The nation, if it is “imagined” or “imaginary”, is nonetheless constructed following the example of these useful fictions that are the world, humanity, the international. It is because of them that societies, in short, live or die. But the nation’s imagination touches on the essential because it is “that of a meeting between identity and sovereignty”. Therefore, “a people becomes the People”. Every morning, we can deconstruct the nation; in the evening, she is reborn. In short, it resists all religious or secular, liberal or Marxist prophecies. It is, in truth, towards this resistance that Pascal Ory focuses his attention.
Pascal Ory was born in 1948, in Fougères (Ille-et-Vilaine). Jean’s former student Delumeau, then Rein Remond, he is a teacher skilled of contemporary history at the University of Paris I-Panthéon Sorbonne. We owe him, among others, “the Intellectuals in France, from the Dreyfus affair to the present day” (Armand Colin) and “What Charlie says: 13 history lessons” (Gallimard).
My first question is twofold: why do we associate the notion of “nation” with the right? Your book denies this trend. It remains that the word “nationalism” has crystallized in France since Boulangism. Is nationalism only a transformation of the reference to the nation?
Pascal Ory Contrary to what many believe, the nation, founded on the idea of sovereignty of the people, comes from the left. During most of the 19th century, it also served as a cleavage between the left and a right still attached to dynastic logic. The emergence of what will be called – in France, from the 1880s and, in particular, indeed, of Boulangisme – “nationalism” is a recovery of the national movement by a new right, anxious – precisely – to capture a part of the popular votes, while taking advantage of it, to reconstitute a new type of cleavage, this time internal to the nation, between the “good” nationals and the “bad”: foreigners, Jews, Freemasons and, of course, internationalists of the nascent labor movement.
You say, in essence, that the nation is a clear idea but one which can give rise to a lot of misunderstanding. Which ?
Pascal Ory I borrow this formula from Renan. The main misunderstanding is, as we have seen, that which confuses national and nationalist. But we can add at least two others to it: first, the idea that, since the original national crystallized somewhere between the sixteenth and the nineteenth century, the nation would belong to the past – look around you, at the on a global scale: from Scotland to Kurdistan via New Caledonia, you can see that this is wrong; then the idea that the nation would be “built” on an “imagined” basis: there, it is the obvious one… except to add that any institution (economic, cultural and even more political) is founded on an imaginary one. “Internationalism”, too, is a construction. The question that interests historians is that of the success or failure of the imaginary construction, of its capacity to last or not. The nation lasts and, at present, is strengthening.
The nation, as an everyday referendum, is a remarkable intuition.
Ernest Renan, to whom you are in a way the heir, wrote in 1882 that the nation “is a soul, a spiritual principle”. That it supposes a past, a common life and that it is, in a way, a plebiscite. Do you also support this word “plebiscite”?
Pascal Ory The vocabulary used by Renan is marked by his clerical origins – he was a former seminarian who had solemnly broken with the Catholic Church but remained spiritualist. The “soul” he speaks of is made up of very concrete elements which are, in effect, a common history and mythology: the important word here is neither “history” nor “mythology” but “common”. Hence the metaphor of the plebiscite – today we would rather say the referendum: the nation, as an everyday referendum, is a remarkable intuition. Besides, this is why Renan, whose wife was of foreign origin and who – little known fact – tested his text in front of a foreign audience (in the Netherlands, for Spinoza’s birthday), goes so far as to write : “Nations are not something eternal. They have started, they will end. The European Confederation will probably replace them. In other words, he was, almost a century and a half ago, more optimistic than the Europeanists of today …
Can we say that the nation is an identity which encounters a… popular sovereignty?
Pascal Ory Exactly. Christians ignore that, when we quote the Gospels, where it is a question of “pagans” and even of “nations” (“Go, evangelize all the nations”, etc.), it is the same Greek name as these words seek to translate: ethnos. In other words, cultural identity. Since the dawn of time the vagaries of history have produced cultural identity, crystallized in these two systems of symbols that are respectively a language and a “religion” – a term on the meaning of which we are often mistaken, by Christian impregnation: religion is not a dogma, it is a set of rites. The encounter with popular sovereignty gives birth to the nation.
Your definition is quite simple but only in appearance: “A people who become the People. »What, according to you, is a people (with a small p), and therefore the People (the capital letter is important here)? Is cultural identity alone enough to create a nation?
Pascal Ory No, precisely: there is a nation only if we replace the old political regimes, based on an elementary membership relationship and, I would say, strictly family, a modern regime, based on a principle, which is universal: popular sovereignty. Today, of the 193 member states of the UN (which in fact unites states, not nations), nearly all of them are established as follows: they are nation states. Read the founding texts of North Korea or the Islamic Republic of Iran: even they claim this principle. On the other hand, there are still today a small handful of a-national – even anti-national – states and these are all religious states, such as the Vatican and some of the Arabian monarchies, foremost among which is Saudi Arabia, including the name alone proves that we are faced with a political system of the old regime, strictly dynastic, like the late Ottoman Empire, founded on the rights of a family, that of Osman, to whom this great statesman was Mustafa Kemal substituted the strictly national notion of “Turkey”.
The strength of national mythologies is that they draw on a historical experience that they reconstitute in their own way, giving it a positive meaning.
The caption of your book is very important: “A World History”. Indeed, you clearly show that the nation is built on a case by case basis. And that there is nothing more global than the national! You will explore what happened in Taiwan, Kurdistan, Burma, Switzerland… This list is not exhaustive, far from it. Does the nation necessarily emerge from the crystallization of a myth?
Pascal Ory We must not forget that the notion of “mythos”, in Greek thought in Antiquity, is opposed to the notion of “logos”, rational discourse. The myth is of the order of the story. It is always a narration. And he resorts to emotion: modern political science has taken a long time to integrate the emotional into its analyzes. Yet all the political news of the 21st century clearly shows that, far from retreating, the emotional has progressed in our “postmodern” societies: populist movements, with a strong charismatic dimension (evangelism, which helped so much to the victory of a Trump or a Bolsonaro, is religious populism, and all populism is nationalist), personality cult, etc. All political ideologies run on myth. Again, the question is how and why does it work – or not. The strength of national mythologies (systems of myths) is that they draw, in essence, from a historical experience that they reconstitute in their own way, giving it a positive meaning – which is a balm on the wounds of individuals and communities.
You have witnessed, you tell, the collapse of what you call an “a-national” attempt: the USSR. Here, presumably, the symbolic structure is very strong.
Pascal Ory The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is indeed a revolutionary formula: a state, yes, but which “sovereignly” ignores the nation. The whole Earth has, in the minds of the Bolsheviks, a vocation to become a single “USSR”. The final fall of this set was reflected in the flowering of the national on its ruins, from the reconstitution of old national entities, such as the Baltic countries or the three nations of Transcaucasia, to the emergence of new, fabricated entities. initially by the Soviet Union, in Central Asia. And now “it works”: every day national identification takes root. Today the greatest a-national experiment is the radical Islamism of Daesh, which produced the ephemeral “caliphate” of Iraq and the Levant.
Doesn’t globalized capitalism nullify the social contract on which the nation is based?
Pascal Ory Not at all. First because not all capitalism plays the globalization card – Trump was elected on a protectionist program, Erdogan or Orban alike -, second because globalization, which is an old trend, mainly economic and secondarily cultural, has so far not led to any globalist policy. The only ongoing supranational experiment, namely the European Union, is in bad shape at the time of Brexit. As far as I know, Boris Johnson is not really a globalist, whereas in his country he is the most vibrant advocate of modern capitalism.
The nation, at its origins, corresponded to the seizure of power by the Western bourgeoisies, except that, on the one hand, the extra-Western bourgeoisies aligned themselves, starting from the Japanese and Chinese models, and except that, from on the other hand, a good part of the workers’ movement has, from the start (this is already perceptible in the Paris Commune), integrated the national dimension. Based on the new strategy of an “anti-fascist united front” in the 1930s, the international communist movement also practiced this integration (the speech by Jacques Duclos, on the day of the baptism of the French Popular Front, July 14, 1935, is a model of the kind).
Do we know when the French nation was born?
Pascal Ory Yes, very precisely: June 17, 1789. In other words, the day when the Estates General of the Ancien Régime metamorphosed into a “National Assembly”. Obviously, it is the day of a birth. The design, it spread throughout the Enlightenment.
Interview conducted by Vincent Roy
What is a nation? A global story, by Pascal Ory. Gallimard editions, coll. “Library of stories”, 464 pages, 28 euros.