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The Invention of Civic Nationalism Against Europeans

Languages, peoples and ethnopolitical divisions of Europe 1815-1914

Languages, peoples and ethnopolitical divisions of Europe 1815-1914

3,960 words

Separation of Ethnicity from Civic Identity

Western nation-states should be based on civic values alone, individual rights, private property, and equality under the law, without any reference to ethnicity. This is one of the most powerful contemporary tenets. Europeans have been made to believe that a state that identifies its citizens in ethnic terms cannot be for liberty. Just as a liberal state is said to be one in which religious affiliations are decided by private individuals, and that the state should not “impose” any religious beliefs on its citizens, cultural Marxists have effectively imprinted on the minds of Europeans the notion that a nation-state can be true to liberal values only when the identity of its citizens are conceived without any collective reference to their ethnic identity. Ethnicity should be a matter of individual choice and the state has no business identifying the state with any ethnicity.

The only political/collective identity a liberal state can encourage among its citizens is civic, that is, the identity of being a member of a nation state where everyone regardless of race, sex, and religious orientation is afforded the same rights under the law. It is true that, since the nineteenth century, liberals have recognized civic rights for minorities already established inside the nations of Europe. What has transpired in the last few decades goes well beyond this. We are now being told that liberalism requires civic nations to be thoroughly diversified in order to fulfill the ideals of a nation that is truly civic. In other words, there is a mandate accepted by all mainstream political parties and all political theorists that Western nations must cease to be populated by citizens belonging to one race or a majority race, with a culture that reflects the history and traditions of this race. The diversification of the citizenry along both racial and cultural lines is now hailed as the liberally progressive thing to do. Those who oppose mass immigration in the name of preserving their age-old ethnocultural characterare automatically classified as illiberal. You can criticize immigration on economic grounds but never for the sake of maintaining the ethnic character of your nation.

How did we reach this position, from recognition of the individual rights of minorities to widespread consensus among current elites that liberalism demands the diversification of Western nations through mass immigration?

The Intellectual Proponents of Civic Nationalism

Be it noted that the nations states of western Europe, as will be briefly shown below, actually emerged as civic nations in conscious celebration and awareness of their millennial ethnic heritage. So why did liberal theorists come to accept the argument that Western nations, to be truly civic, cannot be based on ethnicity? It seems to me that this identification of Western nations with civic identities cannot be understood apart from the very successful theoretical efforts of Hans Kohn, Karl Deutsch, Ernest Gellner, and Eric Hobsbawm against any notion that Western nations were rooted in primordial ethnic identities. According to Azar Gat, an Israelite whose book Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism (2013) I will be examining below, these authors were

all Jewish immigrant refugees from central Europe. . . . All of them experienced changing identities and excruciating questions of self-identity at the time of the most extreme, violent and unsettling eruptions. It was only natural that they reacted against all this.[1]

In other words, feeling excluded from nation states with strong ethnic identities in central Europe, they reacted by formulating the argument that the nation states of western Europe were inherently intended to be civic only.

None of these writers denied that people in the premodern era had a sense of communal kin affinities within their respective tribes or localities. Their focus was on themodern nation states of Europe, and their argument was that these nation states, and the corresponding ideology of nationalism, were “artificial historical constructs,” “invented traditions,” designed by political elites interested in forging powerful territorial states among previously scattered and loosely related rural communities lacking a sense of national-ethnic identity. The claim that European nations contain a strong ethnic core was not factual but an ideological weapon employed by state-elites seeking to create states with mass appeal, a national infrastructure, official languages, centralized taxation, national currency and laws, through the modern era, culminating in the nineteenth century. The exhortations of nationalists in the 19th and 20th centuries about the kin-ethnic roots of their nations were mere rhetorical ploys to induce in the masses support for elite efforts at extending their power nationally over an otherwise disparate, never ethnically conscious, population consisting of multiple dialects, ancestries and local loyalties.

With the experience of World War I and II, both within liberalism and Marxism, this critique of nationalism turned into a concerted critique of ethnic nationalism, which came to be associated with German militarism in WW I and Fascism thereafter. While Marxists, such as Hobsbawm, started advocating working class internationalism, liberal theorists such as Kohn, Deutsch, and Gellner began to formulate a strictly civic form of nationalism, while discrediting ethnic nationalism as both an artificial construct and as the source, in the words of Hobsbawm, of “demotic xenophobia and chauvinism” with no basis in reality.

Obviously, there were other intellectual currents percolating through the West, Frankfurt School ideas, civil rights in the United State, feminism, postmodernism, and, not to be underestimated, the pressure from corporations for cheap immigrant labor and consumer demand, coinciding and reinforcing each other in a grand effort to produce a totally new form of Western identity against the perceived dominance of European patriarchs. Much has been written about these developments, but the writings of the progenitors of liberal or civic nationalism have been neglected. This subject deserves far more than I am offering here. Suffice it to say that in Western countries civic nationalism has become the only accepted form of national identity. The meaning of civic nationalism is neatly captured in the first sentence of the Wikipedia entry:

Civic nationalism is a kind of nationalism identified by political philosophers who believe in a non-xenophobic form of nationalism compatible with values of freedom, tolerance, equality, and individual rights.

According to Hans Kohn, Western nation-states were civic from their beginning in the late eighteenth century. “Illiberal ethnic nationalism” was a phenomenon of Eastern Europe, Russia, and Fascism, places that hyped up the ethnic character of the people while suppressing individual rights.

Civic nationalism came out of western-north European countries where a solid middle class had developed; the members of this class were inclined to a conception of the state as a voluntary association of individual wills. This was a progressive class, or so argued Kohn, in wanting a form of citizenship based on laws originating out of the free reasoning of individuals; this class did not like states that impose an ethnocultural identity on its members. Ethnic nationalism, by contrast, come out of cultures lacking a middle class, driven by regressive classes suspicious of free willing individuals, and preferring states that impose on their people an irrational sense of ethnic collective identity inspired by emotions rather than by factual historical realities.

Celebrating the Ethnicity of Others while Accusing Europeans of Ethnocentrism

These ideas resonated greatly in the aftermath of WWII. The term “ethnicity” itself came to be defined in strictly cultural terms without any reference to race or biological distinctions among different groups. Every textbook in the social sciences in the 1950s and after came to endorse this culturalist definition. Combined with this definition academics added an instrumental and/or functionalist definition, according to which ethnic identification was a superstructural phenomenon behind which stood the real interests of ruling classes consolidating their power, or the functional requirements of a national system of education, administration, war-making, and overall modernization. Here is what Jonathan Hall says about the usage of ethnicity:

In the wake of the Second World War — and more particularly the Holocaust — the motives for treating ethnic identity as a valid area of research were discredited…The anthropological response to the crisis of scholarship occasioned by the Second World War was the ‘instrumentalist’ approach to ethnicity which proclaimed that ethnic identity was a guise adopted by interest groups to conceal aims that were more properly political or economic.[2]

But Jonathan Hall then notes that this cultural-instrumental approach also came to be seen, from the 1970s on, as inadequate in not being able to account for numerous post WWII national liberation movements across the world that were self-consciously identifying themselves along blood lines and viciously fighting for their “ancestral territories.” What Hall leaves out, and should be kept in mind as we read this next passage, is that social scientists were starting to view ethno-kin identities in the non-Western world as progressive, not as fixed identities but as “negotiable” identities, in reference to “oppressed minorities” and without reference to genetic traits.

Yet the ethnic resurgences of the 1970s and 1980s presented a clear challenge to the validity of the instrumentalist approach; this prompted a renewed anthropological interest in the subject of ethnic identity. . . . Current research tends to grant at least an intersubjective reality to ethnic identity, though it differs from pre-war scholarship on a number of important points. Firstly, it stresses that the ethnic group is not a biological group but a social group, distinguished from other collectivities by its subscription to a putative myth of shared descent and kinship and by its association with a ‘primordial’ territory. Secondly, it rejects the nineteenth-century view of ethnic groups as static, monolithic categories with impermeable boundaries for a less restrictive model which recognises the dynamic, negotiable and situationally constructed nature of ethnicity. Finally, it questions the notion that ethnic identity is primarily constituted by either genetic traits, language, religion or even common cultural forms. While all of these attributes may act as important symbols of ethnic identity, they really only serve to bolster an identity that is ultimately constructed through written and spoken discourse.[3]

Clearly, this passage admits that “a putative myth of shared descent and kinship” and “primordial territory” may play a role in the self-identification of groups, but then proposes that ethnicity is never static but dynamic and “situationally constructed,” and, in the end, decides that it is “ultimately constructed” through discourses. This is actually the state of the research on ethnicity today — a postmodern mishmash seemingly playing multiple sides yet “ultimately” defining ethnicity in discursive terms very similar to Hans Kohn’s civic definition, while avoiding any substantive biological references. Hall does not reveal the political considerations underlying this renewed emphasis on ethnic kinship. He assumes it was a purely scholastic affair conducted by university professors pursuing the truth. He ignores the growing voices both for the ethnic authenticity of non-European minorities and for the inauthentic character of Western civic nations. Just as the ethnic identities of non-Europeans were being heralded as liberating and progressive, the notion that Western nations were civic since the 18th century, or earlier, was increasingly subject to criticism due to their “discriminatory” treatment of minorities inside their borders, their imperial designs, and their “white only” immigration policies, which pointed to the presence of ethnic discrimination and thus the reality of ethnicity.

Of course, this is not quite how the revival of interest in ethnicity was interpreted by its proponents. There is no denying either that the idea that Western nations were simply civic just seemed out of touch with reality, regardless of one’s political intentions. The leading critic of the concept of civic nationalism was Anthony Smith, starting with his book, The Ethnic Origins of Nations, and multiple publications since. His main contention was that modern nations were not created ex nihilo on the basis of civic values alone or because the ruling elites wanted to augment their authority through modern infrastructures; rather, nation states were created on the basis of pre-existing ancestral ties and sense of historical continuity. A sense of nationhood predated the modern era and could be traced as far back as ancient times and throughout the world. The nations of Europe were not mere “inventions” or functional requirements of modernity, but were factually rooted in the past, in common myths of descent. While the rise of modern industry and modern bureaucracies allowed for the materialization of nation-states in Europe, these nations were primordially based on a population with a collective sense of kinship.

Smith’s work was undoubtedly fruitful in challenging the notion that Western nations were inherently civic. Yet, for all this, Smith’s concept of ethnicity was more about the importance of past communities, a rough territory, a language, artistic styles, myths and symbols, states of mind, than about emphasizing any form of identity along blood lines — actual common lineage and consanguinity. To be sure, an ethnic group cannot be categorized as a race, but his concept of ethnicity followed the mandated social science prohibition against the inclusion of biological references, physical characteristics, skin color, body shape, and other features that have a racial dimension. Ethnicity was defined by Smith in terms of cultural traits, linguistic, historical and territorial traits, common mythology and folkways.

Meanwhile, as Smith was busy writing historical works, and without his full awareness, an avalanche of ethnically oriented programs, hundreds of conferences and academics were eagerly affirming the value of ethnicity, but only in relation to “oppressed” groups. Writing about this would require a separate paper. Perhaps the best way to sum up our current obsession with ethnic talk is to look at the mission statements of Ethnic Studies programs or departments. These are very vocal in claiming that race is a reality of the West that cannot be ignored because racism has been and continues to be one of the“most powerful social and cultural forces in American society and in modernity at large.”

Azar Gat’s Politically Correct Sociobiological Perspective

There is one current writer cited earlier, Azar Gat, Professor of Political Science at Tel Aviv University, who does appear to offer a strong biological conception of ethnicity, in his book Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism.

This book is said to be written from a “sociobiological perspective”. The opening chapters and the conclusion definitely state that nations “are rooted in primordial human sentiments of kin-culture affinity, solidarity, and mutual cooperation, evolutionarily engraved in human nature.”[4] Agreeing with “much” of what Smith says, he still finds wanting his lack of emphasis on human nature, evolutionary theory, and unwillingness to break away from a culture-oriented perspective. He writes that “ethnicity is by far the most important factor” in national identity and that through history nations “overwhelmingly correlate with and relate to shared kin-culture traits.”[5] Welcoming the application of evolutionary theory to explain human behavior, he says:

Its [sociobiology] relevance to our subject can be summarized as follows: people tend to prefer closer kin, who share more genes with them, to more remote kin or ‘strangers’. As a propensity, this is not necessarily conscious.[6]

But it soon becomes apparent that Gat (despite his correct recognition that humans have strong genetic dispositions and that preference for one’s kin is an evolutionary selected behavior, rather than an “irrational” “epiphenomenon of something else”) is not willing to recognize, or even say anything about the rational ethnic dispositions of Europeans, but actually takes it as given that Europeans inhabit nations dedicated to the creation of new immigrant ethnic identities under the umbrella of a common culture that cannot but be defined in civic terms. Gat is quite effective in documenting the importance of kin-ethnic attachments and common culture for premodern states, including empires, origins of modern European states and non-European states.

Yet, when it comes to the current Western nations experiencing mass immigration, it never occurs to Gat to consider the ancestral attachments and kin-relatedness of the peoples who have inhabited these lands the longest and transformed them into modern nations. He simply accepts without question the experience of mass immigration as if it were a natural occurrence consistent with the ethnic histories of Western nations. He proposes a new definition of ethnicity to deal with the reality of mass immigration, which is inconsistent with his sociobiological perspective. He proposes indeed an immigrant definition of ethnicity, by indicating that, while his definition of ethnicity is not restricted to culture, it views ethnicity “as an ongoing process” not exclusive to one ethnicity but capable of explaining the formation of “immigrant states” and how such states “habitually integrate new comers into a broad cultural and kin community.”[7]

There is no space here to go over some of the things he says about Spain, France, Britain, and Canada. Highlighting what he says about the United States and Europe generally should suffice to illustrate his rather civic-oriented and ultimately multiculturalist approach when it comes to current European ethnic identity. Although Gat insists that American nationhood is not founded on liberal propositions alone, and that “there exists a very distinct American culture, widely shared by the large majority . . . common American-English language and all-pervasive folkways . . . entertainment industry, Hollywood, and television,”[8] with a strong Anglo-Protestant lineage, he acquiesces to a cultural definition of America in viewing American ethnicity as a changing reality, not only with respect to diverse European immigrants, but with respect to post-1965 immigration policies, which he sees as a natural continuation of earlier trends.

My point is not to deny that American ethnicity is changing but to ask why he refuses say a word about “the deep human preferences toward one’s own”[9] that Europeans Americans may feel in the face of mass immigration since 1965 from non-Europeans nations. Or, if he thinks European Americans are satisfied with mass Mexican immigration, why is that the case, and does it mean, therefore, that American nationality is indeed strictly cultural? Or, could it be that Gat is unaware of the wider political realities shaping the way we think about ethnicity, and that European peoples, and only European peoples, are prohibited from affirming their ethnicity in the face of a system of mass immigration imposed across the Western world, and that social scientists such as Gat have been incentivized to go along with the program, unless they are willing to risk their careers?

Gat’s effort to argue that America is a nation with an immigrant identity carries weight when one considers the pre-1965 immigration period, which, after difficult racial tensions resulting from the high levels of immigration from diverse European nations in the 19th and early 20th century, became a well united nation by the 1950s, except for its non-European inhabitants, Africans and Natives. But he does not consider whether this immigrant identity was successfully nurtured due to the compatible ethno-European heritages of most immigrants. Instead, he takes it as given that America’s post-1965 immigration patterns are the same as before, writing that “the Latino immigration is not fundamentally different from earlier waves of immigration in its gradual acculturation.”[10] While he is aware of challenges to this argument, he thinks he can emphasize America’s ethnic immigrant identity simply by appealing to the common usage of the English language, ignoring how common Spanish is becoming in many localities across the United States and how whites exhibit implicit patterns of race separation in their choice of residential areas to raise their families and educate their children, notwithstanding their explicit claims about the benefits of diversity.

Having painted the United States as a nation with a uniquely immigrant ethnicity, he seems at a loss trying to account for the importance of ethnic identities in current European nations and Canada. “The phenomenon of mass immigration has transformed the map of identities in Western countries in recent decades.”[11] How and why are current Europeans allowing the millennial ethnic identities grounding the formation of their nations states to be radically diluted if ethnic nationalism is truly, in the words of Gat, “one of the strongest forces in history”? How did they overcame their genetic predisposition to have a preference for their own, and why is Gat taking mass immigration as if it were a natural process or somehow part and parcel of Europe’s national identity without even asking a question ? An honest sociobiological approach would have required such questions, but Gat only poses cultural Marxist questions to the effect that “not a few immigrants and their descendants are in fact integrating, culturally and socially, well enough for them to be described as ‘joining the nation.’”[12] But how are the original ethnic nationalities of Europe integrating with the new immigrants? If ethnic identity is so important why are Europeans expected to accept, in his words, a “weakening connection”[13] between their nation state and their ethnocultural heritage? In the end, Gat has no choice but to shift his take on ethnic identity in the direction of the liberal values Hans Kohn equated with Western nationalism; more than this, he has no choice but to endorse a liberal multicultural definition of Western identity.

He thinks a good indication in Europe of a common national culture is the recent “retreat” from multiculturalism “which has led to a reemphasizing in many Western countries of the official connection between (majority) culture and polity”[14] but he never brings up any shared aims between immigrants, a majority culture, and the state. The one factor he can muster in the name of a common immigrant culture, to repeat, is the fact that immigrants are learning the language of the immigrant nations. How about patriotic attachments to past European symbols, folk-songs, legendary historical figures, food, that is, shared traits that can be categorized in ethnic-kin terms? Not a word. Instead we get the usual attitude that things must be working since there is no civil war, immigrants are trying to be successful economically and educate their children. The only common culture that seems to be tying together Western immigration is cultural Marxism, an ideology imposed from above, without democratic consent, by bureaucratic elites convinced that diversity is an improvement and that Europeans are racist unless they interbreed with millions of non-whites. He regularly cites Will Kymlicka, calling him “the chief theorist of liberal multiculturalism” in a sympathetic manner, without ever bringing to attention Kymlicka’s open call for an end to any intrinsic links between the nation states of Europe and any form of ethnicity that can be called “European.” Is it not quite revealing that the same author who writes a book dedicated to a sociobiological approach on the ethnic roots of nations ends up sympathizing with the foremost advocate of multiracialism in the West?


The sensible response one should reach on examining the debate between civic and ethnic nationalism is that the historical research validates the idea that European nation-states were founded around a strong ethnic core even if there were minorities co-existing with majorities. The states of Western Europe developed liberal civic institutions within the framework of this ethnic core. Sociobiological research further supports the natural inclination of humans to have a preference for their own kin. This biologically based research demonstrates that humans cannot be abstracted from an ethnic collective. The claim that such a preference is an irrational disposition imposed from above by regressive elites is false. Ethnocentrism is a rationally driven disposition consistent with civic freedoms. Civic freedoms are consistent with a collective sense of kin-culture. What is not consistent with rationally based research, with individual rational decision making, and with our collective kin-dispositions, are the claims that Western nations were civic in origins and the current enforcement of mass immigration without allowance of open rational debate.


1. Azar Gat, Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism, 2013: 16
2. Jonathan Hall, Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity, Cambridge University Press, 1997: 1
3. Ibid. 2
4. Gat: 380
5. Ibid. 24
6. Ibid. 27
7. Ibid. 20
8. Ibid. 271
9. Ibid. 386
10. Ibid. 276
11. Ibid. 349
12. Ibid. 349
13. Ibid. 350
14. Ibid. 350




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