Common wisdom has long held that the ascent of the modern nation coincided with the flowering of Enlightenment democracy and the decline of religion, ringing in an age of tolerant, inclusive, liberal states.
Not so, demonstrates Anthony W. Marx in this landmark work of revisionist political history and analysis. In a startling departure from a historical consensus that has dominated views of nationalism for the past quarter century, Marx argues that European nationalism emerged two centuries earlier, in the early modern era, as a form of mass political engagement based on religious conflict, intolerance, and exclusion. Challenging the self-congratulatory geneaology of civic Western nationalism, Marx shows how state-builders attempted to create a sense of national solidarity to support their burgeoning authority. Key to this process was the transfer of power from local to central rulers; the most suitable vehicle for effecting this transfer was religion and fanatical passions.
Religious intolerancespecifically the exclusion of religious minorities from the nascent stateprovided the glue that bonded the remaining populations together. Out of this often violent religious intolerance grew popular nationalist sentiment. Only after a core and exclusive nationality was formed in England and France, and less successfully in Spain, did these countries move into the "enlightened" 19th century, all the while continuing to export intolerance and exclusion to overseas colonies.
Providing an explicitly political theory of early nation-building, rather than an account emphasizing economic imperatives or literary imaginings, Marx reveals that liberal, secular Western political traditions were founded on the basis of illiberal, intolerant origins. His provocative account also suggests that present-day exclusive and violent nation-building, or efforts to form solidarity through cultural or religious antagonisms, are not fundamentally different from the West's own earlier experiences.
As history, little of Marx's argument is especially controversial, or all that new. But as a principle of political science, it upsets many self-flattering Western theories of national development, which hold that the ethnic nationalism rampant in many non-Western settings today is a retrograde departure from the orderly march of states toward ever more inclusive and tolerant civic regimes governed by sweet reason. So even though Marx concentrates on the more remote antecedents of Western nationalism, he homes in on a present-minded moral: "We should … resist comparing currently exclusive efforts at nation-building with the West's modern, solidified, and inclusive nations. We should instead compare these recent efforts with the corresponding earlier and intolerant origins of Western nations." Chris Lehmann