Cuban political scientist Armando Cristóbal Pérez (2008) has analyzed the origin and development of the nation-state. He maintains that modern states differ from pre-modern states, in that pre-modern states attained cohesion through religion, whereas modern nation-states attain cohesion through social and ethnic identity. During European feudalism, he notes, new nationalities were continually emerging, as a result of invasions and conquests. Nationalities have self-consciousness, rooted in an “us-them” distinction, and based on a historic memory of the community. Nationalities have a common language and a unique written literature, and intellectuals play an active role in their formation. When national self-consciousness aspires to develop organizations, including a state, that encompasses the national territory, the stage is set for the formation of a nation-state. A nation-state involves a nationality that has a state, and a state that represents the interests of the nationality, or more precisely, the dominant class that pretends to represent the nationality.
We have seen that the emergence of commerce and cities from the period of the tenth to the fifteenth centuries was undermining the material foundation of European feudalism (see “European feudalism” 8/13/2013). The monarchs seized the possibilities inherent in this situation. Supported by the most important members of the emerging urban commercial bourgeoisie, whose interests they promoted, the monarchs centralized the state, overcoming the fragmentation that had reduced their real power. And they engaged in wars of conquest, establishing control over territories and forging new nationalities to coincide with the conquered territory.
The modern nation-state, therefore, originated from the decisive political action of the monarch, political action that sought territorial unity, expanding monarchial power and promoting economic development (as defined by the bourgeoisie) in opposition to the interests of an increasingly weak and ineffective class of feudal lords. In this transformation, the power of the Church had to be diminished, because the Church was integrally tied to feudalism.
Thus emerged during the fifteenth century the modern nation-state, characterized by centralization, a defined political boundary that coincided with the cultural frontiers of nationality, a capital city, income taxes that are used to maintain a professional army and public functionaries, freedom of movement within boundaries, the promotion of the domestic market, and the separation of the monarchy and the Church. Given the historic human tendency to attain development through conquest, the stage was set for the European domination of the world.
In the forging of the nationality identity that is the base of the modern nation-state, conflict among the various emerging nation-states was central. In the case of Spain, the Arab and Islamic invasions of the Iberian Peninsula from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries provoked a resistance among the various conquered Christian kingdoms, which gave impetus to tendencies toward the centralization and unification among the Christian Iberian kingdoms. In France and England, tendencies toward political and linguistic unification were reinforced by the Hundred Years War of 1357-1453.
In eastern, central, and southern Europe, however, conflicts among emerging states did not lead to unification and centralization. There were not natural geographic boundaries that reinforced ethnic and linguistic differences, as in the West. As a result, Germany and Italy did not attain unification until the nineteenth century. They entered the process of European colonial domination as latecomers, and their colonial empires were limited. Thus we see the importance of geographical factors as well as military, economic, and cultural factors in the formation of the modern nation-states that would become the central actors in the European colonial domination of the world.
Above all, we must see that the peoples of Spain, England and France were neither culturally superior nor in some innate sense more intelligent. They were typical actors in the ten thousand years old human process of conquest. Particular factors, to some extent accidental, would make them winners for a period. Other particular factors would facilitate that Spain would later fall, and England and France would continue to rise. Still other particular factors would facilitate the rise as a global power of a new nation, the United States of
America. And finally, various factors present today establish the condition that the continuation of the ancient human quest for domination will have the result that all will lose.
Cristóbal Pérez, Armando. 2008. El Estado-Nación: Su Origen y Construcción. La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales.
Key words: Third World, revolution, colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, democracy, national liberation, sovereignty, self-determination, socialism, Marxism, Leninism, Cuba, Latin America, world-system, world-economy, development, underdevelopment, feudalism, state, nation-state