Tom Nairn: ‘Painting Nationalism Red’? 
by Neal Ascherson.
Democratic Left Scotland, 27 pp., £4, February 2018
Show More
Show More

‘The subtlest​ of insults to Scotland is, it seems, to return to it,’ Neal Ascherson wrote in the Scottish political review Q in 1975. The historian Christopher Harvie described the emigrant intellectuals who pepper Scottish history as ‘red Scots’: ‘cosmopolitan, self-avowedly “enlightened” and, given a chance, authoritarian, expanding into and exploiting greater and more bountiful fields than their own country could provide’. The ‘black Scots’ who remained were ‘demotic, parochial, sensitive about community to the point of reaction, but keeping the ladder of social promotion open, resisting the encroachments of the English governing class’. Ascherson had just left his job as the Observer’s Eastern Europe correspondent to report on Scottish politics for the Scotsman. ‘Coming back,’ he wrote, ‘is not an action which is familiar in the pattern of Scottish activities, if I except coming back to die, coming back with shiny luggage from Calgary to see the folks before they die or coming back – even more briefly – to make fish in the river and sheep who stand in the road die.’ Returning to Edinburgh in anticipation of a devolved Scottish Assembly – in the 1979 referendum devolution gained more than 50 per cent of the votes, but less than the required 40 per cent of the overall electorate – and a rejuvenated public sphere, he still felt ‘the curious, hostile glances of fans who see a man elbowing his way towards the stadium as they are pouring out after the last whistle’.

Ascherson’s homecoming in 1975 coincided with that of another ‘red Scot’, Tom Nairn, whose own journeys, intellectual and geographical, are now surveyed in Ascherson’s essay-length intellectual biography. The essay was commissioned by Democratic Left Scotland, a small, polite collection of left-wing intellectuals and activists which emerged from the rubble of the Communist Party of Great Britain, to accompany the arrival of a portrait of Nairn by Sandy Moffat – which they partially paid for – at the McManus Gallery in Dundee. Being painted by Moffat has become a mark of entry into Scotland’s intellectual pantheon, formalising Nairn’s place alongside figures like Hugh MacDiarmid, Muriel Spark and Ascherson himself. Ascherson is keen that this process of national canonisation should not become one of pacification and moderation. Disputing Eric Hobsbawm’s suggestion, quoting Lenin, that Nairn simply ‘painted nationalism red’, Ascherson writes: ‘He is a revolutionary still, and his political legacy to Scotland is the need for an uprooting, unsparing radicalism.’ But this risks sidestepping rather than explaining the remarkable twists and turns of his thought.

These twists and turns were a consequence partly of Nairn’s fondness for prediction, for mapping and remapping the way ahead. He has been wrong as often as right, and happy to correct himself – helped by what Ascherson describes as his ‘cumulative publication habit’, writing new forewords to each edition of his books, or rewriting entire essays for republication. He was so confident in announcing The Break-Up of Britain in 1977 that he declined his publisher’s suggestion of a qualifying question mark. This self-assurance can be entrancing, and Ascherson’s Nairn has a somewhat Olympian quality; it is strange that he doesn’t discuss their joint activities in the late 1970s, as flatmates on East Preston Street, colleagues at the Scottish International Institute and supporters of the Scottish Labour Party, a short-lived nationalist breakaway from the Labour Party. Indeed, these two red Scots were even born in the same year, 1932, Nairn in the small Fife town of Freuchie, Ascherson in Edinburgh.

Nairn has always possessed a strong sense of the formative power of place. He told the Sunday Times in 2000 that some of his happiest childhood memories were of the period his family spent in the village of Cellardyke, in a house ‘with a gate straight onto the beach. I thought it was like heaven.’ His lifelong fascination with the political potential of locality and its mythologies has been accompanied by a keen awareness of the experiences of difference and disorientation that can draw people towards more fixed identities. ‘I like impermanence, a feeling of being on the margins, on the border of things,’ he said of Cellardyke. ‘For years I dreamed of nothing but going back to this place. Things like that leave a sort of psychological imprint.’

In 1980, reviewing three books about Gramsci in the LRB, Nairn attacked the efforts of a new wave of ‘Euro-Gramscians’ to extract an ‘abstract political theory or revolutionary strategy’ from the specificities of Gramsci’s ‘Italian dilemma’. One of Nairn’s first major publications was an English translation of Giuseppe Fiori’s biography of Gramsci in 1970, which revealed in new detail his struggles against poverty, sickness, fascism and imprisonment, as well as enemies on his own side. Nairn’s Gramsci was a ‘man of the abyss’, a tightrope-walker between the universal and the particular, and between the extremes of his own ‘unevenly developed’ corner of Europe: Gramsci’s ‘personality, and the essence of his marathon fight with destiny, were made from the clash between Sardinia and Piedmont, between the most unredeemed, alien South and the feral new capitalism of the North’. Nairn argued that ‘what counts … is following Gramsci’s example within one’s own society.’ In 2006, again in the LRB, he took the same attitude towards Marx, suggesting that Marx and Engels’s Rhineland origins was the key to their interpretation of capitalism’s development: Marxism was ‘a Rhineland-based diversion of global history, mistaken for the mainstream during a prolonged period of warfare, genocide and democratic defeat. Its ismic (or utopian-religious) form gained overmuch glamour and standing, via state-power structures that were themselves accidents of uneven development.’ For Nairn, whose thought was indelibly marked by the ‘long 1968’, the political is unavoidably personal, and vice versa; but the two are powerfully linked by a third element, the local.

Nairn’s family were ‘wrenched’ from Cellardyke, moving to West Fife (still a communist heartland) after his father, a teacher, got a new job. His first ambition was to be an artist, and he went to Edinburgh College of Art, but soon changed tack, moving to study philosophy at Edinburgh University and then at Oxford, where he was taught by Iris Murdoch. Her scepticism about Oxford’s fad for linguistic philosophy was shared by another of Nairn’s future mentors, Ernest Gellner, whose polemic Words and Things drew a connection between the insular preoccupations of the Oxford faculty and their cosy college life. Nairn was more interested in the Continental vigour of the ‘emperor of aesthetics’, Benedetto Croce, and won a British Council scholarship to the University of Pisa, where he discovered Gramsci and a thriving left-wing politics. He began to write for various Communist Party publications, and continued to do so after taking up a teaching post at Birmingham University. In 1968 he was sacked from Hornsey College of Art for participating in a student occupation, which Ascherson believes led to his being blacklisted from academic employment. He was thus ‘obliged to produce his long, groundbreaking series of books and articles in conditions of often painful insecurity, poverty and geographical vagabondage’. Nairn’s exile took him from London to Dijon, Amsterdam, Prague and Melbourne, until finally he settled back in Livingston, a small town near Edinburgh.

At the time of his sacking, Nairn had already begun to develop what’s known as the ‘Anderson-Nairn thesis’, an ambitious attempt with Perry Anderson to reorient British Marxism towards a more totalising, global and long-view interpretation of British history, capable of explaining the mounting crisis of the British left in the 1960s. This placed particular emphasis on the role played by intellectuals in keeping Britain’s anachronistic, pre-modern class and state structures in place. The Labour Party was implicated in this, and Nairn spent much of the 1960s developing a powerful critique of ‘Labourism’ which has become central to British new left thinking. His argument remains relevant: Labour has never been able to shake off an instinctive deference to Britain’s opaque, unwritten, class-bound constitution, and as a result can never overcome the obstacles that constitution puts in the way of democracy, never mind socialism. Despite Corbyn and McDonnell’s ambitious proposals to transform Britain’s economic structure, even the most moderate constitutional reforms remain low on Labour’s list of priorities, and the electoral battle-bus trundles down the same old parliamentary road towards the same old disappointments. The party’s haplessness in the face of Brexit only confirms Nairn’s point. None of Labour’s warring factions dares to suggest that this moment of constitutional breakdown demands a constitutional revolution; instead the party is constrained by the bad logic of adjectival manoeuvre – hard, soft, chaotic, no deal, Tory, people’s – around an all-consuming and unstoppable noun. When experience strips away these rhetorical qualifiers, Labour will be dangerously complicit in what remains.

Nairn also began after 1968 to think seriously about alternatives not only to the Labour Party but to the British state. Two events were crucial: Winnie Ewing’s by-election victory for the SNP in the safe Labour seat of Hamilton in 1967, and the ‘Great Debate’ over EEC membership in the early 1970s. Ewing’s election provoked Nairn’s first major exploration of Scottish nationalism, in an NLR essay entitled ‘The Three Dreams of Scottish Nationalism’. The influence of Gramsci, highlighted by Ascherson, is obvious: the essay explores the SNP’s emergence within a Scotland seen as a genuine ‘totality’ of culture, politics, economics and history, stretching back to the Reformation.

Scotland’s Reformation, Nairn wrote, was ‘a divine black dream, divorced from time’: it occurred too early, in developmental terms, to act as Max Weber’s mobilising ‘Protestant spirit’ of capitalist modernisation. While Nairn’s disdain for Britain is well known, he also sits within an intellectual tradition of Scots who, while hating almost everything about Scotland as it actually is, have found in its abjection something utopian, and worthy of obsession. The fate of ‘black dreams’ like the Reformation drew confessions of bleak admiration from Nairn: ‘In the dreadful, chronic anarchy and medieval poverty of Scotland, it represented the one great effort of the Scottish people towards a meaningful order of their own.’ It was ‘bound to be an abstract, millennial dream – in effect, a desperate effort at escape from history, rather than a logical chapter in its unfolding’.

The NLR essay goes on to trace the ways in which Scotland’s national imagination was repressed, never allowed to develop freely into the sort of nationalist consciousness that by the 19th century had begun to break up pre-modern empires and unions. It was instead the Enlightenment which gripped Edinburgh’s proto-citoyens, ‘an escape from the peculiar destiny of Scotland, onto the plane of abstract reason’. Romanticism – the cultural fuel of nationalist revolution in Europe – had nothing political in Scotland to latch on to: ‘Unable to function as ideology, as a moving spirit of history, it too was bound to become a possessing demon,’ in the form of a Tartan sentimentalism that came to stand in for a genuinely ‘popular-democratic’ culture. Nairn’s most lethal ammunition, however, was saved for Scotland’s decaying bourgeoisie, even as they were finally discovering political nationalism. Their ‘evil mélange of decrepit Presbyterianism and imperialist thuggery, whose spirit may be savoured by a few mornings with the Edinburgh Scotsman and a few evenings watching Scottish Television, appears to be solidly represented in the Scottish National Party.’ The version of nationalism represented by the SNP offered no hope: they were ‘lumpen-provincials whose parochialism finds its adequate expression in the asinine idea that a bourgeois parliament and an army will rescue the country from provincialism; as if half of Europe did not testify to the contrary.’ What was needed instead was ‘a Socialist Nationalism, whose dream has dimensions which really correspond to those of the stubborn visionary drive towards identity we have been considering – and which is a part of living contemporary history and of an arising future’. Nairn later adopted a more sympathetic view of the SNP, but this early utopianism best expresses his radical spirit.

The writer Ray Burnett, then a student at Aberdeen University, later reflected that

Nairn’s scintillating polemic … had thrown up a myriad of challenges and questions as to how all of us, regardless of our professed political alignment, would benefit from a rigorous re-examination of our intellectual and cultural past … But at that time its author was a strange, distant figure on the metropolitan and chic European left … It never occurred to anyone that he actually might be Scottish.

Burnett was one of a generation of young Scots emerging from a greatly expanded university system into a world that seemed on the edge of revolution. On the margins of an Anglocentric British left and a stiflingly conformist Scottish society, they began to examine what was distinctive about their national circumstances and political traditions, and what radical potential might be found in Scotland’s misfit status. New magazines of political and cultural criticism began to emerge, notably the New Edinburgh Review and Scottish International, whose opening editorial announced that ‘a colourless or promiscuous internationalism is to nobody’s advantage. But a self-conscious cultural nationalism can lead to bad habits of stereotyped thinking and unwillingness to look at the situation as it really is. Our policy will be to look for what is really there, and to call people’s attention to it.’

In​ 1973, Scottish International organised a conference, ‘What Kind of Scotland?’, at Edinburgh University. Its centrepiece was the first reading of John McGrath’s play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, a bracingly radical tour through the history of what Nairn described as Scotland’s ‘self-colonisation’. Nairn couldn’t make it – even here, with a more liberating nationalism struggling to be born, he was on the outside looking in. Instead, he sent an extraordinary letter to Bob Tait, editor of Scottish International, reflecting on developments since ‘Three Dreams of Scottish Nationalism’ was published. Eventually published as ‘Culture and Nationalism’, the letter provides an insight into a key moment in the development of Nairn’s thought: when his attention turned from Scotland’s inwardness towards its function on the world stage.

A precondition for this switch in focus was Nairn’s analysis of the EEC, which had taken up a full issue of NLR a year earlier. Ascherson skims this essay, ‘The Left against Europe’, stressing its critique of Labourism – formulated years earlier – and noting that Nairn’s hostility towards nationalism seems ‘odd’ in light of his later work on its productive, ‘Janus-faced’ ambiguity. Yet its most striking aspect today is Nairn’s analysis of the EEC, and his arguments in its favour. His basic question is simple: why was it the Conservatives who had aligned themselves with the European project, and the British left who were so determinedly against it? His answer was that the left, having failed to overthrow capitalism, had become preoccupied with reforming ‘the chronically shrunken national institutions inherited from the past’, and couldn’t tolerate the diminution of those institutions’ sovereignty, or the subordination of national ‘community’ to transnational, capitalist ‘progress’ – even if the latter might pave the way for socialism. British capital, on the other hand, had found in the EEC a route out of terminal decline. Nairn predicted that membership of the bloc would drag the left out of its nationalist fog, prompting a ‘stronger and more direct’ conflict with a European ruling class. This desire to be pulled along by the currents of history would now be described as accelerationism. It is symptomatic of the prophetic confidence that characterises all of Nairn’s work, but was it an abandonment of his earlier ‘socialist nationalism’? Scotland barely figured in ‘The Left against Europe’, and his extensive quotation of figures opposed to nationalism, like Isaac Deutscher and Rosa Luxemburg, suggests a brief flirtation with the ‘proletarian internationalism’ he would polemicise against in later years. In ‘Culture and Nationalism’ Nairn expressed his ‘awe’ at Scottish International’s efforts to internationalise Scottish questions, even if he despaired at the occasional ‘sloughs of inward-looking mythology’. This was a potshot at what he saw as its deference to a ‘normal’ nationalist model of the road to modernity: ‘attention to “what is really there” shows that the long winding road was never in fact traversable by the Scots. Their major cultural talent is the shortcut. Not having “roots” of the requisite kind has been their chief advantage in life, at least during modern times.’ Here he made his strangest, most controversial claim:

Formerly there was in Europe one great ‘non-national’ nation, one people of no country, and they acted for over a century as the leaven of European culture: the Jews. In cultural terms, we of the left owe virtually everything to them. But in the philistine and bourgeois Europe centred upon Brussels this leaven has gone … The Common Market’s problem can be put very simply, and materially: in losing the Jews it has lost its former natural power to overcome the paralysis of all its different nationalisms and provincial cultures.

The enduring influence of Deutscher, whose 1958 lecture on ‘the non-Jewish Jew’ identified a similar ethnic ‘leaven’ in the European lump, is clear here. Without the tradition which gave Europe ‘Spinoza, Heine, Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky and Freud’, the new EEC was little more, Nairn argued, than a ‘vulgar shopkeeper’s atrocity’. Scotland’s national failures had furnished him with an answer to this: ‘Europe’s new “Jews” are far more likely to be such delinquents from the outer edge: cultural nomads from the barrens, so to speak, rather than products of the old nation-state moulds in Oxford, the Paris grandes écoles, or the Scuola Normale.’

Here were the ‘misfit nations’ – Scotland, Catalonia, Brittany and perhaps even Czechoslovakia – which Nairn would more explicitly identify as geopolitical ‘troublemakers’ in The Break-Up of Britain. Their marginality offered a ‘shortcut to infinity’ for the European left – a mobilising identity rooted in the experience of rootlessness. In The Break-Up of Britain, he wrote of the disruptive impact their demands for recognition might have: ‘The SNP ideologists tend to perceive us as paid-up members of the elite already; actually, we may end up as noisy outcasts, breaking the club windows in order to get in.’ Even ‘bourgeois’ Scottish nationalism, properly prosecuted, could serve a revolutionary function on the international stage.

This is the ‘revolutionary’ Nairn whom Ascherson defends against Hobsbawm’s accusation: turning Scotland’s own contradictions outwards, Nairn pressed it into a new, largely hypothetical international of stateless misfits capable of disrupting the Cold War order. Ascherson believes this perspective still holds, listing the Catalans and Kurds alongside the Scots. Yet Scotland no longer seems to possess the ruptural potential it perhaps held in the late 1970s. The most disruptive regional identities today are not the misfit nations but the rustbelt and small-town cast-offs of the old imperial nation-states, allying not with the metropolitan left but with suburban, rural and elite reaction: right-wing populists in America, Britain, Italy and Germany have all relied on such coalitions for their recent insurgencies. The SNP meanwhile is among the most obedient followers of the old multilateral dream: its leaders are largely uncritical in their support for the EU, despite the disastrous failures in Greece and Italy, and the treatment of those truly stateless people trying to cross the Mediterranean. They have shed their old opposition to Nato, and are committed to retaining the monarchy. Nairn has made his peace with this, having abandoned Marxism for a gradualist politics. He has made space in his nationalism for the slow coming-round of what he once called ‘the boredom-producing classes’ – Scotland’s professional strata – who may yet be stirred into separatist action by England’s seemingly endless identity crisis. Nairn concluded – from Britain’s 1980s and the Soviet Union’s break-up – that the revolutionary sprint to socialism ended in too many disasters, and would be overtaken in the end by the tortoise-crawl of ‘democracy’, which, he suggests, still needs the protective shell of ‘nationality politics’ to survive the assaults of larger beasts, socialist and capitalist alike.

Harvie’s red-black binary doesn’t quite do justice to the dilemmas that shaped Nairn’s generation. Born into an intellectual culture forced outwards by Scotland’s apparent backwardness, they were increasingly compelled inwards by the closure of the old escape routes into Britain’s imperial and social-democratic bureaucracies. The Scottish literary tradition is full of examples of these antisyzygean negotiations: every ‘red’ Scot carries a ‘black’ shadow, and every ‘civic’ internationalist nationalist must draw on what Nairn called the ‘raw materials’ of ethnic identity for justification. In his most influential study of nationalism, an essay called ‘The Modern Janus’, Nairn wrote that ‘the substance of nationalism as such is always morally, politically, humanly ambiguous. This is why moralising perspectives on the phenomenon always fail, whether they praise or berate it.’ His own encounters with it have nevertheless been driven by a commitment to democracy and intellectual honesty, from which his political ambiguities have necessarily derived. They also result, as Ascherson shows, from a worldly, adaptive intelligence at times painfully out of place in Scotland, most of whose writers have tended to simplify a complex and often contradictory body of work. If there is a continuously revolutionary side to Nairn’s work it is in his refusal to settle for ideological, political or cultural closure, his endless crossing of real and ideal borders. When confronted with a gate onto the ocean, he imagines it open. The British left has yet to learn to do the same.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences