Nation-state and feudal revolution

Patrick J Geary, 'The myth of nations: the medieval origins of Europe', Princeton, 2002, pp199, £13.71

Patrick J Geary's book is written as a polemic against the revival of blood and soil nationalism in Europe since the end of the cold war. His purpose is to deconstruct the supposed ancient ethnic origins and 'natural' or pre-political quality of the European nations. In the process he in practice, but not explicitly, raises larger questions about the origin of the nation-state and the transition from classical antiquity to medieval society - in traditional Marxist terms from slavery to feudalism. Answers to these questions will not be found, at least directly, in this book; but the questions it raises are of profound importance. Geary's starting point is the construction of myths of ethnic origin by 19th century nationalist historians, applying themselves to classical and early medieval texts. Modern academic history, as he points out, "was born in the 19th century, conceived and developed as an instrument of European nationalism" (p15). Chapter 1, discussing this process, focuses in particular on the development in Germany and the central roles of philology (the study of historical relationships between languages) and later of early archaeology - in particular the 'ethnoarchaeology' which sought to map language groupings by forms of material culture. Out of these came the general narrative of the Volkerwanderung, a set of processes of mass migration in the 5th and 6th centuries during and after the fall of the western Roman empire. This (allegedly) brought various Germanic and later Slavic peoples, defined by their distinctive languages and cultures, from their places of origin to found the European nations within and outside the former Roman borders: Saxons to England, Franks to France, Lombards to northern Italy, and so on. But, as Geary points out, these histories were a hopeless ground for territorial claims. On the material culture studied by archaeologists he quotes Chris Wickham: "a man or a woman with a Lombard-style brooch is no more necessarily a Lombard than a family in Bradford with a Toyota is Japanese" (p38). On language, in both the early and later middle ages and into the modern period, towns were often linguistically distinct from the surrounding countryside, and there were substantial other linguistic minorities which were partially or completely suppressed by the 19th century state-builders. Geary's alternative is not to insist that nations and the 'ethnic' nationalist approach are mere 19th century constructions. Rather, he approaches the problem through conceptions of peoples in classical antiquity and the gradual supersession and transformation of these, as the western Roman empire fell apart. The ancient Greeks and Romans, he argues, with a few exceptions thought about what we now call nationality with a fundamental dichotomy: Hellenes/citizens (civilised men) versus barbarians. Citizens were members of constitutional entities created by political histories. Barbarians were not fully human in this sense, but had a timeless natural or animal quality to their social arrangements. As a result of this view, later geographers and historians felt no shame in recycling old accounts of 'the Celts', 'the Germans' and other forms of barbarian - however much the peoples outside the Hellenistic world, and later the Roman empire, might actually have changed. In practice, on the one hand, the major self-identification of most members of the elite classes within the Roman empire was actually with their own locality; and, on the other, by the 3rd century AD and later, the Roman state's activities in creating client buffer states, etc, beyond its borders, had radically transformed the political practices of the 'barbarians'. It was this transformation, not migration, which created the new peoples with new names - Franks ('free men') and Alamans ('the people') on the Rhine, and Goths in the Balkans. Meanwhile, after experiencing a severe crisis in the 3rd century, around 300 AD the Roman empire reorganised. Its tax demands became markedly more onerous and less legitimate. Its military became divided between limitanei - effectively a militia - on the frontiers, and comitatenses - a mobile striking force; and increasing use was made of barbarian soldiers and officers. It adopted christianity, which provided a centralised state religion to replace emperor-worship, but conversely threw up heresy-hunting and explicit religious division. In the 4th and 5th century there was a marked growth of local identity among the provincial elites. Into this situation came the emergence of the Huns, initially a confederacy of steppe nomads, which established an empire in eastern and central Europe with a polyethnic composition and elite: Geary points out that Attila, the most famous Hun leader, had a Gothic name or title (p96). If some Goths and others were integrated, others fled within Roman borders, and their confederacy with other groups and some Roman army units, created in response to Roman mistreatment, became the 'Visigoths', who went on to sack Rome and settle in southern France and later in Spain. After the death of Attila, the Hun empire broke up into a series of new 'ethnicities'. In the course of the 5th century the western Roman empire broke up into a series of small warlord entities, together with a number of larger 'barbarian kingdoms'. Among these, the Visigoths and Burgundians in France, the Ostrogoths in France and (perhaps) the Vandals in north Africa attempted to construct separate 'barbarian' ethnic statuses. These were based partly on Arian religion, partly on dynastic myths, and partly on law-codes (with a considerable base of sub-Roman law), maintaining the provincials as 'Romans'; but they ultimately failed. In contrast the Franks in northern France absorbed the locals into their new ethnicities and adopted the catholic religion, creating a common identity, with ex-Romans identifying themselves as Franks; Geary suggests that a similar process may have taken place in post-Roman Britain. The Lombards in Italy, again starting as a heterogeneous coalition, rapidly merged with the existing population, and the Visigoths in Spain, after holding themselves aloof as Arians for some time, became catholics (and began to persecute the Jews!). By the end of this process 'Roman' had come to mean either a subject of the Byzantine empire, or someone who lived in Rome; and while there were still 'barbarians' outside the christian world. Europe had entered, if not completely, the world of nations within christendom which characterised the middle ages. In his concluding chapter Geary discusses briefly the 8th to 9th century Frankish Carolingian empire's use of 'ethnic' laws and the idea that law was personal as an instrument of government; before concluding with an analogy between early medieval European ethnogenesis and the late 18th to early 19th century formation of the Zulus. Both, he suggests, were fundamentally political processes. His conclusion is that nationalisms that rest on historical claims, and nationalist history, must be abandoned: "Europeans must recognise the difference between past and present if they are to build a future" (p174). England England is marginal to Geary's account of the origins of European nations, attracting at most a few side comments. Yet other work on the origin of England suggests a similar general conclusion. After the withdrawal of Roman troops in the early 5th century, the former Roman diocese of Britannia seems to have collapsed rapidly into a series of local warlord regimes. Over time the west - from south-western Scotland, through Cumbria and modern Wales to Cornwall - became Celtic in identification. A wide variety of (retrospectively self-identified) Germanic invaders and federate troops created regimes in the east - at least supposedly Jutes in Kent, Saxons in Hampshire (though the earliest supposed West Saxon king had a Celtic name), Sussex, Essex and elsewhere, Angles, and so on. Some larger political entities were created: Kent, Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria, Wessex. These entities remained for some centuries stubbornly independent. Yet, surprisingly, what the Normans conquered in 1066 was generally understood to be England and its inhabitants the English. So much so that the Norman invasion and settlement, which largely marginalised the Anglo-Saxon elite, was already beginning to be swallowed by 'English' self-identification by the time of Henry I in the early 12th century. Patrick Wormald in two essays from 1983 and 1994 has argued that a central role in the formation of 'Englishness' was played by the church. When Pope Gregory the Great sent Augustine to bring (Roman) christianity to Kent, he sent him on a mission to the Angli, and created one large ecclesiastical province of the Angli; and Bede wrote in the early 730s an Ecclesiastic history of the English people, the Gens Anglorum. This ideology was then "ruthlessly applied" by Wessex dynasts from the time of Alfred on to legitimate their conquest of the whole ecclesiastical province (or as much as they could conquer), creating a centralised state on the Carolingian model. Though it gives a more central role to the church (and the accidents of the church's ethnic identification of the inhabitants of Britain east of the Welsh border as 'Angles'), this narrative has two features in common with Geary's. The first is that it is clearly political. Nations are not pre-political linguistic or ethnic entities. They are semi-consciously fashioned in political processes. The second, which is if anything clearer than in Geary's account, is that the identification of nations emerges from the presence of multiple political entities within one religio-cultural entity - in this case 'christendom'. 'Bourgeois revolution' Geary's book, the work he relies on and Wormald all locate the origins of many European national self-consciousnesses in processes of post-Roman state-building and the emergence of 'christendom'. This approach is startling to traditional Marxists, who are accustomed to think of the emergence of the nation-state as an aspect of bourgeois revolution - and one which is 'incomplete' in many places, leading both to the Trotskyist concept of permanent revolution (that the proletariat must begin its struggle for power with the struggle for completion of the tasks of the incomplete bourgeois revolution) and the Stalinist-Maoist concept of the bloc of four classes in the national revolution. The empirical reason for this identification of the nation-state with the bourgeois revolution is the role of nationalist ideology in the French revolution and subsequently in Germany, Italy, etc, in the 19th century. This, however, tells us little more than the role of protestantism in the Dutch and English revolutions or of enlightenment republicanism in the American and French revolutions. Its theoretical ground has two aspects. The first, derived from Hegel and through him from the enlightenment theorists, is the idea that capitalism involves a re-emergence of the state and of sovereignty, which had been liquidated or 'parcelised' in feudalism. The difficulty with this view is that the evidence for absence of the state and sovereignty in medieval Europe is at best ambiguous; Susan Reynolds' Kingdoms and communities in western Europe 900-1300 (Oxford 1997) gathers large amounts of evidence in the other direction. The second is the claim that capitalism as an economic form requires a large untrammelled 'market space', which is created by national unification. This has also been an element of theories which attempt to explain English priority in the industrial revolution or in capitalism: England's precocious state and legal unification in the middle ages is said to have created the conditions for feudalism to collapse into capitalism. (This is an element among others in the 'Brenner thesis' of agrarian transformation as the key to the origin of capitalism, followed by Meiksins Wood in her The origin of capitalism: a longer view.) The difficulty with this view is that it massively overstates the degree of legal unification in England before the 19th century, and conversely understates the extent of the existence of multiple, competing and layered local jurisdictions, local customary rights, forms of regulation and local taxation up till then (eg, EP Thompson Customs in common). Indeed, the USA in the 20th century is a clear demonstration that a vibrant capitalism can live with multiple competing jurisdictions, regulatory regimes, and varying local tax regimes. A more general difficulty is that dating the 'rise of the nation-state' - if it means increased control of the centre over the localities and increased national self-identification as against local self-identification - has proved severely difficult for historians. If academics working on the 18th and 19th centuries have found it in their period, so have those working on the 16th and 17th centuries and on the 12th and 13th centuries. Feudal revolt In this context, the great strength of the approach Geary and others outline is that in the 5th to 7th centuries we really are looking at the emergence of a new kind of self-identification: the transition from the fundamental division, Romans/barbarians, to a new division between christian nations, which is superimposed on the christian/heathen distinction. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this emergence is also connected to two other changes in social ordering which emerge over the same period. The first is the separation of the landlord class and the clerical caste into two elites competing for social surplus, which begins in late antiquity and is not completed until the 11th to 12th century Gregorian reform movement. The second is the gradual transition, over the same period between late antiquity and the central middle ages, from chattel slavery to villeinage and the manorial organisation of production. The doublet, civilised man/barbarian, markedly maps onto the doublet, free man/natural slave. Villeinage, in contrast, allows the villein to be an Englishman (or a Frenchman), as well as a subordinate; or, conversely, the national identities partially created and promoted by the church tend to incorporate the subordinate population and make it harder to think of them, as Romans episodically did, merely as res loquentes, 'talking things'. The nation-state, in other words, is an aspect of the feudal revolution. Modern nationalism If we take this approach, it may induce us to look at modern national movements in a rather different light. In the first place, the bourgeois states are characteristically in their origins either sub-national divisions of earlier national identities (north Italian city-states; United Provinces; USA at its origin; Germany and Austria) or supra-national entities built on the accumulation of separate feudal nations by late-feudal dynastic aggrandisement (UK; France; USA very rapidly). The bourgeois state is not inherently national; this is merely an inherited form of the European state. Secondly, the processes of 'ethnogenesis' by cultural identification with ruling elites which Geary describes for the early medieval period go on even at the present date. But they are now clearly international: Anglophilia in the 19th century, Americanisation in the 20th and (so far) 21st. Thirdly, since the late 18th century nationalist ideology has had two aspects. The first is a response to British, and later American, world domination: 'If we are to resist the Brits/Yankees we need a nation-state of our own like theirs.' In this aspect the aspirations of nationalism are legitimate (since the successive British and American world hegemonies were/are profoundly oppressive), but illusory (as long as capitalism survives, it will throw up a new world hegemon, and this problem can only be solved at an international level). The second aspect is darker. Since the middle 1680s xenophobia, playing the national card, has been an element of the ideology of the English party of order, Toryism, in its struggle against democracy. In the European counter-enlightenment of the 19th century this became an aspect of the policy of the parties of order across Europe. In this aspect nationalism appeals to the 'ordered community' of the feudal past against capitalist liberty: its outcome is Nazism in the mid-20th century, 'ethnic cleansing' in the late 20th century Balkans. If nations are not pre-political, but political constructs, as the early medieval history as well as that of the 19th century tells us; and if nationalism (inherently) has this double character, as resistance to the capitalist world hierarchy and as reactionary nostalgia; it follows that the principle of self-determination cannot provide Marxists with a golden thread to guide us through the labyrinth of national disputes and struggles. It is necessary in every case to assess the concrete character of a movement which presents itself in national terms, in order to judge its political meaning and the proper approach of Marxists to it. Mike Macnair