Ernest Gellner claimed that nations are modern innovations created by the accumulating and normalizing forces of industrializing economies and centralizing states. These forces, he argued, razed old local communities and identities and from their remains fashioned new national ones.[i] His intellectual successor, Eric Hobsbawm, has underscored the role of states in this process, demonstrating how some “invented traditions” such as ceremonies, holidays, and symbols would shape national identities amenable to their rule and needs, needs such as conscription and taxation.[ii] While this interpretation has recently received substantial criticism for dismissing the importance of pre-modern history in forming national identities,[iii] a pair of studies produced years apart and on differing topics corroborates it persuasively. E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1964) recounts the economic, political, and social forces that transformed Georgian England’s displaced workers into Victorian England’s most self-conscious and restive socioeconomic class. Eugen Weber’s Peasants into Frenchmen (1976) examines how similar forces forged the modern French nation from a collection of dissimilar and isolated peasant societies. Both support Gellner’s thesis equally but differ on Hobsbawm’s corollary. The English state, through its reactionary persecution of workers demanding greater rights, inadvertently ingrained into them a distinct, almost national identity, whereas the French state actively sought to create a French nation through modernizing the army and countryside.
Thompson argues that the English working class emerged during the convergence of three events during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. First came the French Revolution, which fomented tremendous anxiety among the English aristocracy and led to reactionary legislation against those suspected of seditious activities, primarily tradesmen and laborers who banded together to protest for their enfranchisement. Their protest was partly in response to the Industrial Revolution, the second event, which introduced ruthless economies of scale and the repeal of traditional land rights that eroded the livelihood of independent artisans and farmers, and imposed a life of abusive and exhaustive poverty on many factory workers.[iv] The third event was the success of Protestants outside of the Church of England, Methodists in particular, in educating workers, giving them experience with democratic institutions, and shaping their moral consciences, but also in influencing their collective attitude towards labor to the demands of authoritarian Puritan industrialists.[v] The collective result of these events forced workers into what Thompson describes as “political and social apartheid” that provided a foundation for their sense of distinctiveness. This sense strengthened over time as they used their education and experiences to articulate their demands for reform, which the state continued to resist, and to construct a world-view framed by class-consciousness that pitted them, a working class, against those outside.[vi]
While Thompson asserts that the English state did not intend to create a nation within the nation based on socioeconomic trends, Weber argues that the French state not only had reason to create a French state but eventually did so by assimilating rural France. After its disastrous defeat in the Franco-Prussian War at the hands of a newly unified German state, the Third Republic redoubled its efforts to modernize rural France, which had remained poorly integrated into the national culture and state apparatus. The entendants, administrative officials sent down from Paris, reported on a countryside that was often mired in poverty and superstition, broken into a patchwork of fiercely independent and self-conscious regions, or pays, that spoke barbarous patois.[vii] Industrialization, which was uneven and slow, made little headway until the 1870s, when the state-subsidized Freycinet Plan brought the railroads south of the Loire and provided a cheap and reliable connection between rural and urban France.
The result was an expansion of migration that effaced the old insularity but also old patterns of life and the cottage industries.[viii] The greatest agents of change, though, were those controlled by Paris, the public schools and the army. A standardized curriculum that emphasized French, the metric system, and patriotism as a student’s first duty continued the breakdown of old identities. The army, “an agency for emigration, acculturation, and in the final analysis, civilization” according to Weber, improved the health of its peasant conscripts through better food, hygiene, and billeting while educating and inculcating them with the new curriculum.[ix] Weber concludes that this state-led nationalism was effectively a domestic form of la mission civilisatrice whereby Paris, as the metropole, conquered and assimilated the “indigenous” communities on its periphery to the south and west.
Despite their advancing age, these studies are truly magisterial, not merely for the obvious erudition revealed by Thompson and Weber’s respective research, but for their historiographical significance in the study of nationalism. Thompson’s strong focus on the culture of the nascent working class was consistent with the scholarship produced by the New Left—of which he was an active member—that rejected theory as dehumanizing and embraced the study of culture as more productive.[x] Thompson thus presaged the general trend of study since the 1980s, which has recognized and embraced the importance of popular culture and participation in creating national identities contra Gellner and other modernists. Peasants into Frenchmen also shares Thompson’s concern for culture, but Weber follows the modernist interpretation quite closely, attributing the development of French nationalism to modernization of the south. It could be considered one of the best examples of the modernist argument. There also seems to be a fundamental difference between the works’ attitudes towards such modernization.
While both focus on those who had been adversely affected or left behind by nineteenth-century industrialization, Thompson seems to bemoan its effects on the English laborer. “I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver… from the enormous condescension of posterity,” he writes in his introduction.[xi] The Making of the English Working Class is therefore a work of salvage. Weber, on the other hand, seems less pessimistic regarding the ultimate effect of modernization on France. “Popular and elite culture had come together again,” he writes at the end of Peasants into Frenchmen,[xii] and his approval of this merger can be found in the preceding pages, particularly in his emphasis on the improved health of rural France. “‘The world we [the peasantry] have lost’ was no loss to those who had lived it,” he concludes.[xiii]
For all their similarities, these works have differing views on how those nationalizing powers were exercised. Thompson argues that English workers were both agents and patients in the genesis of their national identity but victims nonetheless of powers beyond their immediate control. Weber argues that rural peasants in France had a more passive role in forming the modern French nation but that the process ultimately benefited them as well as the state.
i Ernest Gellner, “Nations and Modernization,” in Nationalism, eds. John Hutchinson and Anthony D. Smith (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 64.
ii Eric Hobsbawm, “The Nation as an Invented Tradition,” in Nationalism, eds. John Hutchinson and Anthony D. Smith (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 76-78.
iii See Paul Lawrence, Nationalism: History and Theory (Harlow: Pearson, 2005), 159-162.
iv E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vintage, 1966), 197-199.
v Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, 42, 365.
vi Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, 198, 712.
vii Eugen Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976), 45, 68, 105-107.
viii Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen, 209-211, 216, 288.
ix Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen, 298-300, 302, 331-334.
x Lawrence, Nationalism, 125.
xi Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, 12.
xii Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen, 496.
xiii Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen, 478