In autumn 1989, in the wake of the dramatic political changes in Eastern Europe, we, a group of doctoral students of nationalism in the LSE Sociology department, conceived the idea of a large-scale conference on the theme of ‘Nationalism in a post-marxist world’. The group consisted of Natividad Gutierrez, Daniele Conversi, Athena Leoussi, Obi Igwara (in memoriam), Alison Palmer and Laurel Jagroo. We had met each other at the Postgraduate Interdisciplinary Nationalism Seminar that was led by Professors Anthony D. Smith, James Mayall, Percy Cohen, and George Schopflin. We all attended it with great devotion.
At the end of the autumn term 1989, Natividad Gutierrez approached Professor Anthony D. Smith with the idea for the conference. He received it with enthusiasm and supported us throughout the difficult beginnings of ASEN in LSE’s Sociology Department. And the beginnings were very difficult indeed, as this student initiative, and the partnership that it brought about and nurtured between research students and academics, were both without precedent. The entire venture was looked at with disbelief and suspicion in many parts of LSE, both at departmental and administrative levels. Nobody thought it would come to anything much.
Nevertheless, we pressed on and with the limited resources that we had, as doctoral students, we began writing to the speakers in the winter term of 1990. Natividad Gutierrez and Daniele Conversi became, respectively, Conference Chair and Co-chair of our small conference committee. What we had in mind was a gathering of the most influential academics working in the study of nationalism, as these studies were dispersed across several disciplines and institutions and the field had yet to be mapped out. The date was set for 19 February 1991.
By choosing as the title of our conference ‘Nationalism in a post-Marxist world’, we wanted to be provocative. One could ask today why on earth should a mention of post-marxism sound provocative at all, but at that time Marxist economism was still permeating academic discourses, including those of vehement anti-Marxists like Ernest Gellner. In fact, the topic was supposed to be provocative on two counts: first, by implying that Marxism was dead, with no possibility of resurrection; and second, by suggesting that Marxism was being replaced by nationalism as the dominant ideology.
To our great surprise and pleasure, all the invited scholars responded positively to our invitation – with the partial exception of Alain Touraine, who had to stay in Paris due to family commitments. We succeeded in attracting some of the leading theoreticians in the field: Anthony D. Smith, Ernest Gellner, Raymond Pearson, Eric Hobsbawm, John Keane, and Anthony Giddens. They were the keynote speakers.
Once the theme, date and speakers were firmly in place, we designed and printed conference leaflets, which we distributed via ordinary post, as well as by hand (e-mail was not widely used in those days, and only a couple of us knew how to use it). The response we received was overwhelming: we had anticipated a maximum of 100 attendees, but over 180 turned up and, in the end, the conference delegates and the speakers all had to be crammed in the average- sized room of LSE ‘s ‘Board Room’, while many late applicants had to be turned down. Attendees came literally from across the world and included several other leading scholars of nationalism studies. A special mention needs to be made here to the late Eugene Kamenka (and his wife, Professor Alice Erh-Soon Tay) who expressly flew from Australia in one of his last European public appearances.
Why this instant success? The appeal of big names and of a key venue may only offer a partial explanation. By 1991, the explosion of nationalism took many by surprise bar a few scholars and research students working already along those lines. The dominant idea was still largely informed by economist-marxist analysis. In its pristine version, it was exposed during the conference by both Fred Halliday and Eric Hobsbawm: for Halliday, we were moving towards a more global and hence more integrated world, where nationalism would be redundant. Similarly, Hobsbawm reiterated his point about the ‘uselessness’ of small nations recovering nearly lost ancestral tongues, as nations were merely an outdated product of elite manipulation whose endurance had outlasted their utility. Whether true or not, this was just that type of deja vu explanation which could not address satisfactorily the ‘why?’ question. But what is more, the debate became so intense that Eric Hobsbawm walked out of the conference.
After the success of that conference, we wanted to put on another one. But this, we soon realised, necessitated the creation of a more permanent organisation. So, the next year was spent defining the name, aims and offices of The Association for the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism (ASEN) in order to organise the second conference on ‘European Community and national Identity’. This took place on 28 February 1992, again, at LSE’s Board Room.
In view of forming this association of scholars, the preparations for the second conference also involved the preparation of a rudimentary ‘membership form’ that would be ready for distribution at the conference. The spirit of our association, which has been maintained till today, was that it emerged as a collective project to be entirely run by successive generations of research students, supported by academics holding consulting roles (as Presidents, Vice-Presidents and Chairs and members of ASEN’s Advisory Council) and guaranteeing its continuity.
This is how ASEN was born and how it set out to provide an overarching organisational framework that would foster comparative, international and inter-disciplinary encounters. That youthful initiative that was fired by the momentous events of 1989, the liberation of Eastern Europe, the implosion of the Soviet Union and the secession and creation of over 15 new republics, created a wide network of nationalism scholars, and a platform for the public and learned discussion of issues and problems in nationalism studies. This platform has been the annual conference to which were later added seminars and mini-conferences.
Soon after the association was established, we decided to endow it with its own voice and thus we created The ASEN Bulletin under Daniele’s editorship. This slowly evolved into becoming the SEN Journal, the only journal in the field to be entirely run by research students. Daniele’s idea was to use it initially as a tool for conveying news and reports about academic initiatives which had to do directly or indirectly with the scholarly study of nationalism. The first issue was just a few pages held together by a stapler and a thin, pale, yellow cover with the title, date and issue year, produced by an old ‘Classic’ Mac computer. When time and resources had been secured, the Bulletin began to host short articles. Thus, issue no. 6 in 1994, under the editorship of Terry Mulhall, as Daniele had moved on, published four short articles. Brendan O’Duffy, Fred Halliday, Jose Maurcio Domingues and Jean-Karim Chalaby wrote these first contributions. Since then, the article sections have greatly expanded, and the rest is now history.
In 1994, with the support of Professor Jack E. Spence, OBE, who became the Chair of ASEN’s Advisory Council, and Cambridge University Press, the journal’s original publisher, we expanded the publishing activities of ASEN by launching Nations and Nationalism – a peer-reviewed journal for scholars of the first rank. Nations and Nationalism is now a top- ranking and international academic journal. The founder editors were Obi Igwara, Athena S. Leoussi and Anthony D. Smith, the latter acting as Editor-in-Chief almost uninterruptedly from its foundation to the present day.
Nearly 30 years have passed since the foundation of ASEN and its First International Conference. Some of us remain in contact with one another, despite the fact that Greater London is not our home any longer. But year after year, we observe with great delight that our initial project is still alive and thriving. We decided to recall our memories in this short history of ASEN, with the hope that the generations of research students who have been succeeding us as the leaders of ASEN (the ASEN Executive Committee and their associates), lending ASEN their energies, entrepreneurship, imagination and scholarship, would do the same and add to this short history of beginnings, their own history of joining and becoming involved with ASEN. In this way, they will continue our narrative while enriching and perpetuating the life of ASEN. The history of ASEN is a history of generations of research students [our research student history] and of these research students’ contribution to the study of nationalism through both their own research and their administration of ASEN.
Daniele Conversi (Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea (EHU/UPV), Bilbao, Euskadi (Spain) Natividad Gutierrez Chong (Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Mexico)
Athena S. Leoussi (University of Reading and LSE, UK)