Demonising Nationalism

Tom Nairn

Two-and-a-half years ago Time Magazine published a feature on the future of the world. Being on the cover of Time has always been an American honour: the cover of 6 August 1990 carried a portrait of Nationalism.

An elementary tombstone-shaped visage of plasticine, or possibly mud, glowers out from an equally rudimentary map of Central Europe. One primitive, soulless eye is located near Vilnius. Beneath the emergent snout a hideous, gash-like mouth splits the continent open from Munich to Kiev before dribbling its venom down across Yugoslavia and Romania. No semiotic subtlety is needed to decode the image, since a closer look shows the teeth inside the gash read simply ‘Nationalism’. But in case anyone failed to register that, the whole image was crowned with a title in 72-point scarlet lettering: ‘OLD DEMON’.

It wasn’t an in-depth retrospect – it hardly could have been at that date – more an early, apprehensive glance during the first round of the ex-Soviet and post-Yugoslav tumult. In fact, it was what most Western or metropolitan opinion really expected, on the basis of these early stirrings. Some time before the Baltic peoples, the Ukrainians or the Georgians had actually established their independence, when virtually all Western diplomacy was still devoted to shoring up Gorbachev and Yugoslavia, a pervasive sense of doom already lurked in the North Atlantic mind. It was summed up in a Guardian leader of the same vintage: ‘Don’t Put Out More Flags!’ This editorial did become famous enough to endure mild mockery, but only because it was characteristically over the top, exaggerating what most readers instinctively felt: that if enough new national flags were put out the Old Demon would wreak havoc with the New World Order. The second springtime of nations was, in this glum perspective, already turning to winter, and a bad one at that.

Anyone could see from the outset that there were at least three principal strands in the gigantic upheaval against Communism. There was a popular, democratic rebellion against one-party autocracy and state terror. There was an economic revulsion against the anti-capitalist command economies which for forty years had imposed forced-march development on the East. And thirdly there was the national mould into which these revolts were somehow inevitably flowing – the new salience, in post-Communist society, of the ethnic, or (as in Bosnia) of the ethnic-religious.

The Time-Guardian perspective on this triad is that the third element will most likely end by confining, endangering or even aborting the first two. And that perspective is what I am primarily objecting to – the instinctive notion that No 3 in the list is there by unfortunate accident, the bad news which has resurfaced alongside the good, an Old Adam who refuses to let the Angel of Progress get on with it. The conclusion to the Time article accompanying the front cover puts this point as well as anything else has, in terms which, since then, have been echoed thousands of times in tones of mounting hysteria: ‘Not since Franz Ferdinand’s assassination have conditions been so favourable for an enduring new order to replace the empires of the past. With a unified Germany locked in the embrace of democratic Europe, and the Soviet Union re-examining its fundamental values, the way is open for an era of peace and liberty – but only so long as the old demons do not escape again.’

But escape they did, notably in what used to be Yugoslavia and especially – as if some truly profound irony of history was working itself out – in and around the very town where Franz Ferdinand perished in 1914. The general view or new received wisdom soon became set in concrete: nationalism is upsetting everything. It has ruined the End of History which has come back like some evil shade, mainly in order to spoil the State Department’s victory celebrations.

There were always serious difficulties in store in the East for both democracy and capitalism, of course, and no serious commentator has ignored them. But what has made these insoluble, according to the received wisdom, is the return and dominance of the third force – the atavistic, incalculable force of the ethnic revival, compelling peoples to place blood before reasonable progress and individual rights. Three years ago it already felt as if this might be the story: mysterious unfinished business of Eastern nationality wrecks any ‘enduring new order’. And so it has proved. We (in the West) now face a prospect of interminable Balkan and post-Soviet disorder, where forms of demented chauvinism and intolerance risk arresting progress altogether. Putting out too many new flags leads only to etnicko ciscenje, ‘ethnic cleansing’.[*] Unless civilisation intervenes, the newly-liberated nations may end up by replacing nascent democracy with forms of nationalist dictatorship like those prefigured in Gamsakhurdia’s Georgia or the Serbia of Slobodan Milosevic. As for economics, the consequences can hardly be anything but intensified backwardness.

This dreary tale is over-familiar: what ‘civilised’ coverage of Eastern folly perceives is primarily a re-emergence of archaism. It rarely occurs to the editorialists or reporters concerned that this enlightened, liberal perspective on the great change may itself be archaic. Yet I believe it is. Whether or not old demons are returning to haunt anyone in Bosnia and Nagorny-Karabakh, there can be no doubt that old theories – the conventional wisdom of the day before yesterday – have come back to haunt and distort Western interpretations of what is happening. This wisdom is easily dated. One need only head for the nearest available library shelf groaning beneath a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Turn to ‘Socio-Economic Doctrines and Reform Movements’. The signature H.K. stands for Hans Kohn, a prominent writer in the Forties on the political history of nationalism.

The thesis which Kohn argued rested mainly on a distinction between Western and Eastern nationalism. The former was original, institutional, liberal and good. The latter was reactive, envious, ethnic, racist and generally bad. Western-model nation-states like Britain, France and America had invented political nationalism. But, Kohn argued, these societies had also limited and qualified it, linking it to certain broader, more universal ideals. Nationalism may have been a child of Western Enlightenment; but that very fact enabled the original enlightened countries to transcend it at least partially. As time passed, in spite of various imperialist adventures, a measure of tolerance and internationalism came to moderate any remaining crudities of Anglo-French nationalism.

Not so in the East. By the ‘East’ I think Kohn really meant the rest of the world, typified by Central and Eastern Europe. He was talking about all those other societies which from the 18th century onwards have suffered the impact of the West, and been compelled to react against it. That reaction bred a different kind of national spirit: resentful, backward-looking, detesting the Western bourgeoisie even while trying to imitate it – the sour and vengeful philosophy of the second or third-born. It was this situation (he claimed) which generated genuinely narrow nationalism.

Countries were hurled into the developmental race without time to mature the requisite institutions and cadres. Hence they were forced to mobilise in other ways. The intellectuals and soldiers who took charge there needed an adrenalin-rich ideology to realise their goals, and found it in a shorthand version of the Western national spirit. This was blood-based nationality, a heroic and exclusive cult of people and state founded upon custom, speech, faith, colour, cuisine and whatever else was found available for packaging.

Though originally drawn to the West, the Germans had ended by succumbing to an Eastern-style package. It was their blood-cult, developed into a form of eugenic insanity, which threatened to drown the Enlightenment in heritance altogether after 1933. Nazism was mercifully (though only just) defeated in 1945. Out of it, however, came the experience which stamped a lasting impression of nationalism’s meaning on both the Western and the Communist mind. Nazism may in truth have been a form of genetic imperialism – in its bizarre, pseudo-scientific fashion universal (or at least would-be universal) in meaning – but its nationalist origins were undeniable, and keenly felt by all its victims. So its sins were inevitably visited upon nationality-politics as such. Since the largest, most important ethnos in Europe had gone mad in that particular way, the ethnic as such must remain forever suspect.

Such is the mentality which the post-’89 events have again brought to the surface. Instead of prompting a search for new theories to account for the extraordinary transformation of the world, these events have by and large resurrected the old ones. On the whole it seems to me that theory has contributed astonishingly little to an understanding of the New World Order, or Disorder, as Ken Jowitt, like nearly everyone else, calls it in the title of his interesting if eccentric 1991 study. The greatest revolution in global affairs since the epoch of world war is currently being explained almost wholly in terms of Time Magazine’s Old Demons. Somehow a new age seems to have been born without any new ogres.

The creaky old ideological vehicles trundled out to cope with the post-Soviet and Balkan upheavals explain nothing whatever about their subjects. Gore-laden pictures of ethnic anarchy, of the Abyss and the Doom-to-come, start off by obscuring what is, so far, easily the most significant feature of the new world disorder. Since 1988 the post-Communist convulsions have drawn in about forty different nationalities and a population of well over three hundred million in an area comprising about one-fifth of the world. Thanks to the holding operation in Tiananmen Square they did not embrace an actual majority of the world’s population, but it’s surely reasonable to think that they will end by doing so.

When this scale and those numbers are kept in mind, the most impressive fact is surely not how much the transformation has cost in terms of either life or social and economic destruction. It is how astoundingly, how unbelievably little damage has been done. In one of the few efforts made at countering conventional hysteria the Economist did try last September to estimate loss of life in the ex-Soviet empire, and published a map showing that probably about three thousand-plus had perished, mostly in Georgia, Tajikistan and in the course of the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. ‘Fewer than most people think,’ it concluded, and far less serious than what was happening in one small part of the Balkans. Social and economic disaster had been brought about by the collapse of the old Soviet-style economies, aggravated – rather than caused – by the political breakaways and national disputes.

This impression will be reinforced if any concrete timescale or historical memory is brought into the picture. The Old Demon mythology is essentially timeless – a dark or counter-millennium of re-emergent sin. In actual time the reflorescence of ethnic nationhood has followed a forty-year period during which humanity cowered in the shadow of imminent extinction. The demonologies of that epoch (anti-capitalism and anti-Communism) at least rested on something real, an array of missiles and other hardware which any serious clash between the empires – or even any sufficiently serious accident – could have activated, with the genuinely apocalyptic results everyone now seems (understandably enough) to have exiled from recollection.

But the old frozen mentalité did not vanish with the missiles. Instead it has found the temporary surrogate devil of nationalism. Another End of the World has been located: Armageddon has been replaced by the ethnic Abyss. It is a pretty feeble substitute, in the obvious sense that, even if some worst-possible-case scenario were to unfold – what Misha Glenny calls a ‘Third Balkan War’ or a Russo-Ukrainian war over the Crimea, or the break-up of the Indian state, or whatever – the consequences would not, by the standards of 1948 to 1988, be all that serious. Nobody would have to worry about taking refuge on another planet.

Almost by definition there is a great deal of anarchy in the new disorder, and no sign of its coming to an end. But there is (I would suggest) no abyss, save the ideological one in metropolitan craniums. As Benedict Anderson says in another of the more critical contributions to the debate (also entitled ‘The New World Disorder’), the key misconception is that what’s going on is essentially ‘“fragmentation” and “disintegration” – with all the menacing, pathological connotations these words bring with them. This language makes us forget the decades or centuries of violence out of which Frankensteinian “integrated states” such as the United Kingdom of 1900, which included all of Ireland, were constructed ... Behind the language of “fragmentation” lies always a Panglossian conservatism that likes to imagine that every status quo is nicely normal.’ But as Anderson and anyone else making this kind of objection knows all too well, the immediate response to it is bitter recrimination. One is at once accused of apologising for savagery, or of indifference to the escalating Balkan wars. An appeal to Western Governments and the Secretary-General of the United Nations was published in the New York Review of Books last month demanding that the world take action to stop the Yugoslav wars: ‘If democracies acquiesce in violations of human rights on such a massive scale they will undermine their ability to protect these rights anywhere in the post-Cold War world. And then, when, as has happened many times before, an armed hoodlum kicks our own doors ajar, there will be no one to lift a finger in our defence or to raise a voice.’

In this climate, to suggest that the nationalist course of history after 1989 may on the whole be preferable to what went before, and may not be treatable by any recourse to the old multinational or internationalist recipes, is to risk virtual excommunication. One must be lining up with the armed hoodlums. One is either a dupe of Demons like Tudjman and Karadzic or some sort of narrow nationalist oneself. (I’m not clear which of these is considered worse.)

The point at issue is really a methodological one which, though obvious, usually gets ignored in the new fury of the ideological times. Both anti-nationalism and pro-nationalism are extremely broad attitudes or principles – the kind of important yet very general rules which are needed as signposts or reference-points. But signposts do not map out or explain the journey which they indicate. Attitudes on this plane of historical generality are bound to have – indeed, to demand – hosts of qualifications or exceptions. ‘On the whole’ inevitably leads to ‘but ...’ What these broad attitudes ‘mean’ in any actual situation isn’t, and cannot possibly be, just a deduction or a blanket endorsement or rejection. Exceptions don’t exactly prove rules, but they are the lifeblood of useful principles.

This was blatantly true of anti-nationalism. Both in its standard liberal or Western form, and in the socialist or Leninist versions which used to hold court in the East, it was always acknowledged that occasionally, reluctantly, a few more flags had to be run up. This was permitted in cases of hallmarked national oppression. Colonial or imperialist dominance gave legitimacy to nationalism, at least for a time. The existence of ‘great-power chauvinism’ could morally underwrite small-country national liberation – though only up to the point of independence, when universal values were supposed at once to reassert themselves.

The very least a pro-nationalist can say is that he or she is as entitled to exceptions. Conversely, to say that political and economic nationalism is, very generally, a good thing is not to say that there are no blots, excrescences or failures on the increasingly nationalised map of the world. To recognise that only broadly nationalist solutions will be found for what used to be the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia is not to be an apologist for the bombardment of Dubrovnik or the rape of Bosnian Muslim women. To insist that the small battalions are likely to be ‘on the whole’ better than the large – particularly the multinational large – is not to imply there can be no pathology of the ethnic, or no cases where nationalists are wrong.

It seems to me that since 1989 the pro-nationalist is also justified in a measure of sarcasm. He or she can observe that, however many pustules and warts there turn out to be in the new world of nations, the small-battalion principle is unlikely to end up consisting of nothing but exceptions. Such has of course been internationalism’s fate since 1989. The seamless garment always had to make room for tears and patches: but after 1989 it came to consist of almost nothing except holes, which no amount of lamentation or wish-fulfilment will repair.

For the first time in human history, the globe has been effectively unified into a single economic order under a common democratic-state model – surely the ideal, dreamt-of conditions for liberal or proletarian internationalism. Actually, these conditions have almost immediately caused the world to fold up into a previously unimaginable and still escalating number of different ethno-political units.

Why has the one produced the other? Why has globalisation engendered nationalism, instead of transcending it? This is surely the fundamental problem of theory thrown up by the last three years. It goes far beyond what has become the obsessive question of Yugoslavia, and what should be done there to stop or lessen its crimes and cruelties.

To answer these questions may require some psychic effort of disengagement. I suspect that is necessary, above all, inside the countries of the European Community. Hans Kohn’s theorisation of Western liberalism rested on a distinction between West and East (or the West v. the Rest) – a distinction that was not simply resuscitated in 1989 but in a sense fortified.

The reason for that was what seemed to be taking place in the West End of the continent. Innumerable people couldn’t help feeling, and repeating with varying degrees of self-satisfaction, ‘just look at the difference!’ They may be breaking up and disintegrating, but we appear to be doing the opposite – to be integrating, getting over at least some features of nationalism, pooling sovereignty, looking rationally outwards, and so on. Extra complacency about the North Atlantic dangerously fortified the old prejudices about the East, and made the search for new explanations appear even less urgent. If Western advance and superiority was the explanation, why waste time re-thinking history with elaborate theories about comparative conditions of development?

I suppose the worst single incident of that phase was the day Boris Yeltsin turned up at the Strasbourg Parliament in 1991, and found himself (as he put it at the time) being harangued like a backward school-kid by socialist MEPs. Why couldn’t he be more like Mikhail Gorbachev, they indignantly demanded, what did he mean by being so nice to all those would-be separatists, could he not see that breaking up the USSR would be a disaster? This outburst of daft parochialism was a symptom of a phase destined rapidly to pass. Maastricht and the Danish and French referenda were not far away, and were soon to produce an abrupt change of climate. The sense of inevitable and uninterruptable progress towards the post-nationalist light gave way to the doubt and uncertainty of the present. It is (at least) not so clear now that never the twain shall meet, and that they represent fundamentally diverging forms of development.

Other important blows to Western confidence have been dealt by events in Canada and Czechoslovakia, especially the latter. This was the central, linking country between East and West, which after its emancipation from Communist rule was generally expected to follow a Western route and act as an example to less fortunate neighbours. The fact that it has chosen the (supposedly) Eastern route of division, civilly and without excessive commotion or animosity, is something whose significance has not been allowed to sink in. Eight weeks ago the birth of two new democratic republics in the heart of Europe was greeted here with a torrent of bile, commiseration and preventive accusations. Every single birth-mark was seen as presaging doom. How dare they! Not only out of step but going in the wrong direction! They’ll learn, they’ll soon be fighting like the rest (and so on).

Liberal-capitalist complacency has been replaced by the mood, darker but also more realistic, which Etienne Balibar conveyed in a 1991 talk about racism and politics in Europe. Es gibt keinen Staat in Europa was his title, a remark originally made by Hegel: there is no real state in Europe. ‘Before there can be any serious analysis of racism and its relationship to migrations,’ Balibar wrote, ‘we have to ask ourselves what this word “Europe” means and what it will signify tomorrow ... In reality we are here discovering the truth of the earlier situation, which explodes the representation that we used to have of it. Europe is not something that is “constructed” at a slower or faster pace, with greater or less ease; it is a historical problem without any pre-established solution.’ The evaporation of frontiers has not – or not yet – been replaced by the new definitions and boundaries of a European state, one capable of establishing the social and political citizenship so crucial to migrants. In a curious way, Euro-development has led to under-development in this key area. ‘All the conditions are present,’ Balibar continues, ‘for a collective sense of identity panic to be produced and maintained. For individuals – particularly the most deprived and the most remote from power – fear the state but they fear still more its disappearance or decomposition.’

I’m not sure about his description ‘identity panic’, but I agree the complacency of 1989 has been overtaken by identity concern, often coloured by anxiety and by a sharp disillusionment with the older European formulae. These features were certainly prominent in both the Danish and the French referenda over Maastricht, and they are also important in the much more smothered, inchoate argument now limping along in the United Kingdom.

Identity alarm can also be read positively, however. It is surely not wholly bad that it has replaced Western (and notably Britannic) identity somnolence. The new sense of dislocation and doubt, created by the new circumstances, may also prompt new initiatives and departures. Ethnic closure and brutal self-defence is one response to a loss of familiar horizons and signposts: but it is not the only one, and not one predestined either to return everywhere, or to triumph easily where it does.

To retain and cultivate a wider, more balanced perspective on the post-’89 transformation must be the task for serious theorists in this new world. Why has the End of History carried us forward into a more nationalist world? Why is a more united globe also (and almost immediately) far more ethnically aware, and more liable to political division?

In the years before 1989 significant advances were made in both the history and the sociology of nationalism. The central weakness of Kohn and liberal theory had been its neglect of economics, its failure to place the rise of ethnic politics within a more substantial framework of development. This failure was remedied by the important work of Ernest Gellner, Anthony Smith and others from the Sixties to the Eighties. They showed, to my mind conclusively, that nationalism was in separable from the deeper processes of industrialisation and socio-economic modernity. Far from being an irrational obstacle to development, it was for most societies the only feasible way into the developmental race – the only way in which they could compete without being either colonised or annihilated. If they turned to the past (figuratively to ‘the blood’) in these modernisation struggles, it was essentially in order to stay intact as they levered themselves into the future. Staying intact, or obtaining a new degree of social and cultural cohesion, was made necessary by industrialisation – even (as in so many cases) by the distant hope, the advancing shadow of industrialisation. And ethnos offered the only way of ensuring such cohesion and common purpose.

The strategy was high-risk, both because the blood might take over and drown these societies and because they might never really catch up. However, that risk was unavoidable. It arose from the conditions of generally and chronically uneven development – the only kind which capitalism allows, and the kind which has finally, definitively established itself since 1989 as the sole matrix of further evolution.

In this more rational but insufficiently appreciated perspective nationalism is therefore as much a native of modernity as are democracy and the capitalist motor of development. It is as inseparable from progress as they are. In his earlier work Gellner in particular stressed how vital the function of nationalism was in resisting over-centralised and monolithic development. Without ‘fragmentation’ and ‘disintegration’ some type of empire would long ago have appropriated industrialisation to its own political purpose.

I have already mentioned the standard triad of categories used to read the post-’89 changes: democracy, capitalism and nationalism – the third representing some kind of ghost or retreat from reason, an upsurge of atavism interfering with the other two. This view of nationalism is a piece of superstition; a superstition which has unfortunately grown so popular that it has come partly to define (or redefine) the task of nationalist theory. It seems to me that anti-Demonism is the pre-requisite of getting anywhere with the debate about ethnic issues and their future.

The fact is that, for all their weight and intellectual superiority to the old commonplaces, studies like Smith’s The Ethnic Origin of Nations and Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism have had very little influence on common perceptions of their subject. When the whole world was abruptly compelled to focus on it again, an older common sense took over and explained it all in terms of demons, resurgent fascism or the irrational side of human nature.

There is an interesting reversal at work here. Once upon a time (before 1989) the protagonists of internationalism tended to be over-rational creatures, professorial politicos who occasionally displayed nervous tics. Apologists for nationalism were supposed to be hirsute, romantic souls who took folk-dance too seriously and were liable to get carried away (especially by rogues). I can see little of this pattern in the arguments today. The shocked, semi-hysterical response of the West to the Eastern rebirth has plunged it into the style of unreason once supposed typical of rabid chauvinists and wild-eyed patriot-poets. By contrast, it’s now up to the defenders of nationality-politics and ethnos to assume a cannier, more balanced point of view on the emergent world. It is they who should assume and develop a perspective based on the enduring theoretical and historical work I have cited. It’s they who must look for the broader and more historically informed view, keeping their distance from the metropolitan virtual reality being pumped out in London, Paris and New York. This new perspective ought to find as natural a home in Glasgow as in (say) Kiev, or Ljubljana, or Riga – the newer centres of a more varied, more emphatically nationalist world which, in spite of all those pessimistic titles, and notwithstanding the abscess in Bosnia, will turn out to be more than just disorder and atavism.

Fifteen years ago I wrote something about ‘The Modern Janus’, likening nationalism to the two-headed Roman deity who couldn’t help looking backwards as well as forwards. Since then the whole world has increasingly come to resemble him. But with an important difference. I believe that, on the whole, the forward-gazing side of the strange visage may be more prominent than it was in 1977. Perhaps because today the forward view is that much more open and encouraging than it was then.

[*] Rumour has it that the infamous phrase, though now believed to sum up Serb barbarity, was first coined by an unfortunate UN representative, José Maria Mendiluce.