Revolution gave further fillip to the idea (Calhoun, 1997). French Revolution highlighted the separate identity of nation and its sovereignty.  It is interesting to note that, The Declaration of the Rights inter alia asserted the existence of a nation. The declaration states, “sovereignty resides essentially in the nation; no body of men, no individual, can exercise authority that does not emanate expressly from it.”  French Revolution led to the formation of French nation-state through the merging of nation with state (Rejai & Enloe, 1969).

The spirit and oneness of the entire people were channelized to establish the nation- state. The slogans of popular sovereignty, self- determination together with liberty, rights and fraternity sowed the seeds of national sentiments in France and thus ultimately leading to the building up of a concrete political entity called French nation-state (Hobsbawm, 1990). But unlike other European countries nation was formed among the French people only after the creation of French state. When the French state was formed less than 12 % of the people were French speaking. The state encouraged the unification of many relatively small language and dialects into French to create a common language for all. The conscription and Third Republic’s laws of 1880 imposed on public institutions were used as instruments to inculcate national sentiments, common identity and interest among the people. More clearly it was an attempt to build nation over state (Hobsbawm, 1990).

The growth, emergence and expansionist tendencies of French nationalism encouraged the growth of nationalism in Germany. Germany is a classic example of nation- state in which nation preceded political entity. Germans existed as a cultural unit long before the formation of Germany.  The greatest exponent of German nationalism was Herder. Herder highlighted the supremacy of cultural nationality and Hegel provided political and ideological base of German nationalism (Smith, 1986). Bismarck and Treitschke effectively utilised the political ideology of Hegel to build a strong sense of nationalism and unity among Germans. The mission to unite the German people scattered throughout the region was completed by Bismarck in 1817 with the establishment of German Reich (Rejai & Enloe, 1969). In the case of Germany also we can see that the sense of common tradition, belongingness and imagined community consciousness triggered the move to construct a nation- state in Europe based on German nationalism.

Though both Germany and France represent 19th century European nationalism, it is evident that the process and dynamics of the organic growth of nation states in both countries reflect contradictory features. While state preceded nation in France, it was reverse in the case of Germany. Moreover, the idea of French nation was evolved among the French people gradually within the community itself (Kumar, 2006). It was based on popular sovereignty and imbibed by the entire citizens voluntarily. However, in the case of Germany the spirit of nationalism was imposed from above by the rulers. There was a deliberate effort to build nationalism among people. If we take the case of other nation states of Europe, we can further see the paradoxical situations that create, nurture and sustain nation- states and state- nations.

In what ways, if any, do nations precede states?
In what ways, if any, do nations precede states?

In Italy also state formation occurred after cultural unification and thus nation preceded state. Like Germany, in Italy territory was divided among small units and consolidating these small units into a unified Italy required building national consciousness among the people. Thus there was no Italian state until the national sentiments were directed towards the formation of Italian nation- state (Kohn, 1955).

According to Hans Kohn (1955), nation precedes states generally in homogenous societies that enjoy cultural uniformity or common tradition. If there is cultural homogeneity, it is relatively easy to inculcate nationalism from the top and making it trickle down to the bottom. This happened in the case of Germany.  He calls such nation states as “ethnic nations”. On the other hand, countries like France and Britain, state was formed on the basis of territorial convenience. These state-driven nations originate in multi-ethnic societies which are characterised by common customs, territory based affiliation and national heritage of civic nationalism (Kohn, 1955).

In the states where nationalism preceded state, ethnicity played a key role in consolidation of state power and authority.  Often the state is identified with nation as in the case of Germany and Italy during the period of Hitler and Mussolini. For example, Hitler upheld extreme nationalist sentiments and minorities like Roma and the Jews were treated as outsiders of the German nation. German nationality laws defined German in terms of German ancestry and non-German citizens were denied legitimate share in governance (Kohn, 1955). Thus, when nation precede state, it often lead to extreme ethnic revivalism leading to imposition of one culture or monolithic national sentiments over the other communities making it ethnic nation rather than a nation state. In the case of nation states in which state precede nation, ethnic suppression is not a major issue as territorial integrity and nation building on the basis of political boarders predominate over ethnic unification.

In the 19th century, however, nationalism and emergence of nation- states or state- nations were confined to Europe and developed countries. But 20th century witnessed the rise of many new states in Asia and Africa wherein the process of state/nation formation reflect diverse features and processes (Kautsky, 1962). Majority of the countries were under colonial rule and development of nationalism was closely connected to modernisation effort. But there are scholars who argue that emergence of nation states in these countries were fundamentally different from the European tradition.  According to Kautsky (1962) the word nationalism should not be used in the case of Afro- Asian countries.  Nevertheless, development of nationalism and rise of nation-states in these countries are indeed result of their close proximity towards western notions of modernism, democratic ideals and institutions.

In developing countries or post-colonial countries, nationalism developed as a response to colonial and imperial rulers and the need for national self- determination. But most of these countries, political boundaries and structure of state were already constructed by the colonial rulers (Gelandy and Kumar, 2006).  This was often conducted without respecting the national sentiments of the various ethnic and linguistic groups. Therefore, when the countries became independence, there was no coherent or unifying factor behind them except the struggle for independence.  For example, the Hutu and Tutsi people were victims of artificial boundaries created by colonialism. They were scattered in two separate states- Rwanda and Burundi, making it difficult for the two nation states to reconcile the conflicting interests of both nationalities (Smith, 2008). Even after independence the people of these countries didn’t recognise themselves as either Rwandan or Budundi. Instead, they remained as Hutu and Tutsi.

There are many such instances in which the artificial formation of nation-state on the basis of administrative and colonial convenience led to enumerable problems to the newly independent countries and their rulers. Thus, for these countries, building nationalism and creating a nation over the state was critical for their survival.   Hence, we may say that state precede nation in non-western countries as opposite to nation- states in Europe. In India, Indonesia and many other post-colonial countries, national unification processes was initiated after the territorial consolidation of state. In India, for example, British colonial rulers already established political structure, administrative system, roads and railways that connect the entire political boundaries. There was diversity in terms of religion, language, culture, tradition etc. The idea of India was already created by the British due to administrative conveniences. The British educated middle class intellectuals attempted to create the sentiments of nationalism and right to national self- determination among these multi-ethnic communities and thus freedom struggle became the basis of national unification (Guha, 2010). It was difficult to spread the western ideas of democracy and modernity to the people. Yet strong national sentiments constructed against the foreign rule necessitated the rise of nationalism in these countries. The same process was visible in Nigeria as well. After independence, these countries felt the need for a strong nationalism so that unity, identity and integrity can be attained even in the absence of a uniform culture and tradition.

Thus, many of the newly independent states in Asia and Africa heralded the massive nation building process with an aim to secure legitimacy and supremacy in governance (Coleman, 1957). Nationalism was used as an effective instrument to build state power and sovereignty over the people. These states initiated specific nation building strategies and often nationalism was equated with economic growth, modernisation and industrialisation (Pye, 1962). In short, we can see that in these countries, nation was imposed on the state from above unlike the western countries in which state was created on nation. In Afro-Asian countries nationalism developed from top to bottom with state- sponsorship and support, where as in Europe, as a general rule nationalism developed within the community organically and was proliferated across the community to create a strong state (Rejai & Enloe, 1969). Though the newly independent states inherited well-structured administrative systems, after independence, the new rulers find it extremely difficult to cope up with the legitimate demands of multi-ethnic and multi lingual citizens of the country. Hence, creation of a nation was a historical necessity to these states as only a true spirit on togetherness can challenge any threat to the political identity. In most of the countries, this strategy helped to establish strong governments that enjoy both legitimacy and popular support (Pye, 1962). But in some countries this type of nationalism led to military dictatorships. Pakistan and Bangladesh are examples.

However, this is not a unilateral process. Often the state-nation relationships were complex and it is very difficult to identify the nature of these relationships. Western scholars still perceive this situation of ‘state precede nation’ as weak and vulnerable compared to states that are firmly established on nationalism. They say that top-down national sentiments in these countries will often lead to dominance of majority nationalism and hence, minorities will not accept this wholeheartedly. Therefore, at the grass root level the collective consciousness of a nation may be highly exclusivist and divisive (Geertz, 1963).  Creation of an imagined community is easier when the people share common origin and homogeneity in more than one aspect. Therefore, when nation precedes and moulds state, it reflects a concrete national identity which makes it less vulnerable to disintegration. However, when the state was formed before the emergence of a concrete national character, it would be extremely difficult to do justice to the diverse and often antagonistic demands of the multi-lingual, multi ethnic communities that constitute the state. To be more specific, in western countries nation is stronger in nation- states where as in newly independent post-colonial countries state is stronger than the nation in nation-states (Rejai & Enloe, 1969).

Another feature that distinguishes nation states of Europe from post-colonial countries is its content. In Europe nationalism expresses the interest of the people and is generally “mass based” and organically developed. But in the non-western countries, it is “elite driven” and deliberately imposed on the people from the political state for the purpose of territorial integrity and legitimacy of governance. Nevertheless, in Europe, nation states were often associated with war, aggression and territorial expansion as the formation of a state based on nationalism necessitated unification of nationalities that were scattered in different states.  Contrary to this, in newly independent states of Africa and Asia, nationalism was not aggressive beyond the territorial boarders (Rejai & Enloe, 1969).

In some countries both nation and state evolve together simultaneously. American nationalism was not fully evolved at the time of independence. After the civil war, establishment of a liberal state and living together of multiple nationalities helped fostering a sense of American pride and thus blossomed into American nationalism.

Even though both state-nations and nation-states have their own merits and limitations, it is wrong to perceive these two models as inclusive and monolithic. If we look at the history of European nation-states and Afro-Asian state-nations, we can see elements of disintegration, apathy and marginalisation in both. In Europe, many countries failed to project the nationalist sentiments as new nations began to emerge within the existing nation states. In post-colonial societies national building efforts often met with antagonistic groups that are trying to form their own nation within the state. Also, both nation-states and state-nations face threat from globalisation forces as national boundaries are becoming weak. In European countries wherein nations precede state, the lack of territorial uniformity and integrity has created problems forcing the governments to invest resources in state building process.   Therefore, in the contemporary era, the question of state-precedes nation or nation precedes state is increasingly irrelevant as both face problems and crises irrespective of the nature of their origin. Both state and nation are complimentary to each other. In today’s world, people are more concerned about good governance, democracy and equal distribution of resources. Nationalism, whether organic or imposed, cannot enjoy trust and consensus of the people unless and until it is receptive to the demands of the people.

Critical Evaluation     

The above analysis shows that the question of nation versus state and its predominance is always problematic across the world. It is generally perceived that state will be stronger when there is an emotional, cultural and political unity before the establishment of nation-state. The USSR was established on the basis of a strong political ideology and a powerful state apparatus was well established by Lenin and Stalin over the multiple nationalities and ethnic groups. But lack of a common feeling, togetherness and binding force except communism ultimately led to the collapse of the USSR and emergence of hitherto marginalised ethnic communities asserting their identity and independence.  The case of USSR clearly show that ethnic nationalism is a key factor in state formation and imposing an overarching and monolithic state through suppression of ethnicity will shake the basis of the projected  state itself. Nation is of paramount importance in state formation. At the same time, a nation state cannot exist without a territory that geographically supports the thriving aspiration of the people who share the national identity and consciousness. Take the case of Pakistan.

Geographically it was the part of British India. At the time of independence, Muslims in India expressed their intention to form a new Islam nation called Pakistan (Hussain, 2000). Thus, Pakistan was created on the basis of Islam nationalism. But there was no geographical and territorial unity as the state was composed of eastern and western parts of India. Even though Pakistan initiated massive national building process to unite both West and East Pakistan on the basis of religious nationalism it failed miserably. There was no linguistic and territorial homogeneity among the people. The Bengali speaking East Pakistan people felt excluded from the Urdu speaking West Pakistani people who controlled administration and state power. This division ultimately led to civil war in 1971 and a new state based on strong Bengali nationalism- Bangladesh was formed. Here, in Pakistan, an Islamic nation failed to create an inclusive state in a multi- linguistic society as in the case of Quebec in Canada (Guha, 2010). Thus failure of state led to creation of another “nation” that share common language. But later period witnessed the resurgence of Islamic nationalism in Bangladesh side lining the linguistic Bengali national pride. What is evident here is the fact that state and nation should complement and foster each other. If not, both nation and state will lead to vulnerability, fragility and ultimately failure.

While analysing the question again it is important to understand that state and nation should not be perceived as two separate entities. Ideally state should merge into nation and nation should merge into state. If both state and nation function towards common goals and agenda there is better chance for the nation- state or state- nation to survive in the increasingly globalising world. National identity and a sense of belongingness are vital for the success of any state. On the other hand, a nation cannot exist without strong political authority and legitimacy over the people. Thus, state may precede nation or nation may precede state. But the amalgamation of the real spirit of togetherness with its political construct is extremely important for a political system.  For this to achieve both state building and nation building process should foster and reinforce each other through democratisation, peace building, consensus building among communities, conflict resolution and a strong commitment to equality and freedom. In such situations, nation state and state-nation can survive better irrespective of their origin.

We are known for our strong political science writing help team. Check out some of our services:

– Political Science Assignment Writing Services
– Political Science Essay Writing Services
– Political Science Dissertation Writing Services