Charles Tilly: The Formation of National States in Western Europe

We prepared the first presentation of the seminar based on Tilly, Charles (1975), Reflections on the Historiy of European State-Building, in The Formation of National States in Western Europe, Princeton, Princeton University Press. Since the main theme of the session was the development of Western statehood, alternative concepts of organisation and the relation between the West and the rest of the world, our goal was to outline the basic process of state-building within Western Europe from 1600 onwards. By doing so, the course had both a framework to analyse alternative concepts and modes of organisation as well as an idea why the national state in Western Europe managed to succeed.

On the basis of Tilly’s chapter of the historic developments in Western Europe, we were therefore dealing with foundational questions such as

  • What were the problems and events when the Western nation-states emerged?
  • Which variations can be observed and why did they occur?
  • How did the variations of character in the early state building experience influence later political activity?

Tilly decided to analyse the experience of the Western European state building process because of three reasons:

  • Current analysis of political processes is often based on European experience. It could be proved wrong if one gets a clearer picture of the historic formation of states in Western Europe.
  • The European history of state formation is well documented and had an impact on processes all over the world. By analysing the European history of state formation, one could therefore generate hypotheses and test them in other contexts.
  • Hypotheses and knowledge of contemporary processes could also be checked against European history.

Having outlined the advantages of analysing the formation of states in Western Europe, Tilly starts by asking what the different political entities in Europe of 1500 had in common (Tilly 1975:17). In order to answer the question, Tilly singles out three important preconditions: cultural homogeneity, the peasant base and the decentralised political structures.

According to Tilly, the Europe of 1500 had a relatively high degree of cultural homogeneity (ibid. 1975: 18f). That homogeneity expressed itself in the law, the administrative practice, language, religion, agriculture or landholding. Tilly argues that these convergences were a product of the earlier unification of the Roman Empire. Through that homogeneity, a diffusion of organisational models took place. Moreover, the states in formation were highly dynamic and could expand in new territories or move administrative personnel.

The second factor which was common in the Europe of 1500 was the strong peasant base. The peasants had claim on large amount of land and were therefore a substantial factor to take into account for the parties interested in establishing a state apparatus. However, the wealth produced by the peasantry was very often handed over or taken by people from the town (ibid. 1975: 18f).

The complement class of the peasants were the landlords. They exercised control over the land by a) symbolic dues (paid by the peasants), b) direct ownership or c) serfdom (which was, at least in its medieval version, rare in 1500) (ibid. 1975: 19). Cities already functioned as centres of trade, communication and administration. Therefore an influential bourgeoisie established itself and developed various kinds of relationships with the countryside (trade, control, moneylenders, entrepreneurs) (ibid. 1975: 20). Tilly summarises that the productive capacity of Europe was already of benefit for a certain group of people or individuals and that these developments shaped the possibilities available for the state-makers to extract these resources.

Tilly counts the decentralised political structure as a third common factor in the Europe of 1500. Deliberative assemblies existed all over Western Europe which dealt with questions of power, conflict and other issues (ibid. 1975: 21). Therefore, the expansion of the state and its inherent logic caused massive conflicts with these old structures (ibid. 1975: 21). Three types of people resisted the expansion of the state: ordinary people, established authorities and rival claimants of power and sovereignty (ibid. 1975: 22). The heaviest resistance centred around the matter of taxation. Through taxation, the states could finance an army and guarantee the extraction of resources and their claims on sovereignty.

After describing the three important preconditions for the state-building process, Tilly lists other factors that contributed to the success of the states. The first important component was that specialised organisations like states work more effective than other organisational models. Its efficiency eventually led to an advantage (ibid. 1975: 29). Moreover, the openness of the European periphery enabled the states to expand into new territories and extract new resources (ibid. 1975: 30).

The next section of the chapter deals with the question of variances and different developments of the states within Western Europe (ibid. 1975: 32). Tilly identifies the population, the governmental organisation and routinised relations between the government and the population as the important drivers of variance.

The author describes one key characteristic for each element. The first one is the mobilisation of the population. The different populations mobilized on the basis of language, religion, class, occupation, community membership or political status (ibid. 1975: 33).

The second characteristic (attributed to the governmental organisation) is the degree of statehood of the different Western European governments. It is measured by the level of formal autonomy, the differentiation from non-governmental organisations, the degree of centralisation and the internal coordination (ibid. 1975: 34).

The political rights are the key characteristic of the routinised state society relations. Tilly argues the point that the concrete quality of these rights is hard to measure. To him, the important point is whether the state is the focus of the enforcement of these rights.

The last question Tilly wants to analyse in this chapter is why most of the Western European states failed to survive until today, and in which aspects the states which were capable to survive differed. Tilly lists six main reasons for the survival of the Western European states: Availability of resources, a protected position in time and space, a continuous supply of political entrepreneurs, success in war, homogeneity of the population and strong coalitions between the central state and the landed elites (ibid. 1975: 40). Regarding the point of a homogeneous population, Tilly argues that every European government eventually undertook measures of homogenisation. These measures included the creation of a national language, mass instructions or the expulsion of minorities (ibid. 1975: 44).

Tilly concludes that these internal processes of state formation must be regarded differently once the international context changed (ibid. 1975: 46). The internal reasons lose their weight the later the state building process took place (ibid. 1975: 46).


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Eine Antwort zu Charles Tilly: The Formation of National States in Western Europe

  1. Pingback: The West and its inability to learn from its own history: The example of Afghanistan | nowestversusrest

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