Theories in Nationalism

Keywords: kedourie nationalism, critique nationalism, nationalism critique


Nationalism, a term which has been defined in various ways and still continues to nurture the debate around it, is one of the strongest forces in the world as we know it today. Despite its strong influence during the last centuries, it has remained long neglected by academia (Hutchinson & Smith 1994: 3). One of the first scholars to address this academic shortcoming was Elie Kedourie, a British scholar of the Middle East, who offered a conservative challenging theory against nationalism in his thought-provoking book entitled Nationalism. In this sense, it is safe to say that most scholars concerned with this field of study have been influenced, to some extent, by the work of Kedourie and have taken issue with it.

Kedourie has dealt with nationalism in a number of books, presenting his passionate dissent against the spread of nationalism as an ideology in Europe. His book Nationalism identifies nationalism as ‘a doctrine invented in Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century’ (1960: 9) that ‘divides humanity into separate and distinct nations’ (1960: 73). As a scholar who spent a large proportion of his life teaching, Kedourie emphasized the importance of understanding the philosophy of history and the value of its practice, and criticized academics for meddling with political affairs (Kedourie, 1998a: 51; Minogue, 2008). A fervent advocate of strong, long-lasting empires, he argued, that nationalism as an ideology had caused global wars, destruction, and great misery (Sieff 2006).

The objective of this paper is to critically assess Kedourie’s contribution to the study of nationalism. For this purpose, this essay is structured as follows; firstly, it sets the context by briefly introducing the life and works of Elie Kedourie. This is important as, growing up an Iraqi Jew, Kedourie personally experienced the negative impacts of Arab nationalism which caused him as most other Jews to flee his home country. Kedourie blamed British policy for the rise of nationalism in the Middle East, a policy he later criticized in his works. The essay then proceeds to identify and explain his concept of, and arguments against nationalism; next, it explores Elie Kedourie’s dialogue with three theorists who were influenced by and developed Kedourie’s ideas; and finally, it presents a critique of his theory and concepts. In summary, this paper demonstrates Kedourie’s unique attitude towards and his innovative theory of nationalism, but also the flaws in his theory based on which led many of his followers and critics to charge him with ‘intellectual determinism’ (Lawrence 2005: 132).

Kedourie and His Works

Kedourie was undoubtedly a man of great achievement. An Iraqi-Jew, he was born in Baghdad on January 25, 1926, but migrated to Great Britain as part of the post-1948 Jewish mass departure from the Arab world (Minogue 2008). In his doctoral thesis, England and the Middle East (1956), which he wrote at Oxford University, he, for the first time, systematically criticized the British foreign policy and its inter-war role in Iraq (Kramer 1999). Accordingly, his controversial thesis was not only much debated, but Kedourie was asked to change it. However, Kedourie felt so strongly about his writings that rather than modify it, he withdrew it! Throughout his life, Kedourie offered a seminal analysis that expounded the state of world affairs and exposed the evil of nationalism. Although he published his most important book entitled Nationalism decades ago, Kedourie’s ideas still resonate today and are being studied by a number of critics and theorists of nationalism.

Kedourie was brought back into academia by his colleague Michael Oakeshott, and consequently held a chair in Politics at the London School of Economic for 40 years. He was an expert on Middle Eastern history, founder and editor of the journal Middle Eastern Studies (1964), and the author and editor of many outstanding books, especially on the Middle East. In contrast to many other scholars of and on the Middle East, Kedourie was able to see it in a wider world context (Mango 1993: 375). This interest led him from Arab nationalism to his study of nationalism as a universal phenomenon. The significance of this, was that it changed the traditional thinking of nationalism and brought to awareness its disastrous influence and its major potential in threatening world order.

Besides the book Nationalism, his published works also include Afghani and Abduh: An Essay on Religious Unbelief and Political Activism in Islam (1966), the famous The Chatham House Version (1970), Nationalism in Asia and Africa (1970), and Arabic Political Memoirs and Other Studies (1974). Among his later books are In the Anglo-Arab Labyrinth (1980), The Crossman Confessions (1984), Politics in the Middle East (1992), and Hegel and Marx: Introductory Lectures, his posthumous book published in 1995. Kedourie impressed with his sharp intellect and his rather eloquent, clear and coherent writing style. Although English was his third language, his works were written ‘in an excellent English style worthy of one of the greatest orientalists and scholars of our time’ (Moreh 1998: 2). Especially in his book Nationalism, he manages to draw a clear and red line from the sometimes very abstract explorations of the foundations, on which he then builds his theory, to the explanation of his approach itself.

In addition, Kedourie’s personality stood out in academia. As opposed to many academics, Kedourie neither locked himself in the so-called academic ivory tower, nor did he fall into the circle of self-adoration. Kedourie, more than anything else, was a mentor and father figure to his students (Salibi 1994)! Although he was sometimes referred to as idealistic, most of his students and scholars alike remember Kedourie as humble, dignified, kind, and a generous scholar with ‘quiet and gentle courtesy which one could always count on’ (Salibi 1994).

Kedourie’s Concept and Critique of Nationalism

After the two World Wars, a grouping of independent states created the United Nations and other international bodies, such as the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) or theEuropean Economic Community (EEC), and forged multilateral treaties (for example Treaty of Paris, NATO, Warsaw Pact) to sustain peace and worldwide cooperation in the hope of preventing another global conflict. Kedourie believed that many calamitous global events, such as war, destruction, poverty, famine and genocide, were caused by a doctrine of nationalism, which justified the division of nations. Kedourie (1993b: xiii) viewed nationalism as an ideology and believed that it had been made a contrived religion by governments to justify their actions and to maintain their so-called right to national self-determination (Kelidar 1993: 5-6).

Kedourie laid out his controversial theory against the nationalism doctrine in his book Nationalism. In the first chapter, ‘Politics in a New Style’, he explains his pessimism about ideological and constitutional politics, which presupposes nationalism as an effective force to strengthen and preserve the identity and authority of a nation (Spencer & Wollman 2002: 49). In the following chapters, he tackled the concept of self-determination, which the intellectuals, particularly Immanuel Kant, brandished as ‘the supreme political good’ (Kedourie 1993a: 22); the relation of state and individual, wherein he criticized the influence of Kant on modern thinkers and the effects of dangerous political ideas on individuals; diversity, which spread the world over as a result of the propagation of nationalism; and national self-determination, which has caused the division of states into nations, disorders and wars. In the last two chapters, he addressed the relationship between nationalism and politics and its negative consequences. Kedourie was the first theorist who addressed nationalism systematically and identified it as (an historically erroneous) doctrine. His path-breaking theory introduced new standards to the traditional studies of the phenomenon which saw in granting self-determination the only acceptable way to deal with nationalism.

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Kedourie relied on historical accounts of global events and on this basis identified three strong arguments against nationalism. Firstly, he claimed that nationalism as a political ideology was impotent and had no significance to reality. Secondly, he asserted that the divisive character of nationalism caused and will continue to cause wars and man-made catastrophes. Finally, he saw nationalism as being about the enshrinement of the concept of sovereignty or self-determination as the fundamental force of global order (Kedourie 1993b: xvi).

With regards to his first argument, nationalism was seen as being a political ideology due to its extensive relation to politics. He observed that the doctrine was first conceived and then propagated in Europe in the last century (Deol, 2000: 12). It was an era when nationalism was systematically turned into kind of religion to inspire the people and make them believe that they had a duty and responsibility to serve their homeland.

According to Kedourie, the purpose of ideological politics was to impose political culture, legal principles and moral standards on people by means of force (1986: 47-48). When a government seeks to establish an ideology, it can only do so through the use of force and arbitrary powers. He identified the platonic character of this strategy, which posits that a state or society has to eliminate the ideology of the people so as to impose its own political culture or ideology (Kedourie 1993b: xiv).

Kedourie’s argument is clear: ideological politics in the last century has caused many horrific events because of the ideologists’ attempt to change the status quo and to enforce their own ideology on the masses. As an example he mentioned the case of Yugoslavia. Following its creation after the First World War, Yugoslavia sought to attain unity in order to establish an independent state, but such a national ambition was waylaid when the Yugoslavs fell into the oppressive hands of the Hungarians, Austrians and Ottomans. Another argument he made against ideological politics was that a state that espoused nationalism caused the division of its individual subjects and separation between the government and the governed. Kedourie asserted that a society that adopted certain kinds of principles deprived the people of their rights. A group of people treated as mere ciphers by their rulers would be led to treat their fellow men in the same way.

Turning to his second argument – nationalism will lead to war and manmade disasters- Kedourie explained that nationalism supports the division of humanity into a number of states and thus also supports the division of men in terms of race, tradition, religion, and political ideology (1986: 71-73). Since nations are divided into many categories, Kedourie argues that wars and disasters are inevitable. He argued that conflicts and chaos ravaged the whole of Europe between 1848 and the end of World War II because of the concept of nationalism (Kedourie 1993b: xvi).

However, he rejected the argument that poverty is somehow linked to nationalism. Since most poor countries have prevalent nationalist ideology, he believed that poor economic conditions might bring about social displeasure, which may lead to the propagation of nationalism (Kedourie 1974c: 19). However, he claimed that the rise of nationalism in Czechoslovakia and Italy was not due to evident poverty. Furthermore, Kedourie believed that the development of nationalism in Asia and Africa was basically a reaction to invasion and foreign occupation (1974: 21).

Lastly, he criticized socialism as an ideological obsession that caused great destruction in the last century. He states (1993b: xvii) that socialism “has produced not happiness or spiritual fulfilment, or even material prosperity, but, on the contrary, unparalleled oppression and misery, and it has sunk by the weight of its own misconceived ideals.” Moreover, he suggested that the collapse of Soviet Russia in 1991 had led to a precarious disproportion of power among its former constituents and their neighbours. Hence, he warned that this power vacuum could lead to war. He concluded that nationalist ideology did not evidently ensure economic success or honest and responsible government.

Kedourie’s condemnation of nationalism and by extension his path-breaking theory, was seen by many theorists on nationalism that followed as ‘a milestone in the evolution of the theoretical debate’ (Ozkirimli 2000: 32). As a consequence, the vast majority of these theorists took issue with his theory in one way or another.

Kedourie’s Influence on other Theorists of Nationalism

Kedourie’s passionate arguments against nationalism gained both the admiration and support of a coterie of loyal followers but also drew some harsh criticism. Undoubtedly, he contributed enormously to the great debate about the origins and nature of nationalism. As a man of exceptional intellectual reputation with exacting standards in his thinking and scholarship, Kedourie was immensely influential on many modern scholars and his students alike (Salibi 1994: 4) and thus, achieved to transform and revolutionize the understanding of nationalism (Minogue 2008; Kelidar 1993: 5-6).

Three distinguished theorists of nationalism who admired Kedourie, but took issue with his ideas are Ernest Gellner, Anthony Smith, and Benedict Anderson. All of these theorists built on the works of Kedourie, and this made for a great contribution to the debate about the nature and roots of nationalism that dominated the European community in the nineteenth century (Gellner 1996: xix). Smith openly elaborated on the intellectual depth of Kedourie’s seminal arguments against the concept of nationalism, saying that the latter’s works “continue to exert a wide influence” on modern thinkers like him (2007: 213). Similarly, Gellner credited Kedourie’s work but also attributed a lot of critique to Kedourie’s ideas (Gray 2004). This paper will now examine in more depth some of these issues in order to provide a critical evaluation of the strengths as well as limits of Kedourie’s arguments.

Anthony D. Smith

For his part, Smith agreed with Kedourie’s concept of nationalism as an ideological crusade that seeks the achievement and maintenance of national sovereignty, harmony, and distinctiveness, on behalf of a particular group of inhabitants (2007: 214). Smith reiterated Kedourie’s argument that although nationalism was sparked by the myth of the French Revolution, this ideological movement was inspired by Kant, which then in turn influenced Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Smith claimed that the main proponent of nationalism was Fichte, a Kantian, who, in his Addresses to the German Nation (1808), established an agenda for the creation of a German national education (Choueiri 2000: 6).

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Smith concurred with Kedourie that this secular ideological movement was inspired by the declaration of independence, which states that sovereignty resides exclusively in the state. Smith (2007a: 217) also regarded nationalism as a secular form of religion, and concluded that traditional religions like Judaism preserve their character and that they contribute to the propagation of nationalism by serving as agents of collective sentiments. Smith thus supported Kedourie’s statement that ‘Judaism is a religion that accentuates the value of land and language and national feeling’ (1993b: 76) and suggested that there are cultural similarities between modern nationalism and biblical Israel and its covenant. This being said, in his Theories of Nationalism, Smith criticized Kedourie for selecting only the extreme features of nationalism, thus overlooking the civilizing and empowering influence of the doctrine (Jinadu 1972: 646).

Benedict Anderson

In his Imagined Communities: Reflection on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, Benedict Anderson, a modernist theorist like Kedourie, identifies the rise of capitalism at the beginning of industrialization era as the main reason for the emergence of nationalism: people’s literacy level increased due to the emergence of printing press capitalism. No longer were they dependent on the church for getting information. As a result, member of various communities became aware of each other and hence it helped them imagine the nation and the feeling of being a nation (Capmack 2005).

In complete contrast to Kedourie’s hostility to the idea of nationalism, Anderson posits that nationalism contributes to a better society and encourages good behaviour: ‘You follow the laws because they are your laws” (2005). However, he agrees with Kedourie on the importance of history, arguing that such doctrines as nationalism or nationality are like cultural relics that can only be understood by tracing their historical roots, nature and motivations (1991: 4). He thus stated that eighteenth century Europe was not simply marked by the beginning of nationalism but by the end of religious forms of thought.

Changes in the religious community, according to Anderson, gave rise to the belief that nationalism was a secular solution to the question of continuity that had been answered previously by religious faith. He wrote: ‘What I am proposing is that nationalism has to be understood by aligning it, not with self-consciously-held political ideologies, but with the large cultural systems that preceded it- out of which, as well as against which- it came into being’ (1991: 11). Hence, in many ways, Anderson simply complements the arguments raised by Smith and Kedourie that the form of nationalism that dominates the world today is a combination of traditional religions and of secular political ideologies based on national self-determination.

Another similarity arises by looking at their views on nationalism and language. Anderson suggested that language could be used as a cohesive force to nurture people’s love of their country. For example, songs, poetry, and national anthems are used as effective agents of nationalism (1991: 145). Accordingly, the use of language is a significant reason for the emergence of independent, divided states and the proliferation of print-word (Mar-Molinero & Smith 1996: 70). Similarly, though more pessimistic and with almost sad undertones, Kedourie elaborates that language is a strong expression of one’s individuality and thus the ‘most important criterion’ for a nation to be recognized and to exist (1986: 64). The emphasis on language with regards to nations, and by extension of states, has had many negative ‘side-effects’ among which language has been transformed into a ‘political issue for which men are ready to kill and exterminate each other’ (1985: 71).

Ernest Gellner

Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism was a direct response to Elie Kedourie’s theory, which Gellner believed lacked any real comprehension of the reality of nationalism, as a result of its overly intellectual focus (Gellner 1983). He dissented on the idealist argument of Kedourie that nationalism was the consequence of a historical anomaly and intellectual blunders, and suggested that it was rather an ‘unavoidable by-product of economic and technical progress’ (Gray 2004).

Moreover, Gellner rejected the premise that the concept of nationalism was based on the philosophy of Kant, and then spread by inept philosophers and intellectuals. He defended Kant, maintaining that there is no relationship, other than a verbal one, between ‘individual’ self-determination and ‘national’ self-determination, and that Kant was ‘a very model for that allegedly bloodless, cosmopolitan, emaciated ethic of the Enlightenment’ which romantic nationalists detested (O’Leary 1997: 198).

Similar to Kedourie’s pessimistic view, Gellner perceived nationalism as the strongest principle of political legitimacy in the modem world and stated that nations should be collectively and freely institutionally expressed, and ruled by its co-nationals.’Nationalism … invents nations where they do not exist.’ (1964: 168). Apart from nationalism, Gellner (1985: 1) believed that reformism and industrialization were the two enormous forces that were changing the world. This was his main departure from the concept suggested by Kedourie.

Gellner’s derisive arguments against nationalism perturbed secular rationalists, socialists, and conservatives. He agreed with Kedourie that nationalism presupposes that such important concepts as social justice, material progress, utility and reason, rational principles and law are merely consequential doctrines in supporting and imposing an established and justifiable socio-political order, thus inciting unrelenting denunciation from socialists and liberals for about two centuries (O’Leary 1997: 192)

Although it appears that Gellner presented similar views to those expressed by Kedourie, he did, however, criticize Kedourie for omitting the sociological analysis in his study of nationalism. Gellner believed that nationalism became a sociological necessity in the modern world, whereas Kedourie ‘rejected any sociological explanation as a form of reductionist ‘economism” (Kramer 1999: 637-638), and maintained that ‘history has no depths to be plumbed or main lines to be traced out’, and that ‘history does not need explanatory principles, but only words to tell how things were’ (Kramer 1993).

I believe that the differences between Gellner and Kedourie are rather of an epistemological nature than of a fundamental one. Although they dissent on origins of nationalism and on the type of their analysis, the basic concepts of their theories, however, do have significant similarities. For instance, they both recognize nationalism as a modern doctrine. Moreover, they both share a pessimistic view of nationalism and point out its dangerous consequences. Perhaps the similar nature between Gellner’s and Kedourie’s theories might be attributed to the significant influence that Kedourie had on Gellner. Lawrence (2005: 132) supports this idea when he writes: ‘his focus on the links between nationalism and modernization… certainly inspired later theorists such as Gellner and Hobsbawm.’

Critique / Conclusion

Kedourie’s basic contention was one of enormous skepticism and suspicion especially vis-à-vis third world nationalism, which he perceived as a reaction to European nationalism (1974: 1-153). It appears that his personal experiences greatly influenced his pessimism towards nationalism in general, and more specifically his rather hostile attitude toward a nation’s self-determination, leading to one of the main flaws in Kedourie’s theory. He was certain that the idea of national self-determination was not only absurd, but also destructive, immoral and could only lead to violence and discord in domestic politics (Minogue, 2008).

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Kedourie further postulated that the origins of self-determination were the Age of Enlightenment, which led men to discover the law of nature and rational principles, and its philosophical corollary-the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. This declaration states that a nation must exercise autonomy and that no man or group of men can go beyond the ambit of the law. Kedourie (1993: xiv) wrote: ‘The law was universal, but this did not mean that there were no differences between men; it meant rather that there was something common to them all which was more important than any differences’. While taking this rather skeptical stance, Kedourie failed to really develop his arguments on this particular issue any further, and thus left himself open to criticism based on philosophical and historical concerns.

He successfully presented a path-breaking theory against the perils of nationalism. Historical events tell us that extreme nationalism has caused global disasters, wars, and massive poverty in the past. He was right in arguing that both conservative and socialist governments subscribed to the ideology of nationalism to achieve their national goals. Kedourie and other nationalist critics exposed nationalism as a dangerous political ideology that must be rejected. Smith, Anderson, and Gellner developed Kedourie’s theory by presenting the causes, historical origins, and consequences of nationalism. Furthermore, today one might argue that some collectivist countries like North Korea, China, Cuba, among others have made nationalism a secular religion. However, Kedourie’s theory was not flawless as the section above has to some extent already shown.

Kedourie may have raised valid arguments against nationalism; however, as Smith pointed out, the relationship between ideology and nationalism is not always a negative one. In fact, for example, in the case of the periphery countries of the former Soviet Union, history has shown that a nationalist ideology enabled and mobilized people to free themselves from factors which enslaved them. Kedourie’s somewhat one-sided and hostile portrait of nationalism ignores its constructive aspects and its vital role in creating, as well as controlling, social and political change.

Another major flaw in his work is of epistemological nature. Throughout his book one question repeatedly comes to mind: How does he know that? For instance, looking at the question of origin, he connects nationalism with the French revolution as mentioned above. However, why, accordingly to Kedourie, was there no nationalism before the modern era? He does not take issue with this and thus fails to give sufficient evidence for his argument and against more primordial views on nationalism.

Moreover, Kedourie perceives nationalism as a (secular) form of religion and thus he suggests that it may substitute the traditional religions. According to him, the religious origins of nationalism are used merely for political purposes. However, he ‘neglects the relationship between religion and pre-modern ethnic identities in many areas of the world’ and then ‘overlooks religious and secular roots of modern nationalism’ and, thus over-simplifies the relation between religion and modern nationalism (Hutchinson & Smith 1994: 70).

Finally, it appears that his views on ideology and nationalism were heavily influenced by his personal experiences, as well as the British academic attitudes of that time, which were fundamentally skeptical of any ideology per se (personal conversation with lecturer). For instance, Michael Oakeshott, a mentor and colleague of Kedourie, doubted the political action and questioned the assertions made in defence of political ideology (Kedourie 1998a: 111). Kedourie was exposed to the teachings of early British scholars like Oakeshott who dismissed the notion of a science of politics. This is one of the reasons behind his pessimistic view on ideology and his scorn of the academics’ interference in politics.

In the final analysis, however, I agree with Kedourie’s skeptical contention as, looking at the world today and how nationalism as portrayed by Kedourie has infected and affected many countries towards the negative, his warning proved to be valid.


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