Comparing Tom Nairn’s “Faces of Nationalism” to Contemporary Works
In Faces of Nationalism, Tom Nairn has compiled a series of essays, which he wrote over an eighteen-year period. As a compilation, Faces of Nationalism does not possess a single, overarching argument but rather a common thread of nationalism, which runs throughout the well-orchestrated work. Nairn effectively separates the fifteen essays, not including the introduction on which much of this paper will dwell, into four thematically divided groups.
Ernest Gellner receives a great deal of attention in this work, especially in the introducation, for the foundation that he laid in the field. At times the illustration from and references to Gellner’s many works can be somewhat overbearing. However, Gellner aside, the introduction, entitled “On Studying Nationalism,” establishes the eminent theories that have guided study and general thought in the field of nationalism and with which, to a greater or lesser extent, Nairn both agrees and disagrees.
Part One critiques internationalism, a theory to which Nairn does not subscribe, and its proponents, one of whom is Eric Hobsbawm. Nairn sees nationalism as being less threatening than other dominant ideologies of the last century and believes that casting it in a less negative light might allow for more productive research and theorizing about the subject.
Part Two shares the book’s title; within the section, Nairn further discusses and critiques the modernization theory, which is initially brought forth in the introduction. He discusses the myths surrounding nationalist identities and also observes nationalism with the scopes of race and urban societies.
Part Three focuses on nationalism within several specific European locales. Part Four is comprised of three essays, which deal specifically with “The Question of Scotland.” As a nation that is not a state, Scotland contains characteristics that seem unique when compared to other situations.
Nairn’s writing style is quite readable and not superfluously colorful. He does sometimes use colloquialisms and informal phrasings, which one might not necessarily expect. Also, if one is unfamiliar with nationalism and the key writers, such as Gellner and Hobsbawm, who have influenced the topic, Nairn’s Faces of Nationalism may not be the best jump-off point. The book is laden with theory that could be either quite interesting or terribly disheartening.
While both Grosby and Nairn provide introductions to nationalism, those prefaces take on two very different tones. Grosby’s primary task is to develop a functional definition of nationalism, while Nairn works with an assumed definition that one must work out for himself. Their objectives are both similar and different.
Grosby is more concrete; he is painting a picture that will, upon completion, allow the reader to identify “nationalism.” Nairn wants the reader to understand what historians and philosophers believe about nationalism, its causes and effects, whether nationalism was a response to a stimulus or is itself a catalyst.
Aside from nationalism, the other major ideal around which the cause-and-effect wheel turns is modernization. Modernization is discussed only minimally by Grosby, but at great lengths by Greenfeld and Nairn. Greenfeld’s opinion on the matter can be known straightaway, as she states in her introduction, “The factor responsible for the reorientation of economic activity toward growth is nationalism, and that the unprecedented position of the economic sphere in the modern consciousness is a product of the dynamics of American society, in turn shaped by the singular characteristics of American nationalism.”
Nairn seems unable to determine a conclusive argument whether modernization is responsible for nationalism or vice versa. He resigns himself to stating, “Disputes and profound as that between modernism and primordialism never result in ‘victories’ for one side or the other; rather, both views turn out to be right, and wrong in ways unforeseeable when the initial theories were formulated.”  He goes on to claim that the life sciences will help to fuse such differing ideas and that the development of a new paradigm depends on the coming together of biology and kinship, and nation-states and nationality. Nairn believes that the development of nations has occurred almost concurrently with modernization, but Grosby contends that a form of the nation has existed for thousands of years; thus nations are not historically novel.
Nairn shows none of the optimism about nationalism exhibited by Rogers Smith in Stories of Peoplehood, but neither is he so pessimistic about the idea as Hobsbawm, who sees nationalism as “demonic, refractory to progress, racist and destined to be drowned out by globalization.” Nairn does not suspect that globalization will override nationalist sentiments. Smith, however, may be more inclined to align himself with Hobsbawm on the issue of globalization but would not be so quick as Hobsbawm to disregard all aspects of nationalism. Smith thinks it would take one of several major issues (such as environmental or nuclear) to bring peoples together in a global fashion.
An interesting but only quasi-related point is that the example of ancient Israel has been woven into the monographs presented by Nairn, Grosby, and Smith. Nairn talked about Joseph and the coat of many colors presented to him by his father Isaac; however, as with many of Nairn’s illustrations and metaphors, its point was somehow lost. Grosby suggests that ancient Israel could in fact be the first glimpse of what can be identified as a nation. Smith uses it in much the same way and also shows how modern Israel uses its cultural heritage or “myths” to propagate nationalist sentiments among its people.
In conclusion, Tom Nairn’s Faces of Nationalism (Amazon) was a good and applicable supplement to the primary literature being read in the class. Essays within the book directly corresponded to information and ideas expressed in each of the other three books. Ideally, one should have more background in nationalism before reading Nairn’s work than this particular writer, especially concerning Gellner and Hobsbawm who make frequent appearances in the text, in order to more firmly grasp and understand the context within which the author is speaking.
 Liah Greenfeld, The Spirit of Capitalism: Nationalism and Economic Growth, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 1.
 Tom Nairn, Faces of Nationalism: Janus Revisited, (London: Verso, 1997), 13.
 Edward Tiryakian, “Faces of Nationalism: Janus Revisited Review,” Social Forces 78 (September 1999), 386.