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  • The Constitution of Nations*
  • Michael S. Kochin (bio)

What is the essence of the national relation as nationalists understand it? Every nation has its own history of how it became nationally mobilized, but the fundamental form of that mobilization is the same: that is why all these groups can be described as nations. As Tom Nairn writes of the Welsh:

Welsh nationalism, of course, has much to do with the specifics of the Welsh people, their history, their particular forms of oppression, and all the rest of it. But Welsh nationalism — that generic, universal necessity recorded in the very term we are interested in — has nothing to do with Wales … The 'ism' [the Welsh] are then compelled to follow is in reality imposed upon them from without; although of course to make this adaptation it is necessary that the usual kinds of national cadres, myths, sentiments, etc., well up from within.1

The fact that different nations offer very different kinds of criteria for national belonging — and very different origin stories for these criteria — ought not to blind the analyst to the fact that it is the same social form, the nation, that emerges in each case. Nations are social facts, like promises, and possess their meaning within a global framework in which every nation has or seeks a place. Nations in their being ought to be amenable to an analysis like the one that the speech-act theorist John Searle made of promises: an analysis that displays the constitution of nationality without depending on the particular motives of particular nationalists, or on the very different sorts of criteria by which different nations have determined their membership.2 Such an analysis leaves open the question as to whether we should be nationalists, even as it aspires to explain what it means to be a nationalist.3

Before 1900 the peasants who spoke various Baltic dialects were Lutherans or Catholics, yet by the end of the 1920's they were so strongly mobilized as Estonians, Lithuanians or Latvians that neither political repression nor the strongest economic inducements could turn them into Soviet citizens.4 The first mystery about nationalism can be stated thus: Why do national communities, constructed yesterday — even if at times out of primordial materials — retain their hold on us?

The nationalist idea is that the inhabitants of the earth are divided into nations, and that each nation ought to govern itself. This idea emerged in the liberal revolutions of the United States, France, and Spanish America.5 The second mystery about nationalism is then: How has the nationalist idea survived the replacement of liberalism by romanticism, romanticism by social Darwinism, Darwinism by socialism, and socialism once again by liberalism as the spirit of the age? We need to explain the power of the national idea given that the nation is an imagined or invented community. We also need to explain how it is that even though the nation was invented, for a given population to change its national identity is "extremely rare," as Liah Greenfield has put it.6

These are the two fundamental mysteries that the academic study of nationalism of the last four decades has sketched out for us. To restate: How can communities constructed only recently have such a hold on our loyalties? How has this hold survived the ideological revolutions subsequent to the emergence of the modern national idea?

To clarify these puzzles I will engage in what Anthony Smith has derided as "the theory of nationalist practice."7 I will bring together four texts, one rabbinic, from the tractate of the Mishnah (the codification of the oral law) called the Ethics of the Fathers, and three American: the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson's letter to Henry Lee of 8 May 1825, and the guarantee clauses of the American constitution. I will use these texts to expound the nature of the national bond with a view to understanding how it is constituted and preserved so as to meet the demands that we are compelled to make on it. Since subsequent national movements, from Spanish America in the Eighteenth Century to East Timor in the Twenty-First, model themselves on the American example...


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pp. 68-76
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