Tom Nairn: The Challenge to Orthodoxy

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Tom Nairn was a theorist brave enough to take on orthodoxies from the academic establishment to the activist scene. He deserves to be taken seriously by critical thinkers today, says James Foley.

This article was first published at Independence Captured. We will shortly be publishing longer discussions of Tom Nairn’s contributions to our understanding of nationalism, capitalism and modern Scotland.

Tom Nairn, aged 90, died on 21 January. Born in 1932, his passing was marked across the political spectrum in 2023. Tariq Ali, who first met Tom in 1968, regards him as “one of the UK’s most gifted” leftwing thinkers. “His work, agree or disagree, has always been intellectually exhilarating,” he adds.

To explore some of his ideas and legacy, Independence Captured spoke to James Foley, the author of an incisive article on Tom Nairn’s constitutional predictions as part of a Verso series on the break up of Britain. James also co-authored a recent book on the national question titled: Scotland After Britain: The Two Souls of Scottish IndependenceHe hosts a podcast, which will feature a discussion on the life and work of Tom Nairn.

With that said, I hope you enjoy the interview. It is followed by footage of Tom Nairn speaking at an event in the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum

Jonathon Shafi (JS): James, first off, thanks for speaking to Independence Captured. I’m interested in what you think inspired and shaped Tom Nairn’s political development. Can you give us a sense of some of the influences at play?

James Foley (JF): Nairn was trying to import a continental style of revolt in politics, and a continental style of rigour in theory, to what he considered to be a backward British ideological culture. He was shaped intellectually by his experience of Italian communism, particularly its attention to the history of state forms and cultural traditions that issued from Gramsci’s legacy.

He was also an activist who, as a lecturer, was sacked for supporting a 68-era student occupation. And he was a critic of what he considered a certain dustiness and British exceptionalism both in Stalinism and in the post-1956 phase of New Leftism epitomised by EP Thompson.

Clearly, he was also intrigued by developments in his native Scotland, particularly the emergence of Scottish nationalism during the crisis of the first Harold Wilson years. However, his early thoughts on the SNP are quite sharply critical, even polemical, although rooted in sympathy for the Scottish national dimension.

JS: He is well known for the book The Break-Up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-Nationalism, first published in 1977, and regarded as a classic text. How do you evaluate its core themes?

JF: Its three main themes are nationalism in general, the distinctiveness of Britain and finally the question of Scotland. Having said that, all themes are interconnected: his account of Scotland as a “neo-nationalism” helped inspire the first serious academic interest in nationalism as a theoretical topic. It was extraordinarily influential in that respect. At this point, Nairn’s account of nationalism still belongs clearly in a materialist tradition and centres on the role of uneven development.

He argues, in essence, that nationalism allows provincial elites to mobilise the masses to throw off backwardness and play economic catch-up with metropolitan elites. In terms of Britishness, he worked with Perry Anderson to define the roots of a perceived backwardness, which he linked to an early bourgeois revolution which had never successfully thrown off aristocratic influences.

For all the flaws in this thesis, I do think they identified important ingredients that define Britain as a distinctive state: its multinational form, incorporating Scotland, England and the rest; its unconquered nature, having survived two world wars intact; and its post-colonial nature, adapting to the loss of Great Power status.

Finally, on Scotland, he correctly identified that new nationalisms may emerge paradoxically from the emerging capitalist globalisation. Far from wiping the slate clean, the era of multinational corporations and free trade could actually incentivise national movements. North Sea oil, discovered around this time, would be something of a case study, with brute American techno-capitalism inspiring a spiritual Scottish revival.

JS: Nairn famously argued, “the theory of nationalism represents Marxism’s great historical failure.” This has generated many debates on the left. Would you count him as part of the Marxist tradition?

JF: For me, yes, certainly in his earlier work. There’s a certain type of Marxist critique which seeks to locate and punish the origins of later political heresies in earlier theoretical ideas. I never much approved of these rhetorical bashings. I am comfortable with the idea that someone contributes to Marxism in their early life before moving in another direction.

So it’s true that ultimately Nairn’s Scottish nationalism could be regarded as relatively mainstream, perhaps because the world caught up with his insights. Doubtless, both supporters and critics can read his work and find a rationale for liberal obsessions with the European Union and written constitutions.

Nonetheless, insofar as Marxism seeks a scientific and materialist foundation for political analysis, Nairn’s early works are indispensable for understanding nationalism. As David Jamieson has noted, much of sectarian Marxist discourse on nationalism is pompous position-taking and moral one-upmanship. Naturally, there are exceptions from within the Trotskyist tradition, like Mike Davis and Neil Davidson. But even they’d admit, when pushed, that much Marxist output on the topic is drivel: it’s easy to focus on the worthy exceptions and forget the rest.

Nairn was doubtless thinking largely of the Stalinist tradition when he made those comments, and in that context, only a minority would disagree. That said, there are intellectual weaknesses across the Marxist tradition, not just on nationalism but on all political analysis.

Equally, without Marxism, we are rudderless in this historical era of unsolvable crises. Nairn never addressed the post-2008 landscape of capitalist breakdown, which is significant: during this phase, for instance, his erstwhile collaborator Perry Anderson shifted ground markedly on the European Union.

JS: Do you think his work anticipates the present constitutional form that British politics takes?

JF: It’s easy to see why people think that. However, before making that judgement, we should look beyond the provocative “break up of Britain” title and analyse the guts of his theory of Britain. I’ve emphasised what Anderson and Nairn got right. There’s more to their theory than many orthodox critics have admitted. That said, by their own admission, many of their claims about a flabby, backward British state did not stand the test of Thatcherism.

Doubtless, it’s true that British nationalism and monarchism epitomise the “glamour of backwardness”. However, in the neoliberal era, Britain was the epitome of glamorous modernisation too. The City of London, which Nairn considered symptomatic of a backward capitalism, pioneered the new debt-based economic model. The monarchy became a global byword for consumer capitalism, Americanised opulence, and so on.

Nairn suggested that monarchism stood in for the absence and impossibility of popular nationalism in Britain. I can accept that, but equally, national-popular mobilisation declined everywhere in that era, in part, as Chris Bickerton and Peter Mair argue, because of the EU’s impact on state-society relationships. In essence, the whole world was becoming weirdly British: not for nothing was there talk of “Anglobalisation”.

In my view, then, the constitutional crisis of Britain didn’t occur because the state was backward and failing to catch up with its continental neighbours. It’s truer to say that it happened because Britain was the vanguard of a certain era of capitalist modernisation, which subsequently went bust.

JS: Lastly, how do you think Nairn should be remembered?

JF: As a theorist who, perhaps more than anyone, helped us understand our own position in world affairs. As among the wittiest critics of pompous British illusions and pseudo-populist monarchism. As perhaps a victim of Scottish intellectual stuffiness: all manner of grifters and philistines become professors in Scottish academia, yet Nairn was never adequately recognised in his working lifetime. As someone who helped chart an intellectual continent, in understanding nationalism scientifically. And as a brave if rather contrarian intellect, willing to take unpopular positions and to flout convention in leftist subcultures.

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