The late Tom Nairn’s theories couldn’t account for the course of globalisation, and its creation of a new middle class attached to neoliberalism. But his insistence on the continuing importance of the national question still sheds much light on the meaning of global capitalist power, argues his frequent interlocutor George Kerevan.
Tom Nairn, possibly Scotland’s greatest political philosopher of the modern era and a doughty champion of independence, has died at the age of 90. He was a kindly, thoughtful individual whom I was privileged to call my friend and comrade nearly half a century. Undoubtedly, his intellectual legacy will be fought over. And, as is usual in such circumstances, there will be those whom Tom would certainly have repudiated who will, nevertheless, claim his name. Now is perhaps the moment to begin evaluating Tom’s intellectual and political legacy before history distorts his contribution.
Tom Nairn was a son of Fife, born in 1932. For the uninitiated, Tom was a political thinker with a global reputation; a writer with a magnificent, poetic turn of phrase; a restless thinker who always challenged intellectual and political convention; and a resolute internationalist in the best Scottish tradition. He was inspired by Marx and one of the first people in the anglophone world (along with the Scottish poet and folklorist Hamish Henderson) to discover the radical ideas of Antonio Gramsci on how culture and ideology are mobilised to defend the establishment status quo. Tom was of the left and maintained a close working relationship with the English Marxist journal New Left Review. At the same time, he was scathingly critical of all the far-left groups and never joined any of them. Some have claimed that Nairn broke with Marx in later years, but it would be more correct to say that his undoubted use of Marx and above all Gramsci was mixed with a fierce independence of mind and a disdain for leftish orthodoxy.
Tom had a Scottish Enlightenment appreciation of ideas and their power to shape the world if only mobilised for political action. He was the son of a dominie and so one of those “organic” intellectuals – close to the people rather than the elite – described by Gramsci as necessary to invent a new way of seeing the world that would allow the oppressed and dispossessed to overthrow the existing order. Tom would fulfil that calling in his 1977 magnum opus The Break-Up of Britain, a book that inspired my generation of post-68 activists and made us understand the necessity to combine the struggle for socialism with the fight for Scottish independence.
In placing Tom in the context of Scottish ideas, it is important to locate him alongside a series of contemporaries who, in the 1950s, fled the stultifying intellectual atmosphere of petty bourgeois-dominated Scotland for foreign exile. Among these intellectual refugees were the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre (now an apostate from his youthful Marxism), the beat generation novelist Alexander Trocchi (hugely influential in America), the radical psychologist RD Laing and the educationalist AS Neill. All were influential in creating the youth revolt and counterculture of the 1960s. All were products of the Scottish education system’s Enlightenment humanism and reverence for theory (often wrapped in a theological guise). All left Scotland either because they were denied a job or because they found the prevailing culture reactionary, or both. Tom Nairn was a product of his times.
During the 2014 referendum campaign, I had an argument on a public stage with a tedious Unionist intellectual who was busily explaining to the audience that Tom Nairn’s book was an intellectual failure that deserved to be forgotten. Because, of course, Britain had not broken up and so Nairn had proved a false prophet and an intellectual lightweight. However, Tom never pretended he could predict the day or the hour when Scotland would shatter the bonds of the archaic, reactionary British state. What he did do – magnificently – was to present a cogent argument, some half century ago, that the national question would continue to dominate and define British politics thereafter, and until the ramshackle state fell apart. And so far, this has played out.
Tom’s concern with understanding the modalities of a resurgent Scottish nationalism arose from two sources. First his view that classical Marxism – perhaps more correctly the Positivist, corrupted version of Marxism of the Second International – had failed to understand or account for the longevity of nationalism in the era of global, free market capitalism. And secondly, his project (conducted in partnership with Perry Anderson at New Left Review) to understand and deconstruct the nature of the British State.
In the early 1960s, Nairn and Anderson pioneered a critique of British capitalism which argued that a thwarted bourgeois revolution had subordinated the interests of the industrial bourgeoisie to those of the aristocracy, and left the UK imprisoned in an archaic state structure that was unable to compete with later competitors such as Germany and America. Nairn concluded that one way of destroying this archaic state was to break up Britain using Scottish independence as a battering ram. In later years, Nairn extended his analysis, viewing the nation state (and nationalism as an ideology) as material constructs necessary to all capitalist “modernisation”. Ultimately, Nairn seems to suggest that national revolutions are historically more important than unfulfilled Marxian proletarian ones.
Many on the left (eg the late Neil Davidson) have found the Nairn-Anderson theory of an archaic British state serves as a ruse to avoid confronting capitalism. However, whatever the simplifications of the thesis, it had the merit – at the time – of forcing the left to engage in a more serious study of how British capitalism maintained its ideological stranglehold. Besides, the issue is now rather moot because British capitalism used Thatcherism to demolish much of the archaic structure (state, economic and ideological) that Nairn and Anderson were criticising. On the other hand, Nairn can be faulted for seeming to argue that the break-up of Britain is automatically progressive, or that small states are automatically more democratic and progressive than larger ones. Nairn’s perennial weakness is to displace his analysis into the ideological and state superstructures and ignore the clash of real class forces and its outcome.
Nairn and Globalism
In later decades, Nairn’s attempts to understand neoliberalism and globalism led him into troubled waters. He concluded that the mobilising power of ‘neonationalism’ had proven historically more effective than the classical proletarian revolution. That the nation-building and nationalist project of the early and proto bourgeoisie, with its Gramscian power to mobilise the popular classes against, first, the traditional landed aristocracy and later, in a different context, against colonial rule, had proven more successful as a modernising force than Marx’s model of proletarian revolt. As a consequence, the way forward against capitalist globalisation involved the creation of hundreds of national democratic struggles aimed at breaking the big imperialisms, while at the same time co-opting the impetus towards global institutions inherent in the neoliberal order. In this prism, Scottish nationalism is not a reactionary throwback to the 19th century but part of the first wave of a new struggle for post-neoliberal modernisation.
In a seminal essay in 2008 Nairn developed on a theme of Ernest Gellner that the “chaotic” first wave of capitalist development had been led almost accidentally by the transformation of existing imperial states such as the UK and France, and in a different context the continental United States. But the more natural size for an efficient bourgeois state and economy – one able to adapt quickly to the pressures of a globalised economy – is actually something like the Scandinavian countries or city states like Singapore. From this perspective, argues Nairn, the question is not why the likes of Scotland, Catalonia and Quebec are seeking nationhood but why there are not already 2,000 nations rather than the current 200-odd.
It is difficult to fault Nairn’s insistence on the necessity for a materialist analysis of nationalism. In historical perspective, it is clear that there cannot be any particular capitalism without its attendant national state structure, both as a cradle for the legal-bureaucratic-military-police apparatus necessary to maintain stable markets and discipline the proletariat; and as a collective ideological linchpin that holds a competitive system together. Nation states and nationalism are intrinsic to the operation of capitalism, not episodic phenomena doomed to disappear into some global, free-market soup. Certainly, there persists a tension between markets and individual nation states, but this remains a dynamic system, not a death rattle. Instead, the era of capitalism has experienced a sequence of violent oscillations between globalisation and a return to regional autarky, with each episode ending in military conflict and the rise of a new hegemon. We may well be living through the latest iteration of this process.
New Class Alignments
Nairn can be criticised for a certain abstraction in his analysis of contemporary globalism and neonationalism. He was far from being seduced by neoliberalism, noting that the globalist era has actually unleashed a wave of savage neo-colonial conflicts. But his “small nationalisms versus large” paradigm is unconvincing as a model of neoliberal development. In particular, he fails to assess the significant new class alignments that have emerged, with a corresponding impact on the mechanics of contemporary nationalism.
The last few decades saw the incorporation of China into the global market and the final victory of commodity production as a world system. But the failure to replace capitalism historically has resulted in a massive excess of surplus value that cannot find investment outlets. One result is the emergence of a super layer of unessential functionaries, pseudo managers, financial service employees, academics and pampered cultural workers, otherwise known as the New Petty Bourgeois (after Poulantzas) or the New Professional Middle Class. This parasitical layer is funded by the excess surplus value the global capitalist system cannot use productively, hence its massive growth in numbers in the West. At one end (eg computer programmers and IT engineers) it clearly merges into the proletariat. And at the upper end (financial executives) it is clearly bourgeois. But in the mass, this group has all the unstable characteristics of any middle social layer: individualistic, narcissistic, politically vacillating.
Marx famously predicted that all intermediate social layers would be ground out of existence between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The emergence of a new, parasitical layer – a by-product of the decay of an over-ripe capitalism – has created a mass base for neoliberalism. It has also impacted on nationalism and national struggles.
In Scotland the rise of modern nationalism stems from the 1970s and was (crudely) a working class response to regional economic decay and the failure of the Labour Party to do anything about it. As a result, the SNP has become politically hegemonic. But this very hegemony – including the SNP’s total domination of the local state and civil institutions – has now attracted the attention of the New Petty Bourgeois. Effectively, this social layer has colonised the SNP and the Scottish national movement, serving to align independence with neoliberal values and policies – including uncritical support for EU membership, economic policies fixated on supporting foreign capital, and an emphasis on personal identity politics.
This new intermediate layer is primarily a Western phenomenon as it is supported on the surplus value extracted from an Asian proletariat. By providing a social base for neoliberalism and globalism, its existence undermines Nairn’s view that globalisation would lead inevitably to a greater division of labour within world capitalism and so provoke a new wave of national struggles and ensuing minor nation states. This latter tendency is certainly evident, and Scotland might be included in it. But the New Middle Class, with its cosmopolitan dynamic (based on global super exploitation) acts as a countervailing force.
Note that it is perfectly logical, within this dialectic, for Scotland to appear twice. First as a location for a new nationalism propelled by the exigencies of a changing world division of labour (eg deindustrialisation, advent of North Sea oil). But secondly as an arena for the local New Middle Class to seek to attempt to exert local hegemony – specifically after Brexit, to preserve its cosmopolitan values in the face of a resurgent English populism.
However, when all is said and done, the central divide as we enter the third decade of the 21st century is not small, resurgent nations versus the big, senile imperialisms. Rather it is the return of inter-imperialist rivalries on a theatrical scale including open military competition. At the same time, the final emergence of a global free trade system has coincided with the weakest period of organised international working class solidarity in historic memory. Globalism should have been a path to an international workers movement. But there is no 21st century workers’ international, even in embryo. This tragic failure to build global class solidarity should come as no surprise – it is the direct result of the liberal, individualist poison spread by the neoliberal economic order and preached by the New Middle Class.
Tom Nairn once speculated (in a literary debate with this writer) that the ideological triumph of neoliberalism would be if it its liberal masquerade successfully displaced socialist ideas as a new, pretend radicalism. So it has come to pass with personal identity politics now replacing class conflict as a (pseudo) radical force. It is an Orwellian moment when the reactionaries have claimed the mantle of liberation.
Nevertheless, we should salute our comrade Tom Nairn for his service to the movement over seven decades and for the challenging theoretical output he sustained over that time. As Marx always maintained, it is necessary always to doubt. Tom Nairn held to that maxim, and we are the better for it. Tom paid for his iconoclasm and intellectual independence. He was denied the academic posts he richly deserved and so led a peripatetic life lecturing where he could. He eventually found a permanent teaching post in Australia, an exile from his homeland like many before him. But as the national movement in Scotland morphed from cultural maverick to dominant political current, Tom Nairn’s seminal intellectual contribution was finally recognised.
Not that Tom was an armchair warrior. In the heady days of 1968, he was fired from Hornsey College of Art for supporting a student occupation. In 1976 he was a member (like me) of Jim Sillar’s short-lived Scottish Labour Party, a breakaway from the official party. The SLP had a brief existence before imploding in sectarian infighting. Momentarily, it offered a prospect of a left alternative to the Scottish National Party which could have regrouped militants not just from Labour and the SNP but also from the Communist Party and far left. In the early 1980s, Tom and I launched The Bulletin of Scottish Politics, in an attempt to inject some intellectual rigour into local political debate, in the aftermath of the abortive 1979 devolution referendum. Alas the times were not efficacious, and the journal folded after a few issues. However, it did have one interesting side effect – an old copy ended up in the hands of Neil Davidson and stimulated his interest in applying historical materialism to understanding Scottish history.
In his later years Tom Nairn returned to Scotland and found personal happiness and intellectual respect. But he continued to explore ideas. In the last literary debate that I had with him, he chided me for being pessimistic about the progress of the national movement. He was right. For as he explained in The Break-Up of Britain, the centrality of the national question does not rest on the episodic performance of individual politicians or political parties. Rather, it is located in the structural crisis of the arthritic British state itself. And until that elitist, moribund state entity falls apart, every one of us is stuck in the political limbo Tom Nairn predicted back in 1977.