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Dispute between Anti-Nationalist Modernism and Primordialism

The dispute between Anti-Nationalist Modernism and Primordialism and its possible transfigurations: Put the blame on the East, on the West or on the Bavarians /Germans?

Following the previous post “From Academia to the Media: the problem of Greece’s Modernity and European Identity”, this short comment argues that the debate amidst the crisis over Skai’s anti-nationalist, revisionist history of the 1821 revolution was structured along the lines of modernism/constructivism vs. primordialism.  As such, this comment revolves around the following questions:

Does the crisis challenge our dominant explanatory paradigms, conceptual tools and intellectual traditions? Does it question their heuristic utility, and thus put into test their competence as proper tools for understanding the present? What challenges might the current situation pose to the conceptual frameworks through which Greek history has so far been approached, interpreted and used?  Does the questioning of modernization theories lead to a shift in the discourses about Greece’s failed modernity? 

Given the contemporary soured, tensed relations between ‘Greece’ and ‘Germany’, could we discern a new trend in the discourses about Greece's “crooked”, “ersatz” modernization? That is, a growing trend towards shifting the blame for Greece’s failed modernity from the country’s Ottoman, Oriental past to Western colonialism? From the country’s Oriental legacy [the modernist’s paradigm] to the Bavarians legacy, to Greece’s first King Otto and the “crypto-colonialism” of his regency?

In short - could the growing interest in postcolonial criticism lead to a critical reappraisal of modernization theories and the overcoming of essentialist, dualistic identity thinking, or will it lead to a mere transfiguration of older stereotypes and binarisms?

Skai’s channel documentary on the birth of Greek nation, exaggerating the role of Westernized intellectuals in the historical process, was in tune with the main argument of Cultural dualism about 1821 as the foundational moment of Greece’s failed modernity – a moment in which modern institutions were imported from the West into an undeveloped, pre-modern society. This argument, grounded on the idea of the singularity of modernity (Bhambra, 2014), is the product of a comparative analysis that examines the Greek case in contrast to a “European” transition to modernity (in general), which is viewed as exemplary.

Skai’s historical revisionism was theoretically inspired from the constructivist theories of ethnogenesis, from the modernization theories of nationalism, which were used for the debunking of national myths. In their polemical responses, Skai’s opponents drew their argumentative armoury from primordialist theories which were used to ground a narrative of 1821 in the perspective of national awakening.

According to the modernist theory of nationalism (Leoussi, 2001), a series of structural developments, tied to the era of industrialization, necessitated the growth of universal “high culture” through which modern ideals and the idea of civic nation is defined and diffused from a Western core to other parts of the world. Contrary to the supporters of the awakening thesis, the modernists tend to define nation as a pure modern form of consciousness and regard the state apparatus as the key mechanism through which national ideas are produced, spread and disseminated. The ethnogenesis thesis accords primary role to the literate elites, to the intellectual strata as the prime carriers of national ideas. For the constructivist “inventionist” approach, the nation is “a product of social engineering on the part of elites, and more especially of the intelligentsia” (Smith, 2001, p. 243).  Especially favored by political scientists and sociologists, the constructivist approach puts heavy emphasis on the novelty of nations and rests on the assumption of an objective, structural rupture and of a radical historical discontinuity between tradition and modernity.

On the other side, the ethno-symbolist approach attempts to overcome the difficulties inherent in the stagist model of development by shifting the focus of analysis from structure to human agency, from objective reality to subjective experience, from social reproduction to the process of historical transformation, and from historical discontinuities to continuities. This perspective attempts to make sense of the bonding and mobilization of political and cultural communities, to provide an explanation of the national phenomenon by tracing the pre-modern, ethnic roots of nationalism and thus, to respond to the weakness of structuralist-functionalist theories to elucidate the process of historical transformation and to explain societal change. It is no wonder then that Anthony Smith’s perspective rather than Ernest Gellner’s theory of nationalism is preferred by historians due to their tendency to eschew generalizations and evolutionary historicist explanatory schemes. So, whilst the state-centric modernist theories regard nation as developed from above, a modern creation ex nihilo enforced by state elites on a tabula rasa, the ethno-symbolist approaches tend to privilege the community based, the horizontal, the from below-popular constituents of modern nations.

Regarding the debate between the two above-mentioned theses on nationalism, Lekkas (2005) has developed certain arguments which might provide insight on how to address the issue at hand – the anti-nationalist, anti-populist revision of Greek history: “this conflict between national awakening and ethnogenesis poses a dilemma, which, on some reflection, seems generally misplaced and false, somewhat of a blind alley – and therefore quite irrelevant to our understanding of the Greek case too. Its irremediable defect, I believe, is that it focuses on the nation, on its professed antiquity or modernity, and not on nationalism per se, on the intellectual and political movement that springs up in modernity and brings forward the concept of the supposedly antique nation as the only proper unit of state organisation. Hence, both theses succumb, each in its own way, to the dominance of the very ideology that makes such a big issue out of the purported antiquity of the nation. Thus posed, as a dilemma, the question can, of course, elicit only either “yeas” or “nays”.

The dilemma of taking sides for or against arises when the participants in public debate draw their arguments from one theoretical perspective on nationalism only while laying claim to its absolute validity. When that happens, the contingent nature of historical knowledge and the limited scope of theoretical perspectives from which the respective conflicting theses draw their armoury is not acknowledged or accepted. In this case however, theoretical pluralism runs the risk of turning to its opposite (Craib, 1992, p. 7). Conflict then arises when the available theoretical perspectives are not used according to the degree of their explanatory force, their applicability to specific historical contexts, their capacity to withstand the test of falsification, their potential to stimulate further research or their potential to be employed in complementary fashion in order to shed light to different phases of the national phenomenon - i.e., Miroslav Hroch’s (1985) work on nationalism exemplifies this kind of approach.

Wars over the history of 1821 break up when the definition of Greek identity is the main stake. In this case, the normative foundations of the various theoretical paradigms that guide historical interpretations block the readiness of the self to be open to “hostile information” and sharpen the tension between a scholar and a person in the world. As Gouldner (1971, p. 494) puts it, “news about the stability of a government is hostile information to a revolutionary but friendly information to a conservative. An openness to and a capacity to use hostile information is (...) inevitably linked, at some vital point, with an ability to know and to control the self in the face of threat”. This seems particularly true for public history which becomes the site where different versions of the nation and its history are contested and conflicting views of Greek identity compete against each other. Through the contending, polarized historical narratives about 1821 the social and cultural identities of their producers are sustained and maintained, while the lines of demarcation between them are clearly delineated.

Fighting against the essentialism of national history and the populism of its opponents, the “1821” documentary set forth an extreme constructivist approach of the revolution: “ [Nationalism] invents nations where they do not exist” (Gellner, 1983, p. 48). This catch phrase extracted from Gellner’s writings became the slogan of the anti-nationalist agenda which, arguing about the timing of Greek nation, highlighted the role of Westernized intellectuals in the national movement and the formation of Greek state. This slogan provided ammunition to the modernists’ war against the perrenialists who were stuck in the belief about the aprioristical existence of the Greek nation. On the other side, their opponents of “1821” grounded their historical narratives on arguments drawn from the critique to the ethnogenesis paradigm and used them as weapons against the “1821” extreme constructivism.

Roderick Beaton in his introduction to The Making of Modern Greece (2009, p. 9), albeit in favour of the modernist’s claims, observes that from their perspective, “almost everything written by Greeks and their supporters can be dismissed as either ‘perennialism’ (nations have always existed) or ‘primordialist” (nations reflect the ‘ideal’, ‘natural’ condition of human society)”. The author also points out that since the 1980s, the modernist theories of nationalism “have undergone significant changes” that went rather unnoticed within the camp of Greek modernists; that is, Smith’s ethnosymbolism that “emerged within the dominant ‘modernist’ paradigm, is now challenging “some of its cherished premises”. This development in the field of theories of nationalism results in a paradox that questions the much acclaimed theoretical avant-gardism of the ardent followers of constructivism in Greece and in particular, the theoretical avant-gardism of Skai’s historical revisionism: the paradox is that Greek perrenialists, the critics of “1821”, are inspired from a newer theoretical approach, the ethnosymbolist theory of Anthony Smith, a former disciple of Ernest Gellner, who does not reject completely the modernist paradigm but rather attempts to overcome some of its weakness. As Smith himself put it in his opening statement at the Warwick debates, “It is not that I find this account [Gellner’s account] wrong, only that it tells half story” (Smith, 1995).

Shifting the focus from the origins of nations to the formation of national movements, the Czech historian and political scientist Miroslav Hroch moves towards bridging the gap between modernist and primordialist approaches and provides a critical synthesis of competing theories with his three-stages model. The different phases of the national movement forming process appear very promising for an understanding of the 1821 revolution without resorting to dualistic oppositions between historical continuity and discontinuity, between intellectuals and the masses, between the national liberation ideal and material interests, between a from above and a from below approach of social change.

What is absent in the discourses of controversy over the 1821 revolution is a long-term perspective on the social, economic and cultural history of the geographic regions that revolted against the Ottomans and which were later incorporated within the territorial boundaries of the Greek ‘nation-state’. Although "1821" promoted an approach of the Ottoman Empire against long established stereotypical and national images of the Turks, it underestimated the specific, historical results that the Ottoman state’s religious tolerance and administrative diversity had for its non-Muslim subjects –i.e. the institutions of local governance and the relative autonomy that some regions had secured during the second period of Ottoman rule (Sakellariou, 2012/1939, pp. 61, 127-135, 186-190; Finlay, 1861/2014, 306-307; Jelavich, 1983, p. 36). In the preface of the much neglected historical study on the social organization of the pre-revolutionary Peloponnese (1939/2012), the historian Michalis Sakellariou notes emphatically that the pre-revolutionary history of the regions that were included in the Greek state has not yet become the subject of serious research and systematic historical inquiry. According to his study, the key to understanding the autochthonous roots of the revolution is the particularities of the region that became the main theater of military operations; that is, the local history of Pelloponnessos during the second period of Ottoman Rule (1715-1821), after the Ottomans reclaimed the area from the Venetians. 

However, neither for the agents of Skai’s historical revisionism, nor for their opponents was the prehistory of 1821, the social history of Greek populations living under the Ottomans, addressed in terms beyond the lens of the ‘nation-state’ – that is, in terms different from the national myths of origin. For the perennialists, the pre-1821 history is glorified as it testifies the existence of an ever-present nation resistant to Western modes of thought and forms of life; for the modernists, it is denounced as the locus of oriental customs and traditional backward mentality than hinders Greece’s modernization and convergence with Europe. Thus, the age-long dispute (Liata, 2004; Efthymiou, 2007) about the nature of traditional communities, the origins of local governance under the Ottoman Empire and the demolition of municipal institutions by the centralizing policies of the Bavarian regency (1833), is still largely conducted in polarized terms of anti-nationalism/Europeanism versus nationalism and vice versa.

How the above dualistic, polarizing and essentializing, schemes are being used, recycled, transformed, transfigured, questioned or deconstructed during the era of crisis is a matter of great interest for contemporary inquiry.

During the era of crisis, and especially since March 2015, various articles and commentaries about the Greek-German relations attempt to illuminate the present situation by seeking out one or more historical precedents. One of the most high-prolific historical analogies is one that assumes a parallel between the “Bavarian rule” in 19th century Greece and the attitude of Germany towards Greece today.

Is the concept of “crypto-colonialism”, which the anthropologist Michael Herzfeld (2002: 901) introduced, fruitful for a critical appraisal of modernization theories and the cultural dualisms through which Greek history has so far been approached? Are the postcolonial sensitivities and concerns useful for a reconsideration of early modern Greece, when King Otto, along with a team of Bavarian philhellenes, intellectuals, bureaucrats and policy makers with various and diverse political and intellectual outlooks, laid down the foundations of the Greek state? Is postcolonial theorizing promising for an analysis of the current situation in Greece as some scholars argue?

For instance, in her recent work (2014) Heath Cabot, by associating the term “crypto-colonialism” with Weber’s references to the pariah nations-peoples, proceeds with the following observations about the Greek crisis: “As the constantly unfolding news on the Greek financial crisis makes compellingly clear, “building Europe” (…) has produced new systems of inclusion and exclusion and vast asymmetries of power between the European north and south. Through these ongoing crypto-colonial relationships, the contemporary Greek nation state acquires its status as a kind of political and moral ‘pariah’ (…), an allegory corrupt, undisciplined, and renegade member of the European Community that is transgressive and potentially dangerous”.

The essence of crypto-colonialism, as Herzfeld himself explains in a recent paper published in the American Ethnologist (2015), “is that the countries in question all claim to be independent nation-states but in key respects (the creation of a “national culture,” the policing of their borders, and the legal regime that sustains collective morality) remain heavily dependent on Western colonial influence and control”. It is also quite interesting that the author proceeds with the remark that “the defensive denial of colonial control—“We have never been colonized!”—is a diagnostic of the crypto-colonial condition”.

In a recent article in Chronos (July 2015) Thomas Gallant refers to the “humiliating and economically debilitating ‘agreement’ forced on Greece on 12 July 2015” and offers some critical remarks that follow from the historical contextualization of German-Greek relations. Shifting the focus of attention from the German Occupation (1940s) to the formative years of the Greek state (1830s), Gallant questions some stereotypes, relevant with the Cultural dualism thesis and prevalent until recently in the public sphere, according to which the flaws of Greek modernization are due to the country’s Ottoman legacy. However, Gallant argues that “this is simply wrong” and goes on explaining: “To the extent that these stereotypes have any validity, it was not the Ottoman legacy that is to blame but the Othonian legacy, that is what took place during the formative years of Modern Greece under the rule of the Bavarian king, Otto (…). The structural flaws in the Greek political and economic systems have their origins in the failed process of state formation undertaken by the Bavarian monarchy”.

From the above, it is apparent that the urgencies of the here and now will raise a new set of questions and problems within the field of Greek modern studies and the public debate. One question among the many that one could posed from the perspective of a sociology of social theorizing (or in other terms, a reflexive sociology, a sociology of sociology) has to do with the social career of a specific theory.

The social career of a theory, the opportunity of its main hypothesis and arguments to cross the boundaries of the academic field, go public and gain acceptance by a wider audience depends less on its truth value or cognitive validity and more on its capacity to be experienced as intuitively convincing  in a particular historical juncture, “as déjà vu, as something previously known or already suspected (…) because it confirms or complements an assumption already held by the respondent” (Gouldner, 1970, 30). Within this particular historical juncture, it seems that the assumptions of modernization theory are under stress, while the postcolonial sensitivities go public and gain more credibility in the public sphere. In other words, if nowadays modernization’s assumptions “ring hollow” whereas postcolonial critique seem more convincing, it is perhaps because, among other reasons, the later resonates with the sentiments of the reader, with the feelings of a great part of Greek citizens who are vexed by Germany’s attitude towards Greece. In the event that such accounts prevail, namely if the “Bavarians’ in general are targeted as culprits, then don’t we eventually come up with a new essentialized category of analysis? If postcolonial criticism makes a notable appearance in the Greek public debate, will it avoid its conflation with nationalist claims as it happened in the case of India, for instance, where postcolonial criticism did not always manage to effectively distinguish itself from Hindu nationalism.

Eleni Andriakaina, July 2015

* This comment is part of an extended paper (Public History, 1821 Revolution and Greek Identity) that is available on my page.