U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Nationalist Teleologies

nationalismWaiting to hear back from my committee regarding the first full draft of my dissertation, I have tried to mitigate the anxiety of this weird limbo by delving into a side project I have been eager to explore for a while: revisiting American nationalism from a comparative angle. Hopefully this will turn into an article one of these days. Anyhow, two weeks ago after reading several key books about French nationalism (on one of which I wrote my last post), I picked up a book I have been curious about for several years but never quite managed to pick up: Liah Greenfield’s Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity (1992). As perhaps the most famous comparative work on nationalism, I knew this book must figure prominently in my intellectual detour, but little did I know what a treat this book would be—more so for its flaws than for its merits. I do not mean to imply that this book does not have merits—it has many—but for my particular interests it was far more useful for its flaws, as is so often the case with key books in the historiography one wrestles with.

The first indication I had that this study might provide much material for my particular gristmill came from my voyeur habit of reading the acknowledgments section carefully before moving on to the body of the book. To my great surprise, Greenfield’s long and generous list of persons to whom she owed debts for this project started with three of the most important post-war pluralist intellectuals: Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, and David Riesman. Later on the list I found S. M. Lipset as well. This proved particularly suggestive since, as I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the greatest impediments to our understanding of American nationalism, as David Waldstreicher has persuasively argued, (1) is that much of the thinking about it has been informed by euphoric post-WWII analyses of American exceptionalism. To such thinkers, in the wake of the war, the United States stood out as a case of serene and benign nationalism, whereas Europe, and particularly Germany, loomed as the paths American nationalism did not take. Thus, in the decades following the war many sought to mine American history for insights into how to avoid totalitarian impulses and, by the same token, European national histories for glimpses of the terrible future lying ahead.

The book is a great read. It compares the historical trajectories of five different countries, England, France, Russia, Germany, and the United States and their respective versions of nationalism. Furthermore, it argues that nationalism, in its various manifestations, is constitutive of modernity, rather than vice versa—as many other scholars imply. The scope of the book, its audacity, the author’s erudition, and its myriad interesting observations and arguments are nothing short of dazzling, especially for historians accustomed to much more particularized studies. What I found most arresting, however, was that anyone could write such a study as late as 1992, for this book seems like a product of a very different era—the era before postmodernism happened. Indeed, if I had to guess what year the book came out I would have replied 1963, the year Hannah Arendt published On Revolution, for it betrays similar blind spots as well as features similar spectacular broad strokes and liberal convictions. More importantly perhaps, the book conveys the same kind of positivist premises so common to much of the scholarship of the post-war era. Indeed, as with any piece of positivist scholarship, it attempts to render confusing and multifaceted phenomena orderly and comprehendible, subscribing to the premise that we can boil down every route nationalism took to a singular essence it carried from its inception. The kind of project contemporary historians would quickly pounce on as facile and reductive.

Upon second thought, however, the timing seemed to make more sense, for the book’s optimistic approach to historical research reminded me in some ways of the tone Francis Fukuyama struck in his famous article “The End of History?”, published just three years earlier, in 1989. It also resembles Patricia Seed’s famous study Ceremonies of Possession, which came out three years later in 1995, in which Seed attempted to show how certain ideas identifiable in the first years—if not moments—of European settlement in the “new world” help explain the various forms colonialism took in later years. I am no historian of the late 1980s and early 90s, but there seems to have been something in the post-Cold War drinking water that opened a window for more classically modern and positivist scholarship—despite contemporary trends influenced by postmodernism that increasingly undermined neat positivist conclusions. Indeed, several studies came out at about the same time that painted a very different picture of many of the nationalisms examined by Greenfield, such as Linda Colley’s Britons (1992) or Robert Darnton’s The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (1996). Furthermore, Greenfield’s revival of the “Sonderweg” arguments for German history is at odds with much of the scholarship of German nationalism since the mid 1980s.

Very much along the lines of post-war convictions, for Greenfield the most important distinction separates  Anglo-American nationalism, which she regards as libertarian and individualistic, from continental forms of nationalism (German, Russian, and French), cast as collectivistic and authoritarian. According to this scheme, nationalism initially developed as a non-particularistic phenomenon that invoked the forward looking notion of the sovereign people in England, but then things went awry when the French and later the Germans and the Russians adopted the idea and utilized it in a particularistic fashion. As one would expect, Greenfield is most unrelenting and teleological when it comes to German nationalism, arguing that “Germany was ready for the Holocaust from the moment German national identity existed.” (2)

For me of course, the book’s treatment of American nationalism was most intriguing. As opposed to continental forms of nationalism that veered towards the collectivistic and authoritarian, British settlers in America left for the “new” continent with an English national identity. Thus in the wake of the revolutionary struggle Americans were—for the next century or so—more a potentiality for a nation than the full fledged phenomenon. Using the metaphor of birth, Greenfield casts the American nation as a premature “embryo” rather than an “infant.” Thus for many decades “the unformed American soul hung precariously to the undeveloped body.” Moreover, argues Greenfield, “[u]nlike the case in so many other nations, American national identity was not sustained by the hatred of the other.”(3) Consequently the progressive ideas implicit in English nationalism could thrive undisturbed on American shores, and “universalism was destined to become one of the hallmarks of the American national identity.” (4)

In post 9/11 America I doubt that Greenfield would have written such a book. Indeed, recent scholarship of American identity by such scholars as Peter Silver and Jill Lepore (5) have linked American identity—even in New England, which is Greenfield’s focus—with racial animosity towards Native Americans. In this very one-sided review I do not mean to denigrate Greenfield’s book for I have much appreciation for her willingness to go out on a limb, something that I think is missing from American historiography. By doing so she provides the reader with a revealing thought experiment.

[1] David Waldstreicher, In the Midst of Perpetual FetesI: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820 (1997).

[2] Liah Greenfield, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity (1992), 384.

[3] Greenfield, Nationalism, 421-2.

[4] Greenfield, Nationalism, 423.

[5] Peter Silver, Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early American (2008);  Jill Lepore, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (1998).

2 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. From your post: “Moreover, argues Greenfield, “[u]nlike the case in so many other nations, American national identity was not sustained by the hatred of the other.”(3)”

    Wow. Apart from hatred of Native Americans, what of, um, that whole class of inhuman/nonhuman “others” from the Dark Continent? Sigh. And let’s not forget the subtle and not-so-subtle kinds of hatred that propped up the patriarchy.

    With so much “othering,” dislike, and hatred in the air, one might think that American politics and nationalism can’t exist without aggression and animosity. – TL

    • “Wow” was my response too! It’s so terribly–and willfully–naive about American nationalism.

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