Tuesday 4 May 2010

The Birth of the State

I've always considered it slightly strange that the nation state, nationalism itself, seems to have arisen with such historical suddenness, a little like Pallas Athena from the head of Zeus, with no roots or genealogy; a bastard creation, it might be said, of the Industrial and the French Revolutions. But the First French Republic, the prototype of the modern nation state, had to draw into the past for its own sources of inspiration; to the republican communes of Medieval Europe, and back through them to the forms of patriotism, solidarity and civic pride found in Republican Rome and the ancient Greek polis.

There is also a second tradition, no less important, of the seventeenth-century Protestant commonwealths; of England, of Scotland, of the Netherlands and of the Swiss city states, whose people, like new Israelites, were considered to be united by God's Covenant. It was this sense of uniqueness, of being the chosen and the elect, which gave rise to the desire for ever closer forms of unity and identity, the very earliest forms of religious and cultural nationalism. It was these revolutionary principles, of civic identity and religious ideology, which helped overturn the established hierarchies of trans-national empires, of the church and of the state.

So it was that by the late sixteenth and the early seventeenth century that the nation was already taking shape; a community united by a common language, demarcated territories, a dominant set of religious beliefs, a centralised bureaucracy and a uniform legal code. This was the framework that gave rise to nationalism; in covenants, in civic-republics and in new forms of popular sovereignty. As far as I am concerned the first evidence of nationalism as a shared sentiment in the modern sense comes with the Dutch Revolt against the Spanish Empire: a war of the 'elect'; a war of shared loyalties and a common identity; a war against a foreign oppressor. The primary focus of loyalty was no longer a kings, princes or lords in the medieval sense, but much more abstract concepts, focused on a unique sense of national and religious mission


  1. Sometimes I think you're too brilliant to be wasting your time in politicking(don't stop though). Whilst the nomenclature of 1789 is most similar to the language of current European nation-statehood, I've said many times before that the 80 Years War was as crucial if not more crucial in shaping contemporary Europe, than was the French Revolution. Your examples of the democratic Swiss city states, and Cromwellian England also, must factor into this analysis.
    When one strips away questions over Arminianism and other such religious conflicts that seem rather alien to our post Napoleonic ears, one sees a kind of prototype for the kind of national awakenings that occurred throughout the 19th and 20th century in respect of both governance and conceptual consciousness.

    I may have a new favourite blog...

  2. You are very kind, Adam. Don't worry; I get fun from the politicking. :-)

    As far as that other place is concerned, I felt a bit sorry for Brendano today. He seems to be something of an orphan.

  3. Not kind, straight talking--never confuse to two. Oh, I forgot you lot are happy, smiling compassionate Tories or what ever the bloocky slogan of the hour is--tehe.

    All I can say about My Telegraph is it's a good idea for a blog sight, and not a hell of a lot more--but good ideas sometimes take a while to take hold--so we shall see.

  4. By the way though, I'm going to be nice to Dave in the other place in the morning--stranger things....

  5. I know--see I told you I'm straight talking...for a partisan

  6. Always a sense of proportion, Adam. :-)

  7. So long as it's not a representative proportion.