Empires and nation-states are generally opposed to each other, as contrasting and antithetical forms. Nationalism is widely held to have been the solvent that dissolved the historic European empires. This paper argues that there are in fact, in practice at least, significant similarities between nation-states and empires. Many nation-states are in effect empires in miniature. Similarly, many empires can be seen as nation-states “writ large.” Moreover, empires were not, as is usually held, superseded by nation-states but continued alongside them. Empires and nation-states may in fact best be thought of as alternative political projects, both of which are available for elites to pursue depending on the circumstances of the moment. Ultimately empires and nation-states do point in different directions, but it is not clear that the future is a future of nation-states. Empires, as large-scale and long-lasting multiethnic and “multicultural” experiments, may have much to teach us in the current historical phase of globalization and increasingly heterogeneous societies.
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Of course Marxists such as Hilferding, Luxemburg, and Lenin—following upon the seminal analysis of J. A. Hobson (1988)—found ways of showing that imperialism was far from “irrational” and was indeed a matter of necessity for capitalism at a certain (late) stage of its development. Interestingly Max Weber, who provided the best-known account of “rational” capitalism, had no difficulty in seeing that motives of power and prestige would continue to favor imperialist ventures in even the most modern capitalist society. For a good brief discussion of these “classic” theorists of empire, see Mommsen (1982: 3–65).
For a nation to declare its independence, to assert its national difference from other nations is, as David Armitage says, to claim “a special standing in the world,” one that sets them apart from other nations (Armitage 2007:5).
Max Weber made a similar point in his contrast between the “striving for prestige” characteristic of “great powers” and mere “national pride”: “such pride can be highly developed, as is the case among the Swiss and the Norwegians, yet it may actually be strictly isolationist and free from pretensions to political prestige” (Weber 1978: 911).
One of the best accounts of the “American empire”—which she calls the “empire of capital” (Wood 2005)—recognizes the difference between this form of empire and the historic instances of empire, though she finds the origins of this new kind of imperialism in aspects of earlier British rule, for instance over Ireland. See also on this Mann (2003) and Steinmetz (2005); and for an excellent collection of essays comparing America with other forms of empire, see Calhoun et al. (2006a).
See also Pagden (1995: 12–13). Koebner (1961: 18–64) emphasizes the importance of the Italian humanists in restoring the original meaning of “lawful authority” to the term empire, thus allowing those states outside the Holy Roman Empire—which had more or less monopolized the concept of imperium during the Middle ages—to declare themselves empires. It is worth emphasizing nevertheless that the more modern meaning of empire can also be found in the classical period. Both the sense of empire as sovereign rule and its application to rule over a variety of peoples can be found in Roman usage from a relatively early time (Koebner 1961: 4–6, 11–16; Lichtheim 1974: 24–26; Richardson 1991: 1; Woolf 2001: 313).
The general form of the argument that, like the emperor in his empire, the king was emperor in his own kingdom (rex in regno suo erat imperator), had long been deployed by the canon layers, especially in France, against the universalist claims of the Holy Roman Empire. See Folz (1969: 156–157, 160); Muldoon (1999: 143, 146).
Some scholars have wished to distinguish between “composite monarchies” and “multiple kingdoms.” Thus seventeenth-century England can be said to be a composite monarchy because, with particular laws for such counties as Kent and the County Palatine of Chester, it “did not have a single uniform system of law characteristic of the single state”; whereas James VI and I, as king of England, Scotland, and Ireland, ruled over a multiple kingdom, the kingdom that he—but not the English or Scottish Parliaments—termed “Britain.” Conrad Russell, who makes this distinction, argues that “all multiple kingdoms are composite monarchies, but not all composite monarchies are multiple kingdoms” (1995: 133; see also Armitage 2000: 22). While the distinction may be useful for certain purposes, it is not one that has found favor with most commentators, who tend to use composite monarchy and multiple kingdom more or less as synonyms. See, e.g., Pocock (2005).
“The Frankish warriors came to see themselves as men ‘to whom God has given victory as a fief.’ They anticipated an expansionary future and developed what can only be called an expansionary mentality.” By the late Middle Ages they provided kings and queens for eighty percent of European kingdoms. “The penetration of the British Isles by French knights, the participation of the Burgundian aristocracy in the wars of the Reconquest and the dominance of Franks in the crusading ventures of the eastern Mediterranean had resulted in the establishment of new Frankish dynasties from Scotland to Cyprus” (Bartlett 1994: 43, 90).
The bare enumeration of the number of states at various times is a sufficient indication of this process of internal conquest and colonization. It has been estimated that there were something like a thousand independent polities in Europe in the fourteenth century. By the beginning of the sixteenth century this had shrunk to 500, by 1789 to 350, and by 1900 to just 25 nation-states. As Mark Greengrass says, “‘swallowing’ and ‘being swallowed up’ were fundamental features of Europe’s political past” (Greengrass 1991b: 2; cf. Armitage 2007: 106). See also the essays in Greengrass (1991a); Tilly (1992: 38–66); Spruyt (1994).
The Scots, it is true, unlike the Welsh and Irish, were never formally conquered by the English; but there is no doubt that the Union with Scotland in 1707 had strong elements of a shot-gun marriage about it; everyone knew that England was prepared to invade if the Scottish parliament rejected the union (see Kumar 2003: 135–136, and references there).
Cf. Charles Maier (2006: 28–29): “Don’t many large states originate in a program of imperial conquest of people and regions within their own national borders? Were not all nations empires once …?” Nevertheless Maier wishes to maintain the distinction between empire and nation, putting the stress especially on the egalitarianism of nation-states, and their “more militant sense of shared identity” formed around such aspects as a common language and religion. See further, on the similarities and contrasts, Maier (2002: 47–51, 54–56).
The idea that France is a nation formed by conquest was clear to Ernest Renan. He reminds us of that uncomfortable fact in the context of his famous observation that “forgetfulness, and I shall even say historical error, form an essential factor in the creation of a nation.” The French, like all other nations, forget, and must forget, that “unity is ever achieved by brutality. The union of Northern and Southern France was the result of an extermination, and of a reign of terror that lasted for nearly a hundred years” (Renan  2001: 166).
The imperial ambitions of Castille were clear even before the union with Aragon in the fifteenth century. “Iberian unity, which remained a central political objective of the Christian kings as they moved south from Leon, found expression in terms of the recovery of the ancient Roman province of Hispania. In 1077 Alfonso VI was already using the title ‘imperator constitutus super omnes Ispaniae nationes’, and in 1135 his successor Alfonso VII actually had himself crowned ‘Hispaniae Imperator’” (Pagden 1995: 41). For the later attempts by the Spanish crown to unify Spain, see Lynch (1991: 1–48).
Clark (2006) shows that not only was Germany a Prussian imperial creation, but that Prussia itself can be regarded as an imperial construct, built as it was out of the scattered and highly variegated lands of the Hohenzollerns by “the Great Elector,” Frederick William Hohenzollern, and Frederick the Great. Until the end of the eighteenth century, it was indeed conventional to refer to the Hohenzollerns lands as the “states of Prussia” (cf. the movement from “these United States of America” to “the United States of America” after the American Civil War).
For the “conquest” element in the unification of Italy through Cavour’s skilful maneuvering on behalf of the Piedmontese monarchy, and his outflanking of Garibaldi, see Mack Smith (1954, 1960); Duggan (2008). The Kingdom of Italy was “essentially a graft upon the former Kingdom of Sardinia” (Mack Smith 1960: 574). For d’Azeglio’s remark see Hobsbawm (1992: 44).
For some interesting reflections on the imperial dimension of the nation-state, with special reference to France, “the most talked-about model of the nation-state,” see Stoler and Cooper (1997: 22–23). See also on the French “imperial nation-state” Wilder (2005) and Cooper (2007), though in this case they include France’s formal empire in their understanding of its national character.
One has to more than usually careful in making such an assertion about the relation between peoples and empires. As one of the reviewers for this journal pointed out, “empires made people as much as the other way round.” This is a fair point: as imperial peoples, clearly their development, even their definition, was as much the result of the development of their empires as of any original character or purpose they may have had. Nevertheless it still seems reasonable to associate—clearly at least in these cases—the English/British, the French, and the Russians (and the Romans before them all) with their respective empires. It was their culture and institutions, as initially formed before their main imperial expansion—their language, their laws, their religion—that came to dominate in the empires they formed, however much, for good pragmatic reasons, they might practice tolerance towards other customs and cultures, and to whatever extent they might associate other peoples in ruling the empire. With the Habsburg Empire—in both its Spanish and its Austrian guises—the case is less clear, at least initially. Neither the Spanish nor the German people can be said to have been the only or even the principal carriers of the imperial project. But over time there is no doubting the emergence of a particular culture—Spanish in the one case, German in the other—that came to exercise the greatest influence and to have the greatest prestige in the empire (which was one reason for the revolt, in the era of nationalism, of other, non-imperial, peoples against the empire—even the Hungarians in the Habsburg empire, who came to share co-dominium within it, resented German cultural predominance). Of the modern European empires the Ottoman case is the most complicated of all. “Turks,” clearly, did not rule the empire, certainly in the earlier phases; the Ottoman dynasty drew upon all groups—Balkan peoples especially, such as the Greeks—in administering the empire. But firstly, those who wished to share in imperial rule had to convert to Islam, the religion of the ruling dynasty and always the first religion of the empire; and secondly, with time, especially in the nineteenth century, the originally Turkic roots of the Ottomans came to be asserted with increasing strength, eventually leading to a Turkish nationalism that became the natural legatee of the empire following its dissolution in 1923 (for good accounts of this process, see Karpat 2001: 276–373, Aksin 2007: 20–112). Certainly it is anachronistic to see the Turks as the dominant ethnie or state-bearing people of the Ottoman Empire for much of its history; but so long as the necessary qualifications are borne in mind it does not seem to be stretching things too far to associate the Turks with the Ottoman Empire, as the main component of its culture. Undoubtedly that is how most people outside the Ottoman Empire viewed it—in Europe “Turks” and “Turkey” were the usual shorthand for the Ottomans and their empire from at least the eighteenth century onwards.
Finally it is important to be reminded—as again one of the reviewers pointed out—that most of the important European empires were dynastic, and dynasticism sets itself against nationalism (as was indeed a central point of an earlier article in this journal, Kumar ). That does not, however, mean that dynasties have no ethnic or national affiliations, or rather perhaps it is no bar to their identification with and promotion of particular ethnic groups in their empires. The Habsburgs espoused German culture; the British Empire was clearly marked by the predominance of English culture; Russians and Russian culture (even where inflected with French and German influences) were the leading elements in both the tsarist and the Soviet empires.
Cf. Max Weber, who links the “prestige interests” of the great powers—which generally takes the form of a drive towards imperial expansion—with “the legend of a providential ‘mission,’” which he sees as a manifestation of “the idea of a nation” (Weber 1978: 925).
For these examples, see Kumar (2000) and the references therein. For a good discussion of the Christianizing mission, differently conceived, of the Spanish and British in the Americas, see Elliott (2006: 57–87, 184–218).
The association of empire with some grand mission has, of course, to be treated with caution, as in the case of all ideologies. Whatever their self-proclaimed aims, most empires were prepared to compromise in the interests of power or security. Thus, the British were always ready to join forces with the Muslim power of the Ottoman Empire against their rivals, the Christian Russian empire; Catholic Austria was prepared to ally with Orthodox Russia against the radical currents emanating from Catholic France in the nineteenth century; in a similar vein, the “civilizing mission” of many of the European empires could often look hollow, not to say blatantly hypocritical, in the face of numerous instances of injustice and cruelty. Realism and Realpolitik can and often do trump ideology, especially in international relations (cf. Maier 2002: 44–7) But all this—the divorce between ideal and reality—is normal with any justifying ideology. It does not by itself render the ideology meaningless or inconsequential, nor does it nullify the role such an ideology might play in the identity of the imperial peoples. For some good studies of both the ideal and the reality of one example of the mission civilisatrice—the French one—see Conklin (1997) and Wilder (2005).
Once again we must see this contrast as relative, not absolute. Some nationalist ideologies carry strong universalizing features, blurring the distinction between nation and empire—e.g., the celebration of the American nation is not inconsistent with seeing America as having a special destiny in the world, to spread freedom and democracy (though it is precisely this missionary quality that leads many people to speak of the American empire). It is less easy to think of imperial ideologies which are as self-referring as nationalist ones typically are, though it can be argued that the Chinese empire is such a case, with the Chinese people as its sole referent (though, for a contrary view, see Perdue 2005: esp. 497–565). In any case what matters is the relative stress, inward looking or outward looking; and on that score the distinction between imperial and nationalist ideologies seems real, and significant. For a good example of a nationalist ideology, almost a template for a score of future ones with its declaration of a “national war, a holy war” on behalf of the oppressed “descendants of the glorious peoples of Hellas,” see the Greek “Proclamation of Independence” of 1822 (in Kohn 1982: 116–118).
The view of an association between imperialism and nationalism is a long-standing one—almost, one might say, the traditional one, at least for this period. Joseph Schumpeter, in an early account, thought that imperialism “does not coincide with nationalism and militarism, though it fuses with them by supporting them as it is supported by them” (Schumpeter  1974: 97). With the rise of Italian, German, and Japanese fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, generally seen as a form of extreme nationalism and expressing itself in distinctly imperialistic form, the affinity between imperialism and nationalism seemed to many only to obvious. See on this especially Kohn (1932: 49–76) and Arendt (1958: 123–302). Several more recent writers take a similar view: see Lichtheim (1974: 81); Hobsbawm (1987: 158–161); Armitage (2000: 14); Pagden (2003: 132–138); Zimmer (2003: 35–38). D. K. Fieldhouse remarks that “the rise of the imperialist ideology, this belief that colonies were an essential attribute of any great nation, is one of the most astonishing facts of the period [1870–1914].” It was also, he says, “an international creed, with beliefs that seemed to differ very little from one country to another.” He cites the German nationalist, the historian Heinrich von Treitschke, in 1879: “Every virile people has established colonial power.… All great nations in the fullness of their strength have desired to set their mark upon barbarian lands and those who fail to participate in this great rivalry will play a pitiable role in the future to come. The colonizing impulse has become a vital question for every great nation” (Fieldhouse 1961: 207). Bernard Porter quotes Finland’s President Paasikivi in 1940, “Alle Grossmächte sind imperialistisch” in support of the view that “nations turn to empire-building when they are large and powerful” (Porter 2004: 310).
The Marxist view of imperialism, which sees it as the “highest stage” of capitalism, also tends to go along with this view, since Lenin and others regarded imperialism as the necessary expression of the rivalry of the leading nation-states of the period as they competed for markets. But in the long run Lenin thought that nationalism, especially in the colonial world, would turn against imperialism and become the agency of its destruction. See on this Mommsen (1982: 29–65).
A characteristic expression of the Little Englanders was William Cobbett’s: “It is my business, and the business of every Englishman, to take care of England, and England alone.… It is not our business to run about the world to look after people to set free; it is our business to look after ourselves” (in Gott 1989: 94).
Free-traders, such as Richard Cobden and John Bright, were vigorous and vocal opponents of empire; but for some the regime of international free trade can best be seen as an expression of British “informal imperialism,” with Britain exploiting all the advantages of the being the world’s leading industrial and commercial power at the time (see the influential argument of Gallagher and Robinson 1953). This once again illustrates the flexibility, not to say slipperiness, of the terms “empire” and “imperialism.”
“In the 1960s,” says Frederick Cooper, “a world of nation-states finally came into being, over three centuries after the peace of Westphalia, 180 years after the French and American revolutions, and 40 years after the Wilsonian assertions of national self-determination” (Cooper 2005: 190; cf. Calhoun et al 2006b:8). It is worth remembering that a number of thinkers as early as the decades of the 1890s and 1900s—such as John Seeley, H. G. Wells, and Halford Mackinder—were already predicting that the future lay not with the nation-state, seen as petty and inward-looking, but with larger federations or conglomerations of states, of which the British Empire, or “Greater Britain,” might be the prototype. See Thompson (2000: 24–25); Deudney (2001); Bell (2007: 241, 246–247).
Eric Hobsabwm has remarked that “the era from 1875 to 1914 may be called the Age of Empire not only because it developed a new kind of imperialism, but also for a much more old-fashioned reason. It was probably the period of modern world history in which the number of rulers officially calling themselves, or regarded by western diplomats as deserving the title of, ‘emperors’ was at its maximum.” As Hobsawm notes, the title was claimed not just by the rulers of Germany, Austria, Russia, Turkey and Britain, but also China, Japan, Persia, Ethiopia and Morocco (Hobsbawm 1987: 56–57). In the American case empire was largely informal, though in the late nineteenth century, following the Spanish-American war of 1898, there were distinct currents of imperialism and even formal colonial acquisitions (see Go 2006).
“I do believe that we relied on something ‘very like’ an empire in the postwar period, that it provided an undergirding of ‘peace and prosperity’, and that we shall need some equivalent territorial ordering to emerge successfully in the era that has followed 1989” (Maier 2002: 62).
“While co-existent nationalities,” says Hobson, “are capable of mutual aid involving no direct antagonism of interest, co-existent empires following each its own imperial career of territorial aggrandisement are natural necessary enemies” (Hobson  1988: 12).
It is worth remembering that one of the first and most influential works in the revival of nationalist theory, Elie Kedourie’s Nationalism (1961), was a passionate protest against nationalism, and that a later work (Kedourie 1971) by him explicitly compares nations and empires, to the decided detriment of the former. See for a discussion of Kedourie’s views, O’Leary (2002). There are also decidedly positive readings of empire in several recent works, particularly those concerned with “the American empire” (e.g., Ferguson 2004, 2005: esp. 24–26; Lal 2004).
It was objected by one of the reviewers for this journal that this vastly overstates the differences between empires and nation-states. Many nation-states—the United States, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, India, etc.—are multiethnic and even multi-national; many—such as the United States, Israel, and most Latin American countries—have been formed by mass migrations. This is undeniable. But firstly what it points to is the difficulty of determining what is or is not a nation-state—is the United Kingdom a nation-state? Is India? Both can be considered from the aspect of empire as much as from the aspect of nationhood. Secondly this objection ignores the fact that what is being stressed in this paragraph, and generally in this article, is the difference of principle between empires and nation-states. Empires are more or less by definition multiethnic and multinational. Nation-states ideally—of course the reality differs—tend towards the principle, one state, one nation.
Cf. the remarks of Bernard Cohn and Nicholas Dirks in emphasizing the wide-ranging imperial legacies in the contemporary world: “Colonialism played an active role in the cultural project of legitimation and in the technological development of new forms of state power. Colonialism also left active legacies in the form of the model Western states, in the constitution of postcolonial relations between the West and the third world, and in the new histories and states that have been constructed in the twentieth century. Colonialism is too important a subject to be relegated either to the history of nineteenth century Europe on the one hand or to the negative nationalisms of third world studies on the other.” Just as the European nation-state “was predicated on its own colonial experience,” so too third world nationalism was a “response to colonial experience [which] reproduced (though with crucial differences) the European experience” (Cohn and Dirks 1988: 229).
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An early version of this article was given at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Montreal, August 10–14, 2006. For helpful comments at the session I thank Geneviève Zubrzycki, John A. Hall, and Michael Mann. Thanks also to Jack Goldstone and his graduate students at George Mason University for a most stimulating discussion. In the revising of this article, I have also benefited greatly from the very constructive comments of two reviewers for this journal, as well as of the Editor in charge of my submission.
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Kumar, K. Nation-states as empires, empires as nation-states: two principles, one practice?. Theor Soc 39, 119–143 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11186-009-9102-8