BOOK REVIEW of “Nationalism and Modernism” by Anthony Smith

Posted on October 1, 2010 by

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Here’s an old book review I wrote of “Nationalism and Modernism” by Anthony Smith

Book Review: Nationalism and Modernism

” The 20th Century served as a witness to the awesome power of ideologies on a global scale. One of the most successful of these types of intellectual phenomenon has been, by far, the specter of nationalism. Yet, interestingly enough, even though nationalism has clearly manifested itself forcefully all over the world, it is remarkable that there is little scholarly consensus as to why it has done so. Given the dearth of comprehensible scholarly works on nationalism for the student of political science and international relations, Anthony Smith’s ‘Nationalism and Modernism’ is a welcome read on this remarkable subject. Smith does a superb job of providing a comprehensive survey of virtually every single thinker that has attempted to account for the stunning success of nationalism. Given the panoply of scholars and writings on this subject, Smith saves the reader the daunting task of sorting out all of the contrasting views by sorting most of the scholarship into the five paradigms of primordialism, perrennialism, ethno-symbolism, modernism, and postmodernism. Each paradigm is further described by its major thinkers and critics as well as how each paradigm defines the state, territory, religion, history, rites and ceremonies and how these concepts affects their explanation of the trend of nationalism. Primordialism refers to the paradigm that attempts to account for nationalism’s amazing ability to mobilize the masses by examining the “primordial attributes of basic social and cultural phenomena like language, religion, territory, and especially kinship.” (p 223) Perennialism posits that nations exist through long periods of history either temporally continuously or recurrently and focus on ethnic ties, myths of origin, and symbols as the source of nationalism’s vitality throughout the ages. Ethno-symbolism takes on an anthropological approach towards understanding nationalism by scrutinizing the role of symbols, myths, memories, values, and traditions within ethnic groups and how they give rise to nationalistic movements that utilize notions of sacred territory, collective destiny, a golden age, and group myths in their quest for autonomy. Modernism, largely borrowing from Marxist traditions, rejects both the primordialist and perennialist assumptions that nations existed since the dawn of human civilization and instead views nationalism purely as a product of modernization with special attention being made to the role of self-interested elites that utilize various means of communication, cultural myths, and symbols in manufacturing a national identity that was constructed for the express purpose of benefiting those elites who could not challenge the hegemony of the absolutist state on their own. The postmodern school of thought holds that nationalism reached its peak around World War I and the collapse of the Soviet Union will probably be the last wave of nation-state formation for quite some time. Instead, postmodernists would argue, the 21st century will witness a recession of the authority and dominancy of nationalism in global affairs and its ultimate replacement by a new world order of either fragmentation of the nation-state, globalization and the formation of a supra-national culture. Unlike other paradigms, postmodernism also is the first that examines the role of feminism in nationalistic movements.

Although Smith’s whirlwind rush through the multitude of opinions on nationalism is welcome and ultimately provides the reader with a thorough and comprehensive (at least complex) reading material, sometimes the reader is left with the impression that each view is not given the justice that it deserves. Furthermore, given the wide scope of the survey, even a student of political science may find him self slightly uncomfortable at the speed that Smith jumps from one thinker to the next, especially when he jumps between paradigms, without stopping to take a breath. It is self-evident that this book is not merely an introductory discourse on nationalism, but rather, is a book by a scholar for scholars. Thus, perhaps Smith assumes that the reader will have some familiarity with the various schools of thought and sees no need to introduce each thinker by giving a biography or reviewing their intellectual background and instead focuses strictly on each thinker’s specific views on nationalism. Nevertheless, it would be the recommendation of this reviewer that before anyone attempts to read this book in one reading, that he at least brush up on the basics of Western political theory. All in all though, ‘Nationalism and Modernism’ is an essential component in every Muslim’s library who seeks to understand the decline of the Islamic world order, its demise at the hands of imperialism from the outside, its complete destruction by nationalists from the inside, and its final replacement with the international system of nation-states.”

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