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Nations and Nationalism 15 (3), 2009, 439–445.

Risorgimento nationalism in the light of general debates about nationalism


London School of Economics, UK

This discussion of Alberto Banti’s work on Risorgimento nationalism raises important theoretical and conceptual questions about nationalism generally. Banti is well aware of these questions but comments on them principally to clarify his own approach. 1 Here they are my central concern. Nationalism can be treated as sentiments, or ideas, or political action. 2 These three aspects may be connected both in general models and particular accounts but nevertheless remain distinct dimensions. One can challenge any claim to causal priority; one aspect may empirically be especially prominent in a specific case; different scholars privilege one aspect over the others. Banti’s focus is upon nationalism as sentiments. This usually means an emphasis on cultural and social history (which roughly corresponds to a division between study of the production and reception of such sentiment), while the concern with ideas privileges intellectual history, and that on politics focuses on the institutions, movements and actors who seek state power, tending to treat ideas in terms of ideology and sentiments as linked to interests or as something capable of being manipulated. We also need to relate Banti’s arguments to debates about the modernity of nationalism, and whether nationalism is grounded upon prior national identities or whether such identities are better understood as nationalist constructs. 3 I see Banti as a modernist and a constructivist. He argues that the modern production and communication of nationalist sentiments – above all those embodied in the Risorgimento ‘canon’ – furnishes the foundation of the committed forms of action which constitute nationalism as politics. We cannot explain Italian unification without this nationalism. Unification in turn shaped the subsequent extension and deepening of Italian national identity. Banti wrenches the subject away from dominant paradigms which regards nationalism as little more than a rationalisation for the pursuit of various poltical and economic interests but without returning to an older approach which treated it as the realisation of a prior national identity and mission. 4 I make these preliminary points not to place Banti in a theoretical box – by itself a sterile exercise – but to enable me to demonstrate just how distinctive and original is Banti’s approach in terms of its combination of concepts which are usually separate or opposed in nationalism debates. To get some sense of this originality I need to introduce one further concept: primordialism. This concept is linked to approaches that treat the

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nation, or some crucial prior condition of ethnic identity, as requiring a long and enduring history – possibly even being a human universal – on which nationalism builds. 5 However, if we define primordialism to mean an intense sense of group identity that emotionally trumps other identities, we can detach the concept from such long-run historical or a-historical connotations. One of the original and most persuasive sociological theorists of primordialism did precisely this. Edward Shils explored how small groups of soldiers, quite possibly strangers from diverse backgrounds before they entered the army, formed such ‘primordial’ bonds with one another. 6 Much of what Banti writes about Risorgimento nationalists is reminiscent of Shils. Emotional depth in group identity does not require historical depth. Banti thus combines primordialism with a constructivist and modernist understanding of nation- alism. This enables Banti to counter a criticism levelled at the theorist upon whose work he principally draws: Benedict Anderson (Anderson 1991). Anderson, like Banti, treats nation as an imagined idea generated by modern forms of culture and communication. Anderson concentrates almost entirely upon literature (‘print capitalism’), and even here privileges forms such as news- papers and periodicals over novels and poetry. (Anderson also considered networks such as coffee houses or career paths in state service but connected these back to literary forms. Furthermore, in the second edition he stressed the importance of modern state initiatives such as censuses and museums.) Banti’s ‘canon’ focuses on imaginative literature rather than reportage and extends to opera and visual art. These differences in subject matter point to differences in intepretation. Anderson focuses on nationalism as idea, stressing its modernity as the imagining of a secular, horizontal community that demands sovereignty in the territory it occupies. This connects to two major criticisms of Anderson. The first is that he overstates the modernity and secularity of the idea of nation. The second is that his approach cannot account for why people are prepared to die for this idea; it is a cognitive frame rather than an emotional identity. 7 Banti focuses on nationalism as sentiment rather than idea. The works in his canon do not establish acceptance of the idea of the nation through the networks and repetitions they invoke; rather they concentrate on endowing a particular nation with moral qualities designed to elicit a sense of loyalty. Furthermore, Banti stresses the religious qualities of this sentiment. He does this not by treating nationalism as a secular religion but arguing that crucial to the success of the emotional appeal to the nation is how it draws upon strongly rooted and long-established values. However, rather than seeking these in earlier national sentiment or ethnic myths and memories handed down over generations, Banti locates them in pre modern, non national values associated with Catholicism, monarchy and family. Nationalism adopts the imagery employed in these earlier value systems (sacrifice, martyrdom, saints, fathers of the people) and switches their emotional attachment to the nation.

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Debate on the new history of Risorgimento nationalism


Thus Banti’s arguments combine concepts which are usually separate, even opposed: primordialism and constructivism, emotional appeal and modern- ism. In opposing the arguments that Risorgimento nationalism was limited in its appeal and its capacity to mobilise mass support and played only a marginal role in Italian state-formation, he argues that the emotional appeal of this canon could reach acros localities and social differences to achieve popular resonance, adding that without this primordial commitment under- pinning collective action Italian unification (as opposed to dynastic conquest and reorganisation on the Italian peninsula) cannot adequately be explained. This points to criticisms that can be made of Banti in relation to the specific case of Risorgimento nationalism which are taken up by the other contribu- tors to this discussion. These include the principles of selection in constructing a ‘canon’, establishing the extent and nature of the impact of this canon on those who take part in nationalist movements, demonstrating popular appeal, evaluating the role played by nationalism as emotion compared to national- ism as idea or politics, and moving from interpretation to explanation which must include such undeniably crucial non nationalist factors as military success produced by French, Prussian and German armies in 1859, 1866, and 1870–1. Those are issues for Italianists to debate; here I focus on conceptual problems concerning how Banti inteprets nationalism as primor- dial sentiment. The major one concerns the relationship between the form and content of sentiment. Banti makes the powerful point that nationalism appropriates sentiments of Catholicism, monarchism and family. It is indeed difficult to see how the idea of nation – if genuinely modern and not rooted in early ethnic or national sentiments – could achieve resonance, especially at a popular level, without exploiting already strongly rooted emotional idioms. The modernity resides in the forms of communication and the focus on nation, not in the deep moral and emotional underpinnings of the message communicated. 8 This is a persuasive interpretation so long as the form bridges old and new content. This was how appeals to the ‘nation’ operated in early modern Europe; they were linked but also subordinate to religious and dynastic values. Whenever a national appeal ceased to be additive to these other values, and especially if it came into conflict with them, it was rapidly marginalised. 9 In the early and mid-1840s, for example, there were combina- tions of Papal and national, Piedmontese dynastic and national, appeals. ‘Mass’ support for the national cause then and into the early months of the revolution cannot easily be disentangled from the appeal of a Catholic populism oriented to the Papacy or monarchism in Piedmont. And, of course, there were other motives – many of a mundane economic kind – for mass collective protest at that time. The argument can only be put to the test when nationalism becomes detached from and opposed to these other sentiments. To put it crudely: when nationalist leaders identify the Catholic church as their major enemy and ask their followers to to kill troops blessed by the Pope or when nationalists call

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for the overthrow of kings in the name of an Italian republic or when nationalists take up divisive social and economic programmes: those are the moments at which to gauge the distinctive emotional power of nationalism. Otherwise we cannot disentangle nationalist language from the other, and presumptively older and deeper, discourses to which it attaches itself. Let us assume that at such moments nationalism does exercise strong emotional sway over a large number of people. How is that to be explained? The problem is to explain how notions of kinship and sacrifice which were stongly rooted in Catholicism and monarchism can suddenly be switched to a nationalism which now reveals itself as anti-clerical and/or republican. I can envisage arguments that one might advance, e.g. that anti-clericalism is not anti-Catholicism or anti-religion but actually a strong Christian sentiment which abhors the present structure and personnel of the church; that support for a Garibaldi figure is a form of displaced monarchism or even Pope- worship. There are studies, for example, of anti-clericalism – a powerful sentiment in many Catholic regions in the mid-nineteenth century – which can also be linked to the simultaneous growth of Catholic populist and revivalist movements but so far as I know Banti has not explored these. However, whatever form the argument might take, Banti needs to reverse his original interpretative move, when these various sentiments reinforced each other, to account for how they now can oppose each other. This is a common problem in such primordialist accounts and the ‘solution’ often takes the form of positing an emotional ‘need’ which can be satisfied in different ways. However, this does not seem to be a route that Banti would wish to take too far because it does not easily fit in with his aesthetic/cultural approach. 10 Further problems concerns the way in which nationalist sentiments are not simpy mobilised by emotional appeals centred upon a canon, but are effectively organised and coordinated. Nationalism as sentiments stresses emotion, commitment, loyalty, identity. Nationalism as idea or ideology highlights perception, understanding. If sentiment motivates a particular journey, ideology provides a map and suggests routes. The criticism of Anderson about sacrifice is well taken (maps do not compel journeys) but it may be that nationalism often works less as a motivating force and more as a form of knowledge. 11 Furthermore, once established as an idea which ‘explains’ and justifies the pursuit of national self-determination, it can be a powerful factor in international public opinion which plays such an important role in Italian unification. Those who focus on nationalism as politics frequently find the key to effective, coordinated nationalist action in the institutional context. Recently Philip Roeder has argued that without institutions, in particular states or state-like bodies, to channel action and to provide both instruments and targets of collective political action, nationalist emotion will lack direction. 12 Arguably this is exemplified in the fissiparous exile politics of mid-nineteenth- century Italian nationalism. Mazzinian nationalism, for example, as politics,

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Debate on the new history of Risorgimento nationalism


was in decline in the 1850s, and the primacy of Italian nationalism as organised action and politics shifted to the National Society and Piedmontese state interest. Nationalism as emotional motivation, as cognitive map and as institutionally shaped political action linked to pursuit of interest all matter, but they do so in different combinations in various cases. There seems little point in positing the primacy of one aspect. To develop this point one can compare the broad story of Italian nationalism and state formation with the other two major ‘unification’ nationalisms of nineteenth-century Europe: that of Poles and Germans. Banti’s interpretation persuades in the Italian case in a way which I think it does not for the other two cases. (Though maybe that is because they still await their Banti!) In the case of Germany, I suggest that is because one state within the German political system – Prussia – came to so dominate the unification process that it marginalised nationalism as free-floating sentiment of the kind Banti considers and also privileged a particular version of the nationalist idea which welded German cultural identity to Prussian state interest. The statist element in German unification – the contending role of Austria, the involvement of the medium states in the wars of 1866 (on the losing side) and 1870–1 (on the winning side) – is much more important than in the Italian case. Piedmont’s role is crucial but it does not occupy the space that Prussia does. The other Italian states lacked the capacity to shape the process either as allies or opponents of Piedmont, and indeed lacked the degree of territorial integrity and control and even legitimacy one finds in small and quite new, German states. 13 Nevertheless, Piedmont did provide a coordinating state institution. Polish nationalists by contrast had nothing of the kind but were divided between three powerful multinational dynasties which in their different ways resolutely opposed Polish national self-determination. Yet the sentiment and idea of nationalism was arguably more powerful in the Polish case than in either the German or Italian cases. There was a strong and specific idea drawing on the existence of a Polish state up to a few decades earlier; movements which were given backing by Napoleon in a way which was never the case with Germany or Italy; the infusion of romantic sentiments of martyrdom and sacrifice in the nineteenth century with a national poet – Adam Mickiewicz – who was far more central than any single literary figure in German or Italian nationalist canons; an international and exile network unparalleled in mid-nineteenth- century Europe; models of direct action in the form of conspiracies and insurrections; and finally instances of military-political opposition to state power, especially against Russia in 1830–1 and in 1863, far more impressive than any counterparts in German and Italian nationalism. It would be easy enough to explain failure simply in terms of a less promising political context; Polish nationalists confronted three dynastic empires, not just one (and the weakest one at that) as did Italy, and neither Britain nor France was prepared to offer any significant support. However, one could go further and say that the very elaborate and well-rooted form of the national idea in the Polish case

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actually weakened it. It was so clearly identified with old, aristocratic and gentry-ruled Poland that it had great difficulty extending its appeal beyond those groups, apart from the urban intellectuals and exiles who figure centrally in all such nationalist movements. In the Polish and German cases one could probably identify a ‘canon’ of romantic nationalist works and a core of committed nationalists using quasi- religious tropes of kinship and sacrifice. Yet state institutions and social interests loomed too large, in one case promoting and in the other case blocking the path to nation-state formation. Arguably what is important in the Italian case is the space available to the emotional project of nationalism. Austria lacked the power to prevent any effective mobilisation and coordina- tion, unlike the situation in the territories of the former partitioned Poland; and Piedmont could only partially control the forms nationalism took prior to unification, unlike Prussia in Germany. I have only considered how general concepts used in nationalism debates can be related to Banti’s interpretation of Risorgimento nationalism. It would be fruitful to reverse the procedure. General debates threaten to freeze into specific oppositions: primordial versus constructivist, modernist versus per- ennialist, rational choice versus emotional force. Banti combines some of these opposed concepts. He argues that nationalism can be modern, con- structed and yet possess emotional depth. He links a cultural analysis of nationalism, which generally takes on a rather determinist form – national culture as the template on which political and economic arrangements come to be based – to an account of nationalist action as commitment, choice, will. 14 Such powerful and original ways of arguing could galvanise conceptual debate. Banti’s work and the critiques it has stimulated raise issues which extend beyond the concerns of historians of nineteenth-century Italy and Europe.


1 Brice refers to such reflections by Banti in the opening of her contribution to the discussion, citing in particular Banti 2000b.

2 I elaborate this distinction in Breuilly 1994.

3 From a very large literature I refer readers to two very different but useful introductions:

Ozkirimli and Smith.

4 This links to the distinction between Risorgimento and revisionist historiography made by

Ko¨rner and Riall in their introduction to this collection of essays. For a more detailed account of the historiography see now Riall, 2009.

5 Ozkirimli, chapter 3; Smith, chapter 7.

6 See Shils. This collection reprints essays specifically on ‘primary groups’ in the army, notably:

‘Cohesion and Disintegration in the Wehrmacht in World War II’ and ‘Primary Groups in the American Army’ as well as his classic essay on primordialism: ‘Primordial, Personal, Sacred, and Civil Ties’, originally in British Journal of Sociology, 8/2 (1957), pp.130–45. My thanks to Steven

Grosby for advising me about the work of Shils and primordialism. Clifford Geertz also operates with a constructivist concept of primordialism.

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7 A similar criticism can be made of Gellner whose arguments establish why in the modern

world nations and national identity appear ‘natural’. But many things which appear natural in a

particular culture (indeed, for Gellner culture is precisely the process of naturalising objects and relationships) do not become objects of love or hate. Gellner 2006.

8 Riall, 2007 on Garibaldi provides a good example of this modernity, e.g. how new mass print media was used, initially by Mazzini, to present Garibaldi as composite saint and hero.

9 I argue these points about the pre modern evocations of the ‘national’ in Breuilly 2005.

10 This links to the points made in Riall’s essay about the problematic recourse Banti has to


11 For a strong, recent statement of ethnic or national identity as a cognitive frame related to

‘uncertainty reduction’ rather than as either an emotional commitment or a calculable interest, see

Hale 2008, especially Part 1.

12 Roeder 2007.

13 See Green 2001.

14 In this sense his account bypasses the sterile opposition of ‘civic’ to ‘ethnic’ nationalism which

Chabod revived for an Italy/Germany contrast after 1945, and which Emilio Gentile disputes in his account of fascism. However, the fascist stress on both organic nationality and the power of will connects to Banti’s account. For the points about Chabod and Gentile see the introduction by

Ko¨rner and Riall. For a more general debate about the civic/ethnic distinction see Zimmer 2003b and Brubaker 2004.

r The authors 2009. Journal compilation r ASEN/Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2009