Myth against myth: the nation as ethnic overlay

John Hutchinson (London).

Nationalism is a secular modern ideology that has been accompanied by revolutions and it has legitimised the rise to power of new social classes. For this reason many theorists have regarded nationalists as inventors of tradition and their claims to continuities with the past as either self-delusion or a form of deceit. Yet in many cases premodern ethnic identities have powerfully shaped the programmes and policies of many nation-states.

How can nationalism be the expressions of ethnic continuity and also of revolutionary change? I will argue that nationalism is a novel form of ethnicity, shaped by the polycentric vision of romanticism and by the unprecedented and unpredictable challenges of the modern world that require innovation Nationalists are able to justify innovation because of the ‘layered’ nature of the ethnic past, and they are able to overcome established ethnic identities by generating at times of crises novel myths based on romantic acts of sacrifice by heroic elites that legitimise new national projects. But these new elite-driven national mythologies overlie rather than obliterate older ethnic traditions. These latter can come to life in the process of nation-building, redirecting it from its original secular goals.