Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996


John Rex (1996) 'Contemporary Nationalism, Its Causes and Consequences for Europe - A Reply to Delanty'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 1, no. 4, <>

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Received: 17/7/96      Accepted: 11/9/96      Published: 2/10/96

I am sure that there are many points on which I agree with Delanty. (See Rex Vol. 1, No. 2; Delanty Vol. 1, No. 3). The differences mainly result from our different conceptualizations of terms like " nationalism", "culture" and "identity". Let me, however, at the risk of overstating these differences, reply to some of his main points.

Clearly we are agreed that contemporary nationalism or the anxiety about "national identity" in the European nations or nation states is different from the nationalism of the nineteenth century and that whereas the latter was inclusive the former tends to be exclusive. Where we appear to disagree is that whereas Delanty follows Billig in suggesting that what is important is the "banal" nationalism of the media and the masses which pits itself against the state, I want to emphasize the new nationalism of the agents of the states themselves (though this is in some kind of dialectical relationship with popular mass nationalism).

The problem here may be that neither of us make as clear as we should the difference between what is the case and what we would wish to be the case. In my view the ideal situation would be one in which a civic nationalism centering around the notion of equality was pursued, together with a recognition of the value of cultural diversity. I have never, however, suggested that this is description of policies actually pursued by national governments either internally or at a supra-national level. I would certainly agree that in the quest for a European identity national governments should seek to promote a European civic culture rather than a policy of exclusion based upon race or religion. Unfortunately they don't, however, and I have suggested that, although it protests loudly about being against "Racism" and "xenophobia", the European Union has devised an institution in the Migrants Forum which classifies racial and cultural minorities who are citizens together with the gastarbeiders who are not. The problems of minorities are, in fact, to be marginalized and dealt with outside the normal democratic process.

In a way more fundamental than this in my view is my unwillingness to accept Delanty's uncritical use of the concept of identity. I am always worried about this obscure concept. What one has to distinguish between are the cognitive use of the concept, referring to the way in which individuals, guided by cultural norms, perceive social entities and their own place within a world of such entities, and its more emotive use involving some conception of identification or belonging. The first of these can be thought of as cool, rational and flexible; the second is less rational and what perhaps moves men and women to action. The first is what underlies the concept of a civic culture and the second the more emotive forms of nationalism. But I do not accept that the agents of the state work only with the first and the masses and the media only with the second.

Delanty also seems to want to argue that the banal nationalism of the masses is now no longer about the pursuit of interests as, I think, was the case with classes, but is now primarily concerned with identity (apparently referring to the desire for a sense of belonging). He is supported in this by modern social movements theory as expounded by Alain Touraine and others. I have never been able to accept this because I continue to believe that interests still play a part in determining the course of group action both in the indigenous population and among incoming immigrants. Because of this I want to see a careful empirical study and analysis of the actual organizations through which men and women act collectively. Underlying this is my own Weberian view of the nature of sociological explanation. Any such explanation must be not only "causally adequate", but "adequate on the level of meaning". Both Marxist and Weberian explanations of class behaviours have the merit of doing this. They seek to show how, given particular relations of production or market situations, typical individuals are likely to act. Now it may well be that such interpretations of action are inadequate taken by themselves and need supplementation with other ideal types, but it does not appear clear to me what it means to say that individuals who are subject to social fragmentation and who have been disappointed by what the nation state delivers will therefore become concerned above all to achieve identity. They will surely still have interests which they pursue and which affect the structure of their organizations.

This brings us to the central point of apparent disagreement. I have said that contemporary nationalism is directed against incoming immigrants as well as against supra- national entities. Delanty denies that banal nationalism has anything to do with immigrants at all, but is purely directed against the inadequacies of the nation state. My view is that it would be optimistic to expect that there would not be some perception of the threat of immigrant competition, even though intelligent liberal intellectuals might feel able to prove that immigrants did not in the long run constitute such a threat.

Together with this fear of potential competitors the indigenous masses might also be expected to react to the presence of immigrants in terms of xenophobia. These immigrants appear to challenge existing forms of identification and belonging as well as existing cognitive maps of the social world. I fail to see, therefore, even if it is conceded that it is banal nationalism which is at issue why it should be argued that this is not directed against immigrants.

Whether we are talking about interests or identity, however, we should be clear that the "banal" interpretation of the immigrants' role may be challenged. It can be argued that they are not the economic threat which they are assumed to be and that immigrant cultures are not static and include their own internal modernizing element. The goal of liberal and social democratic politics is, I suppose, to win this twofold argument with the ideology and sentiments of banal nationalism and with those of the agents of the state itself.

Marx's Eleventh Thesis tells us that whereas "hitherto philosophers have only interpreted the world", "the point is to change it". To this I would want to add that if one is to grasp the full difficulty of changing the world, one must first describe and analyze it as it is. One has to fully interpret the behaviour of indigenous and immigrant populations as they exist if one wishes to change them in a liberal or social democratic direction. Clearly I do not believe that the problems posed by nationalism whether at state or popular level will miraculously go away in a supra-national Europe. They will have to be resolved, if we accept the desirability of combining a civic culture based upon universal values with some recognition of cultural diversity, at a national level. Then, at the supranational level, those agents of states who accept such an ideal will have to argue for and build institutions around it against the opposition of those from other states which do not.

Finally, I should say something in support of my contention that contemporary nationalism is directed not only against immigrants but against supra-national institutions. It is true, of course, that extreme right wing nationalist parties do not necessarily oppose the European Union. They may seek to use it. At the same time mainstream parties all seem to be producing splits between Europhile and Europhobes. We should expect to find in political discussion about Europe all four of the possibilities of extreme nationalist anti-Europeans, extreme nationalist pro-Europeans, mainstream anti- Europeans and mainstream pro-Europeans. None of these will necessarily favour a European civic culture based upon the values of some kind of liberal multiculturalism. The political reality of Europe, as of its constituent nation-states, is complex, and Delanty and I, in our capacity as political actors, will have to persuade, organize, and fight for, the ideals which I think we actually share.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996