The Paradoxes of Nationalism: The French Revolution and Its Meaning for Contemporary Nation Building

French Revolution
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How can one identify it, if it does exist? How can it be held together, if not by political institutions? What rules govern its interaction with other political units?

However, it remains unclear what would motivate a people to engage in this bottom-up act of association to begin with. If pre-political sociability is a contradiction in terms as it is for Rousseau , then finding a solution to the paradox of conception seems an impossible task. The second question—how to identify a voluntarist, preexisting nation if one does exist—is, on the surface, equally puzzling. How can one point to evidence of an agreement to live under common institutions except by looking to those institutions themselves?

Doing so would require begging the question of how a pre-political entity can exist as the constituent power behind political institutions, since one is forced from the beginning to take these institutions and their boundaries as given. This problem is compounded by the fact that conceiving of the nation as a preor nonpolitical entity becomes more important when there are challenges to existing political and territorial boundaries.

It is exacerbated in the case of a voluntarist nation whose selfdefinition precludes reference to innate characteristics as a basis for national identification, political constitution, and territorial delineation.


However, once again, the difference between internal and external cohesion is undermined by a problematic circularity, since national character is largely a product of institutions: once the people create the state, the state cannot help but define the people. The Hobbesian model is inadequate because it does not provide the people with a strong, independent existence. But Rousseau ends up needing something more than pure voluntarism and its implied revocability to serve as an adequate replacement for insecurity or compulsion as the basis of social cohesion.

In practice, the French search for solidarity in the name of Rousseauean ideals would ultimately entail a campaign against divergence, blurring the line between natural community and enforced conformity. Instead of institutionalizing diversity and individual freedom, the doctrine of popular sovereignty ended up buttressing a monolithic and even exclusionary conception of nationhood. The paradox of conception highlights the risks involved in basing political legitimacy exclusively on the idea of a separate, nonpolitical nation, even one united by supposedly voluntarist ties. The French Revolution was torn between individualist and collectivist principles and priorities.

The primacy of the nation entailed the subordination and even the suppression of alternative associations and allegiances. Associative ties at the subnational level 42 The Paradoxes of Nationalism constitute the very fabric of civil society, but they were considered parasitic on the exclusive allegiance demanded by the Revolutionary nation. The mobilizing power of the nation was enhanced by its conceptual independence from the state.

Civil society, by contrast, remained largely political in nature. But it had no other responsibility; it could not lay down the parameters of a good life, or define the collective good, or represent the collective will, or prescribe roles for the people. The Revolutionaries created a secular religion of nationhood based on liberty, but they inculcated a civic culture that was highly intolerant of divergence and dissent. The political ideas of civil society and of the sovereign nation both stemmed from an emancipatory impulse, but they parted company in their tendencies individualist vs.

Riding the crest of the conceptual innovations described above, the French Revolutionaries chose the path of the unitary nation-state. Conclusion This chapter has canvassed the paradox of conception: how to imagine a nonpolitical, voluntarist nation as the basis for the political and territorial legitimacy of a state.

During the eighteenth century, this dilemma was sit- Conception 43 uated within a particular set of concerns, namely, how to develop principles of governmental accountability against the historical backdrop of monarchical absolutism. A combination of political ambition on the part of French aristocrats seeking to maintain and to enhance their power and Enlightenment rationality on the part of thinkers seeking to articulate principled justifications for submission to political authority fueled the conceptual separation of king, state, and nation, a first step towards establishing a sovereign nation in the place of a sovereign king.

This development was both favorable and foreboding. It was favorable in that it opened the door to a more broadly participatory form of government, based on principles of governmental accountability and popular consent. It was foreboding in that, in order to provide a counterweight to an absolutist monarch in addition to the competing identities and allegiances demanded by various corporate bodies or corps, such as provinces, guilds, village communes, and the Church64 , the people was envisaged as essentially unitary, with potentially repressive results.

Even in the absence of a discourse of ethnic homogeneity more commonly associated with illiberal models of nationhood, the idea of the nation in preRevolutionary France contained the potential, and even the propensity, to become an exclusionary platform for claims to political power. The next three chapters continue to trace the evolution of the French Revolutionary nation in an effort to gain a deeper understanding of the theoretical and practical issues at stake in the articulation of nationbased claims to political power and territorial control.

This historical analysis provides a framework for exploring ongoing contradictions and dilemmas involved in national self-determination, a project begun in chapters five and six. In co-opting and operationalizing the contractualist requirement of popular consent to bolster their own importance, the parlements French sovereign law courts , among other actors, helped enshrine the effectiveness of claims to political power made in the name of the nation, a rhetorical entity abstract enough to be manipulated but concrete enough to be compelling.

In France, Revolutionary leaders ultimately came to uphold the nation as the constitutive basis of the state and the sole source of legitimate political authority. In large part, speaking for the nation meant controlling the state. This chapter looks at how nation-based claims to political power were made, first by the parlements section 2. It focuses on the early stages of the Revolution, when the abstract idea of the nation became a concrete political tool.

The process of constitution entrenched the nation as a central legitimating platform without necessarily promoting the interests of the individuals within it, or contributing to political stability.

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The nation might have been conceptualized as a pre-political association, but it was only by adopting concrete institutions that it could translate theoretical power into effective political sway. This is where the paradox of constitution complicates the paradox of conception. In addition, because the unity of national identity and purpose is often expressed in—if not created by— state institutions such as the National Assembly, the nation and the state become even more difficult to distinguish.

This lack of clarity can further undermine the potency of nationhood as a legitimating platform: as the paradox of conception indicates, it is difficult to adjudicate between rival territorial and political claims based on a standard the nation that is not identifiable separate from the entity it is meant to legitimate or challenge the state. The paradox of constitution adds to this dilemma, because it Constitution 47 enhances the presumptive legitimacy of nation-based claims without providing a guide for ascertaining the credibility of demands apart from the convictions of those who make them.

The challenge of building nation-based political institutions makes nationalist arguments vulnerable to competing claims and pressures. The rise of the nation as a political platform in the early stages of the French Revolution illustrates this problem of competing claims and its implications. In any nation-building project, practical constraints can shape emerging political ideals, often with predictable results. In the Revolutionary context, these constraints pushed a voluntarist ideal of nationhood towards a more exclusionary model, as explored more fully in chapter three.

This chapter suggests how and why the nation became politically important in the first place, foreshadowing the dangers nationalist rhetoric can entail.

French Revolution

While the potential for abusing nationalist platforms does not necessarily diminish the ethical value and importance of nationhood, it does suggest a need for caution in accepting and supporting nation-based arguments for political and territorial control. Under Louis XIV, remonstrances were a mere formality, presented after royally enacted laws had already been registered.

But the relationship between the king and the parlements was tense, leading to successive crises—most notably in , when the royal chancellor sparked public outrage by exiling the Paris parlement.

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The remonstrances offer a privileged window into the nature and development of theories about governmental legitimacy, since they were not only reflective but also partly constitutive of a new political discourse. Parliamentary arguments operated largely within a contractual vision of the relationship between government and governed, showing the strong influence of the eighteenth-century philosophes.

The remonstrances had three important effects from the perspective of this analysis. Second, they reinforced the idea of a people with its own rights and interests that had to be protected by the parlements against unjustified encroachment.

The first effect of the debates between the king and parlements was to weaken the monolithic conception of government by suggesting a separation between the king and the state. In a word, the crown, the government, and public authority, are goods of which the body of the nation is the proprietor, and of which princes are the usufructuaries, the ministers and the depositaries.

The parlements capitalized on this tripartite conception king, state, nation , enhancing their own importance by claiming to uphold the interest of the nation in their dealings with the king. Both the parlements and the king upheld the good of the nation as a standard for governing the kingdom. The conditional nature of the monarchy was based on the idea of a contract between the nation and the king.

We shall not be so bold as to discuss how far they extend; but in a word, some exist. The idea of fundamental laws was more important than their content. The parlements played an important role in developing the terms of new political arguments, and especially in entrenching the centrality of the nation itself. This process had limited motives but far-reaching consequences.

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This recognition led to their strategic emphasis on popular consent, an idea that would prove central to subsequent arguments for political reform. Revolutionary politicians denounced the aristocratic parlements long before they turned against the king. This gave the people itself a more concrete, separate, and independent existence, and undermined the absolutist vision of the king as the sole embodiment of the nation. The third and ultimate effect of the remonstrances was to place the people, increasingly referred to as the nation, at the heart of political discourse.

The idea of the nation called to mind both the actual and historical populations of France, evoking a sense of temporal and spatial continuity and even transcendence. To attack this principle is to betray not only the Nation, but kings themselves; it is to overturn the constitution of the Kingdom, it is to destroy the foundation of the authority of the Monarch.

The parlements did not seek to depose the king, only to exert greater influence over legislation and local affairs.

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If the king were not at least potentially threatening to the rights of the nation, there would be no need for the parlements the nation had to trump the king as a parliamentary priority. From mere guardians of the social contract, the parlements came to portray themselves as defenders of the nation itself.

The introduction of an exit option marked a fundamental break with traditional conceptions of absolute monarchical authority and undivided popular loyalty.

In so doing, it appropriates a metaphor traditionally used to represent the king, namely, the king as the head to which the parts of the kingdom are integrally attached and upon which they depend. Having entrenched the nation as the basis for their own political claims, the parlements conceptualized their importance to the nation in three distinct but related ways. The movement from one conception to another was neither linear nor entirely self-conscious, although it was self-serving. This progression played a crucial role in strengthening the idea of the nation as an independent legitimating platform for political claims.

In the first relationship, the parlements mediated between the interests of the king and those of the nation. Increasingly, they portrayed these interests as competing instead of identical.

Part I. Nation in Theory

The Paradoxes of Nationalism: The French Revolution and Its Meaning for Contemporary Nation Building (SUNY series in National Identities) [Chimene I. Download Citation on ResearchGate | The paradoxes of nationalism: The French revolution and its meaning for contemporary Nation building | The Paradoxes.