In Memoriam: ANTHONY D. SMITH (1939-2016)


By SINIŠA MALEŠEVIĆ (University College Dublin)

Anthony D. Smith, one of the world leading theorists of nationalism, died on July 19, 2016 in London following a long struggle with incapacitating illness. Even though he spent much of his last ten years in the prolonged visits to hospitals he still managed to write several important books including The Nation Made Real: Art and National Identity in Western Europe, 1600-1850 (2013), Ethno-symbolism and Nationalism: A Cultural Approach (2009), and  The Cultural Foundations of Nations: Hierarchy, Covenant and Republic (2008). Just before his death he completed another manuscript on nationalism and music.


There is no doubt that Smith will be remembered, together with Ernest Gellner and Ben Anderson, as one of the key scholars responsible for the establishment of contemporary academic field of nationalism studies. This thematic area was an object of study for historians, political scientists and sociologists throughout early 20th century including influential contributions of Carlton Hayes, Karl Deutsch, Hans Kohn, Hugh Seton Watson and Elie Kedourie among others. However it is only from the 1980s onwards that the study of nationalism was put on the solid analytical footing. In other words whereas the early scholarship was largely unsystematic and often lacking conceptual rigour Smith, Gellner and Anderson produced series of books that provided the sociological foundations for the theoretical and comparative study of the rise and transformation of nations and nationalisms. Among these three giants of nationalism studies Smith was distinct in a sense that his entire lifework was devoted almost solely to the study of nationhood.  Hence while for Gellner and Anderson nationalism was only a segment of their broader theories of modernity for Smith ethnicity and nationhood were the cornerstones of most historical processes.  Furthermore unlike Anderson and Gellner who focused mostly on developing their own theoretical frameworks Smith also built the organisational foundations of this research field. He has done more than anybody else in making the interdisciplinary field of nationalism studies a viable and highly vibrant endeavour. This has been achieved in two principal ways: through the establishment of an academic association involved in organising numerous conferences at the London School of Economics – Association for the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism (ASEN), and by  launching several highly influential academic journals: Nations and Nationalism, Ethnic and Racial Studies and Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism. In addition to being the driving force behind these activities Smith has also contributed substantially towards shaping this research field with his influential typologies, taxonomies and critical commentaries on the leading theories and theorists.

Anthony Smith was born on 23 September 1939 in London. He grew up in the lower middle class Jewish family. His father, a Londoner of humble background and no formal education, became relatively successful businessman. His mother was originally from the middle class German Jewish family of Wiesbaden. Nevertheless both of his parents had strong family roots in Poland and as Smith later found out more than 80 members of his wider family died in the Holocaust. Smith often emphasised the importance of this family history in his decision to study nationalism. Moreover the personal encounters with anti-Semitism in the primary and secondary education of the post-WWII England made Smith very sensitive to issues of cultural and religious difference.  This early experience influenced him for the rest of his life. I remember well when on one occasion we were discussing the concept of English gentleman and I remarked that to me he was the quintessential English gentleman and he replied that he is only British and could never identify as English!

As a diligent student Smith won scholarship to study Classics at Oxford. This strong academic background in history, philosophy, literature and culture of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds has later proved to be crucial in Smith’s longue durée understanding of nationhood. After a year at the College d’Europe in Bruges he enrolled at the London School of Economics to pursue a PhD in nationalism with Ernest Gellner.  Although Smith found Gellner a bit distant on the personal level he was deeply influenced by Gellner’s intellectual capacity and his openness towards the alternative worldviews.  Despite some diversity in their view on nationalism Smith’s early books were deeply influenced by Gellner’s modernist understanding of nations and nationalisms. This is quite apparent in Smith’s PhD thesis, later published as a book –Theories of Nationalism (1971), as well as in his other publications from this early period including Nationalism in the 20th century (1979), The Concept of Social Change (1973), Social Change (1976) and to some extent The Ethnic Revival (1981). In this first phase of his academic development Smith, just like Gellner, was a staunch modernist focused on demonstrating that nations are not ancient but were the contingent product of modern social conditions. In a similar vein to Gellner Smith also emphasised that nationalism as an ideology of political legitimacy appears quite late in human history, developing mostly as a secular replacement for the religious authority of premodern world.  Where early Smith differed from Gellner is in his downplaying of economic factors in the origin and reproduction of nationhood while underlining the role of modern Weberian state and the new intellectual strata in forging a sense of nationhood.

Nevertheless from mid 1980s Smith’s work develops in a different direction. Instead of political variables, modernity and organisational discontinuity Smith articulates a new theory of nations and nationalism that centres on culture, tradition and historical continuity. This theory was later dubbed ethno-symbolism. More specifically with the series of highly influential articles and the 1986 path-breaking monograph The Ethnic Origins of Nations Smith develops a longue durée approach that interprets nation formation through the prism of gradual transformation rather than revolutionary break. Hence unlike Gellner, Anderson and other modernists who insist that nationhood could not exist in the pre-modern world – as there were no structural conditions nor instrumental reason for individuals to identify in such terms – Smith argues that nations have strong and deep cultural roots. Although he remains in agreement with the modernists that nationalism only makes sense under modern conditions he is also adamant that many nations have developed out of shared cultural traditions often shaped around commemorations of the common myths and memories. Hence he distinguishes between ethnies (pre-modern cultural forms) and nations (modern articulations of cultural belonging) and attempts to show how the myths of shared common descent help sustain ethnies and nations as communities of destiny. Smith argued that although not all modern nations have discernible cultural roots (ethnies) many in fact do and that finding has profound sociological implications.

This general argument has been further refined in many of his publications including  Nations and Nationalism in the Global Era (1995), Nationalism and Modernism (1998), Myths and Memories of the Nation (1999), The Nation in History (2000), Chosen Peoples (2003),  and The Antiquity of Nations (2004). The hallmark of his later work is the emphasis on the similarity between nationalism and religion. For Smith members of a nation often see themselves as sharing a sacred communion. In this context nationalism operates as a form of political religion where nation become a secular equivalent of a church. Hence while premodern collectivities worship external deities in modern era it is nations themselves that become the object of collective self-worship. These Durkhemian themes underpin much of Smith’s later work and as I have argued in our debates over the years his ethno-symbolist approach is really a form of refined neo-Durkhemianism.

Smith’s strong interest in culture and religion was not only academic. He was very passionate and knowledgeable about art history, classical music and the ancient civilizations. In this context he acquired a diploma in the History of Art in the early 1970s. This was followed by his second PhD in art history on 18th century revival of painting and sculpture in England and France.

Smith started his academic career as a lecturer at the University of York, which was followed by nine years at the University of Reading. From 1980 until his retirement in 2004 he was based at the London School of Economics where he held a chair in Ethnicity and Nationalism.  He was also Editor and Chief of the leading academic journal Nations and Nationalism and was a president of the Association for the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism (ASEN). During this period Smith supervised large number of PhD students some of whom have become established names in the nationalism studies. For example his first PhD student, John Hutchinson, became a leading proponent of ethno-symbolism and a major scholar of the relationship between nationalism and war. Smith was conscientious, tolerant and kind supervisor. As a scholar he was very open and fond of alternative points of view and often made sure that his stern critics (such as Umut Özkırımlı or myself) are invited to debates at ASEN and Nations and Nationalism events. Smith was a genuine and insightful intellectual with wide interests, open and sharp mind and burning passion for new knowledge. He was an excellent essayist who has written seventeen books and over hundred journal articles and book chapters. Many of his books were academic bestsellers and as such were translated into twenty two languages. Anthony Smith will be remembered as a polymath who devoted much of his life towards making the study of nationalism a field of its own and who developed a new ethno-symbolic approach to the study of nationhood. However for those who knew him as a person he will always be thought of as a kind, caring and inspiring individual. Whether or not he regarded himself as British, English or Jewish mostly Anthony was a true gentleman.