H-Nationalism Interview with John Hall

H-Nationalism Interview with John A. Hall, Professor of Comparative Historical Sociology, McGill University, Montreal Canada.


Bill Kissane first met John Hall at a workshop held at the University of Pennsylvania in 2006.  The subject was the political economy of small states in today’s world, with particular attention being paid to the connection between cultural homogeneity and economic governance. At first glance this was an unusual topic to interest a comparative sociologist whose work hitherto had focussed on the big themes of modernity; the rise of the modern state, the nature of civil society, and liberalism. By then, however, Professor Hall had already become familiar with the Danish experience. Denmark, as we shall see from the discussion below, represents for Hall one model of how economies are organised today. On closer inspection it seems that Hall’s interest in small states was also linked to his interest in the social philosophy of Ernest Gellner, whom Hall had known ever since his student days at the LSE in the 1970s (Hall graduated with a PhD from LSE in 1976).


The encounter with Gellner forms the backdrop to many of Professor Hall’s intellectual interests. As the comments below attest, Gellner was an inspirational figure both personally and intellectually. One reason for this was no doubt his attempt to sum up the nature of western modernity without denying the calamities that came with it. Like Gellner, Hall writes from a liberal rationalist perspective, and accepts, with modification, the analysis of nationalism that Gellner provided in Nations and Nationalism. Yet, having taught with Gellner when the latter returned to Central Europe to teach at the Central European University in Prague, Hall also became aware of how much of Gellner’s interest in the subject reflected his formative years growing up as a Jew in what was then Czechoslovakia. The issue (discussed below), forms a central theme of the intellectual biography of Gellner that Hall published with Verso in 2010.


Having begun his career writing on many of the classical concerns of historical sociology, John Hall’s research has increasingly focussed on nationalism. The most recent example of this interest is the large 2013 Cambridge University Press volume on Nationalism and War edited with Siniša Malešević. As with Gellner, much of Hall’s work concerns the nature of the relationship between nationalism and modernity. In his 2012 Waves of War, the sociologist Andreas Wimmer argued that nationalism was constitutive of modernity and traced waves of inter-state and civil war spreading across the globe in tandem with nationalist politics. Gellner, in contrast, shared with western Marxism a developmental approach and suggested (very ambiguously) that nationalism could be transitional (from agrarian to industrial society) even if its attractions for state-builders were undeniable. This transitional theme is notably less present in Hall’s work. On the one hand, if territory and control of large populations matters less as a source of wealth, there may be less reason for classical modern war. Yet, on the other hand, in his work on the political economy of small states, Hall suggests that certain nationalist ideas, such as the value placed on cultural homogeneity and social cohesion, might actually underpin some very effective forms of global capitalism. Below I ask him to consider this theme in the context of the current economic crisis.


Q. Starting off here in the LSE where at one stage you worked, taught, and studied, how did you end up going into academia as a young man: what was your purpose in becoming an academic?


A. There are probably two reasons. First, I spent a year in hospital when I was eight. I had hated school until then, but had nothing other to do than to start to read when in bed for that year. I came to Iove books, and have always adored the intellectual part of academic life. Second, my family had within it a good deal of conflict—bankruptcy combined with keeping up appearances—and this led both to much questioning of the way the world works, and deep determination to make my own way.


Q. If I look at your publication list, actually your two earlier publications were studies of Tory and Labour MPs in the UK. What was your initial interest?


A. When I came to the LSE my initial field of interest, begun when I was in the United States doing an MA, was on intellectuals in politics. So I did a standard LSE thesis on the crisis of Edwardian intellectuals, moving from the Webbs and the Fabians via Chesterton to Cole and to Tawney. I enjoyed that a great deal, and it led to the two essays that you mentioned. But these issues did not remain at the centre of my attention. I had been a slightly unhappy and confused undergraduate student reading history at Oxford until my very last term—when I was overwhelmed by the power of Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. That book began a process that turned me into what is now grandly called a comparative historical sociologist. The process would not have been completed however without the impact of Ernest Gellner. I listened to a set of lectures he gave in which he sought—and I mean it!—to explain the world; its characteristic epistemology given the nature of communism, liberalism, nationalism and development. I came of age intellectually at LSE, and remain deeply indebted to it.


Q. And now you have a, few of us can have those, a Chair in Comparative Historical Sociology. Do you still see this as a strong research current or are those working in that tradition becoming kind of dinosaurs?


A. I think this field is both exceedingly strong and exceptionally important. One way you can measure this, at least in sociology, is by looking at the prize winners in sociology as a whole, the most recent one being Michael Mann for his two volumes on the twentieth century. It is true that this development is partly a generation affair, at least in the United States: Civil Rights and Vietnam politicised, making American academics, for one, realise the impact of state power. That moment may have passed, and one has to add that the approach will never dominate the discipline: to understand another culture or country in depth takes a lot of effort. It is much easier to talk about globalisation in some vague way. So the approach may become a relatively minority interest but its intellectual importance will certainly remain.


Q. If I look at the topics you have worked on over the years; civil society, the rise of the modern state, capitalism, liberalism and so forth, those are the kind of standard themes for someone engaged in the study of modernity. However if you look at your current research you recently listed nationalism and war, Ernest Gellner, comparing the political economy of small states—all of which suggest that over time nationalism has become central to your work. Was it something you picked up on from the start or has it developed over time?


A. It has developed over time. When I was at LSE I uncritically absorbed Gellner’s view of nationalism. But more sustained thought probably resulted from living in Quebec. Montreal reveals every single day the stakes of nationalism. There is great pleasure in being English inside a province in which Anglophones suffer mild discrimination. Normally in North America if you are English you are top of the pile. In Quebec you are not. It makes you think. So I owe a great deal to Montreal, a city I adore—and whose multinational and multicultural character deserves to be sustained at all costs.


Q. When we come to Gellner, apart from the people who knew him closely, like his family, as a biographer, you probably know him as well as anyone else. When you were researching his life what was it about him that emerged that was most surprising?


A. What emerged over time, especially when teaching with him in the early years of the Central European University in Prague, was something that I am very sensitive to now, namely the endless ambiguities of a Jewish background in Central Europe. In his case it was a background imposed upon him. His upbringing was secular, and he had little idea as to how to behave inside a synagogue. Nevertheless, he was classified as Jewish in school in Prague and in the Czech Brigade during the war. So I am very interested these days in issues that derive from this social world, as of course was Gellner in his last book on Wittgenstein and Malinowski, Language and Solitude. Many of the great theorists of nationalism came from this world, and I wish sometime soon to trace the nature of theories of nationalism in relation to the dilemma of thinkers torn between ethnonationalism and cosmopolitanism. There are thinkers—Hans Kohn, Arthur Koestler—who ran the whole gamut during a single lifetime. But one can also see those opted consistently for a particular position. There are the leftist cosmopolitans, effectively, left-wing empire savers or loyalists, from the original Bolsheviks (so well studied by Lilli Riga), to Lukacs and to Hobsbawm. At the other end of the spectrum were the ones who wished to completely assimilate into a new culture, Kedourie at the LSE, for instance, as well as the Zionists who wished to establish there own social world. But then there are endless positions in the middle, with all the ambiguities one can imagine deriving both from whether one’s own group will let you out and the group to which one aspires allows you to enter.


Q. I think at some stage Gellner said, in response to a comment that your theory is only 50 per cent right (his theory of nationalism), Gellner said I am happy with that. Do you think he was as confident about his 50 per cent? For if you read his Nations and Nationalism, it is one of the most powerful books ever written on the subject, but was he really as confident as the book suggests?


A. I think that he was. He really did think that he had produced a general theory. I remember listening to him once in Prague in the CEU talking about nationalism, and he said: … “well I feel like Euclid with this theory: it is simple and clear, and is so true that I cannot understand why people don’t accept it.” But he was always interested in exceptions. He knew Shakespeare had touches that sounded like nationalism; he worried a bit about Switzerland. But he was pretty confident. And also there was that side of his character which liked to produce –he said it himself – clear and crisp models, because they made people think; so there was at times a slight overstatement of his theses in many areas.


Q. Do you think it was his greatest achievement, that book, because it is definitely the one everyone has read? He has written about so many things.


A. Actually I don’t. I think that the most important thing he ever wrote, this is a very minority opinion, are the essays in the theory of anthropology, perhaps most importantly “Concepts and Society” and “The New Idealism.” In essays of this sort he describes what social science should be, balancing as it must between cause and meaning. The book on nationalism is the one that is always going to be read, I agree, but it has been corrected in certain ways, things have been added to it. In contrast the essays on the nature of social science seem to me to be perfect. Of course, others like different books. For instance, Perry Anderson was enthralled by Gellner’s account of the social success of psychoanalysis.


Q. How do you think Gellner has influenced your own work? The most obvious example is the comparison of small nation states and how they perform economically.


A. Ernest influenced my work early on because his ten LSE lectures made me think about comparative civilizations and, more particularly, the great Weberian question as to the rise of occidental power. The “Patterns of History” seminar at LSE that he and I ran, with Michael Mann, led to all three of us writing philosophical histories. My own Powers and Liberties tried to say something about India, China, Islam and the West, often drawing heavily on his... with a slightly different view of what made the West develop earlier. But there are at least two other obvious influences. First, he was a great rationalist liberal thinker and I have a stream of my work dealing with liberalism and civility that engages his work. Second, it is indeed the case that my current work does have a Gellnerian assumption at its core. It seems to investigate the extent to which cultural homogeneity, notably present in countries such as Denmark, can explain socio-economic success.


Q. When we think about small states’ economic performance, your project began before the current economic crisis kicked in, so how does that work now when you see some small states like Denmark doing just as they have been doing all along (pretty well). You have others (Greece and Ireland) in crisis, I mean is nationalism really, when we talk about high culture (a Gellner concept), communication, and solidarity, is nationalism really a source of solidarity?


A. Research is wonderful because you see things that make you change your mind! So, at the moment the way I would think about it is that there is a difference between small and homogeneous states with relatively long histories, which have a thick set of institutions, and those whose institutions are effectively thinner, largely because they are ‘newer’. Denmark is a good exemplar of the former: it suffered badly in the 1980s and again in recent years, but its institutional capacity is such that it got back on track relatively quickly. Ireland falls into the second category. So the theory is developing to make a distinction: homogeneity can help a great deal but if it leads to, so to speak, inbreeding, a certain amount of corruption, then it can be rather dangerous.


Q. Nonetheless, you would still argue that from an economic/competition point of view such small states can possess advantages that larger states may no longer have?


A. Well, this project started off by looking at the world competitiveness league and noting that seven out of ten leading countries were small states, including Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, and Norway. Most of them are still there. The distinction already made matters, and it is also not always the case that ethnic homogeneity leads to consensus—with Greece perhaps not as yet able to get over its civil war. But there is something to the general idea. A small state has to have a large market so as to have a long production run allowing it to specialize. Small states have often realised this. But here too one should add something. That last statement makes us realise that the inter-war era was terrible for small states because of protectionism. So the state of the international economy matters enormously for small states, with their current prosperity very much resting on the openness of our international economy.


Q. So where do you see this current European crisis going? To coming out of this crisis just by reproducing what existed before, or does there have to be a fundamental rethink?


A. I think about this all the time. I’ve followed the crisis of the euro endlessly. I’ve been reading The Financial Times for two or three years, and it is like opening a thriller on many occasions. I do not know the answer to your question. There are certainly enormous problems. You cannot have a stable system in which a single state produces so much surplus because its excess capital has to be absorbed by other countries, inevitably leading to property bubbles as interest rates will be ridiculously low. On the other hand, it is difficult to envisage the break up of the European Union, not least as the Germans know that a the demise of the euro would make a renewed Deutschmark such a strong currency that their exports would be too expensive for others to buy. So we are in a position of drift, not mastery. One thing is obvious: there is no longer serious talk about a federal Europe, as you can clearly see the influence of different national interests powerfully.


Q. Is there a connection between your interest in the political economy of small states and your recent work on war and nationalism (Cambridge 2013). On the one hand, they seem very different areas but of course they are both forms of competition.


A. I am ashamed to say that I have never thought seriously about the connection between them.


Q. One of the things I am thinking about is that in the Cambridge volume an issue which comes up is the connection between nationalism and war between states, still present but to the degree that it is not present, one argument would be that you have economic rivalry that is fundamental and that holding territory or increasing the size of the state is no longer necessary to achieve economic aims.


A. I agree with that. Nowadays, the route to wealth is through self-intensification, not through having territory in which you have minorities who do not want to be there. The Danes lost endless wars, until their country was totally homogeneous by the late nineteenth century. They used that to help them get rich. There is a very wonderful paper by Kevin O’ Rourke (in J.L. Campbell, J.A. Hall, and O. Pedersen, eds., National Diversity and the Varieties of Capitalism) describing the way in which the Danes take from the Irish the English butter market in the nineteenth century. The argument is that the Danes were very cohesive, only able to increase prosperity through intensification, through co-operatives. In contrast, the route to wealth in Ireland lay through going to court, to get your land back from the English. So I do think that territory is no longer the way in which you guarantee wealth.


Q. So what was the main motivation in doing this volume on Nationalism and War? One of the things I remember from it was that you posed the question, which people like Kedourie did, whether nationalism simply has an inherently Dark Side, the naturalist explanation for War in the Nineteenth Century, that there is something innate in human beings that led them to warfare, as opposed to explaining war as an outcome of specific contexts, sometimes very exceptional contexts. It seems to me that there has  always been a tendency in the literature, especially with Kedourie, an emphasis on the dark aspect of nationalism, rather than the banal aspects which are of course pervasive.


A. I was interested in the project simply because I wanted to understand more about the issue. I very much agree with what you have just said though, disliking the sociobiological view of nationalism represented these days in the new book by Azar Gat. And I differ slightly from Andreas Wimmer’s latest, wholly distinguished work insofar as one of his data sets dates nationalism from the emergence of the first national organisation. This suggests that every acorn must become an oak tree. I don’t think that is true, in that nationalists and nationalist movements change their character over time. The person whose work I feel much closer to is Dominic Lieven. He seems to suggest that at the end of the nineteenth century it is the actions of the great powers, having expanded as far as they can, then wanting to increase their strength by nationalising their territories, that does a great deal to turn national movements into secessionist movements. So I am quite interested in the reverse of the Wimmer and Kedourie view, to learn more about the way in which states treat their peoples, treat their nations. It is a political view of nationalism.


Q. I suppose the other thing is that Wimmer is essentially saying that all this violence and conflict was not caused by imperial rivalry but by the nationalist response, but imperialism has dominated world history until the 1970s.


A. That is my point. He misses out what imperialism does to nations. I don’t think he is all wrong, and I think, if you look at World War One, one can say something about the Serbs which doesn’t fit into that view, but the imperial part of it seems to me to be enormously important.


Q. If we bring these two things together, one is the connection been inter-state competition, nationalism and war, the other the earlier theme of economic competition through getting things right domestically in terms of institutions, and of social capital. In this second scenario, if the Denmark approach is the way all states will go, does this mean then that war as we know it, imperial or nationalist war, becomes obsolete? Or is what we are seeing nowadays in Afghanistan or Iraq, these new and amorphous forms of intervention, a type of war? Because domestically, you also had conflicts, in comparison with the 20s and 30s, where civil wars had a large nationalist component.  However, in your book the chapters on Central Africa or Latin America discuss conflicts which have no impact on state or nation-building, or on popular attitudes to either. It could actually be that the link between nationalism and war has been broken in some way.


A. I think there is variety. The United States does not necessarily have to change its internal institutions so as to swim in the international market—for it can to some extent control it. Increasingly countries as big as Britain and France are being forced to swim in the larger capitalist arena: so more social organisation is called for inside because Adam Smith rules on the outside, as James Mayall once put it. Then there are still some cases where I think some nation-building and state-building results from war. But most wars now do not have that effect. Some of the states we think of as failed states have a ruler who scarcely knows what is happening thirty miles outside his palace, with young boys with Kalashnikovs being all-too-capable of mounting coups. Such wars do not build states.


Q. Finally, to finish up beside this ongoing small states project, where is your research going? I don’t know how close you are to retirement? Presumably there is time left to keep going?


A. There are three things I would like to do. One is to write a long article on theories of nationalism derived from different experiences of a Jewish background—a collective biography, if you like, aware of the great range involved. Secondly, I will complete a book with John Campbell on ‘the economic consequences of the size of nations’. But my dream, finally, is to write a general book `nations, states and empires’. There is no forced retirement in Quebec, and I am anyway several years away from the traditional date of retirement. Still, three projects is a lot, and it will be a struggle to finish them before a different deadline.


Thanks John that was great.


Interview conducted by Bill Kissane, Reader in Politics, LSE July 5 2013.