America and nationalism

Europe has dominated the debate on nationalism for too long: Don Doyle and Marco Antonio Pamplona are now Americanising it


Nationalism in the New World
Edited by Don H. Doyle and Marco Antonio Pamplona
2006, University of Georgia Press
336 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

ONE OF THE distortions in the study of nationalism is that it has been disproportionately focused upon Europe and the developing world, both in terms of empirical content and theoretical debates.

This is ironic, because the models for many European “nation-states”, wrongly considered older by virtue of their lineage, came from the “younger” societies of the Americas: the independence struggles of the early 19th century provided much food for thought for later German and Italian unifying nationalists as well as fuelling the debates among European thinkers about what nations, and the “races” so often thought to form their bedrock, really were.

We can only speculate what the reasons for this distortion are, but the damage wrought in the Old World during the 20th century, and the banner it became in the developing world as it shed its colonial condition soon afterwards, probably explain why nationalism has been of particular interest in these regions. As the editors of Nationalism in the New World write: “Americanists… are not ignoring the nationalism debate, but it is ignoring the Americas.” [p2] And it is to the central question of nationhood that the editors immediately turn when offering their own explanations for the lacuna: the multiethnic, immigrant condition of all American countries calls into question the very use of the term “nation”, and so defies the comforting paradigms that scholars like to work within.

‘Americanising’ the debate

Nationalism in the New World is a welcome and timely contribution to this discipline by seeking to “Americanise” a debate that, despite being one of the sexier areas of the social sciences, stubbornly continues to ignore the Western Hemisphere. Moreover, we might go so far as to say that this book represents a small example of how perspectives in US scholarship towards the whole theme of nationalism itself have matured, engaging as it does boldly with a framework of scholarship that has largely evolved outside the country. That, in an era in which the perplexing questions of nationalism continue to snag Washington across the globe, is in itself a development.

Doyle and Pamplona have put together a solid collection of essays that look anew through a magnifying glass of existing work on nationalism at the histories of Latin America, the USA and Canada, and provide a balanced meal of theoretical and historical contributions that leave the reader well satisfied if still wanting more. It is fascinating to note that their intellectual engagement with this topic appears to begin with Benedict Anderson’s highly influential Imagined Communities (1983) that did so much to stamp an American claim on the phenomenon of nationalism at an early stage in its recent theoretical study, yet was not followed up at that time. Despite the popularity of his book, perhaps this can be explained by the era in which Anderson was writing, especially in the Americas, when neoliberal reforms with a discernibly anti-nationalist agenda were changing the vocabulary of political studies.

The introductory chapters to Doyle and Pamplona’s collection should serve as the perfect starter for any course on nationalism that gives the Americas their proper place. Craig Calhoun sets the scene in theoretical terms by drawing together debates in the field to establish why nationalism matters as a topic of study. T.H Breen’s essay “Interpreting New World Nationalism” establishes important links between American and European thought that invigorated the revolutionary nationalism of the first independence movements.

Historical chapters focus both on seven individual countries from the USA to Argentina, with several also – and very bravely – providing a comparative focus across the USA, Brazil, Mexico and Cuba.

Eric Van Young’s chapter on Mexico takes on Anderson’s theory of an imagined community by arguing that its focus on creole elites is insufficient to explain how the millions of peons and rural poor came to be incorporated within national identity. Their motives for joining the independence movements were, as others have pointed out, often localist, racial and religious, and the absence of a strong sense of shared identity was something addressed only much later by the nascent independent state.

Gary Gerstle’s chapter also examines Mexico, but comparatively against the United States and Cuba, and provides much fertile soil for the future study of nationalism in the Americas. Gerstle’s contribution is important, for it draws attention both to the common factor of racial ideology in the construction of nationhood in all three countries, and to the discursive study of nationalism – a relative and welcome newcomer among theoretical approaches in this field. Each country addressed its own racial diversity in distinct ways, with the US embracing an ideology of white supremacy but Mexico and Cuba – its weaker neighbours – rejecting this position and celebrating racial mixing or racelessness. Explanations for these differences include the racial demographics and the weakness of conservatives in Mexico and Cuba, who were unable to impose their preferred solutions. Yet ultimately, Gerstle points out, Cuba and Mexico could not escape the racialising implications of the North-American-European nationalist discourses and ended up reproducing similar tendencies.

Nationalism in the New World will be a good primer for any course on nationalism that cares to include the Western Hemisphere in its deliberations, although we must not conclude that the story of nationalism in the Americas ends in the 1930s, which the book’s historical reach limits itself to. Given that, we must encourage the authors to consider compiling a sequel – or, indeed, a series – that brings us into the periods in which nationalism, and the policy reactions against it, had arguably the greatest impact upon the development of Latin American societies, and in particular from the 1940s to the 1990s. Debates on nationalism continued to be at the very forefront of politics in Mexico during its great transformation in the 1990s, and indeed continue to have significant resonance as it grapples with the need to reinvigorate its oil industry, the very symbol of sovereignty.

Requests for more aside, Nationalism in the New World remains an excellent and well-constructed introduction to this topic that both lecturers and students would be well advised to buy.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books