Post-Nationalism

Geoffrey Hawthorn

  • English Questions by Perry Anderson
    Verso, 370 pp, £39.95, May 1992, ISBN 0 86091 375 9
  • A Zone of Engagement by Perry Anderson
    Verso, 384 pp, £39.95, May 1992, ISBN 0 86091 377 5

For the past thirty years, New Left Review has been the most consistently interesting political journal in the country. And Perry Anderson, who used to edit it and still helps direct it, has been its consistently most interesting contributor. Like those who wrote for the two papers it replaced, the Communist New Reasoner and, later, Universities and Left Review, the contributors to New Left Review were provoked by the condition of what Tom Nairn called Ukania. But they distanced themselves from the old Ukanian Left. The country’s economy, they said, was in chronic decline, its politics were a comprehensive disaster, its society was stalled in defensive resentment, and there was no redemption to be had from what Anderson then saw as ‘the ferruginous philistinism and parochialism’ of its ‘long national tradition’. Sentimentally, he now recalls, they offended patriots (E.P. Thompson especially). ‘Intellectually, they disturbed canonical Marxist opinion, as transmitted from Capital. Politically, they nettled the Labourism of reformists and the ouvriérisme of revolutionaries.’

In the beginning, they recovered two sets of voices. The first were those of the British working class, all but silenced by the trade union leaders, ‘sergeants of dead souls’, as Anderson now describes them, who delivered block votes at the Conference and thence to the executive committee of a party most of whose other active members had settled for the ‘humbugs of card-vote and constituency, trade-union bluff with Parliamentary cant, Deakin crossed with Burke’. The second were the voices of left intellectuals from Europe. It was to these, especially to Sartre and Gramsci, that Anderson was drawn. Assuming with Gramsci that the history of France was the norm, all else deviation, and distanced from his Englishness by an Anglo-Irish descent, the echoes of a Chinese childhood, an astonishing command of European languages, and a distaste for national sentiment, he was led initially to argue that what was so odd about Ukania, and so awful, was the ‘hegemonic’ predominance of an archaic ruling class and the ‘corporate’ subordination to that class of a defensive labour movement.

In a distancing third person, Anderson now accepts that ‘this Gramscian polarity was given too cultural a turn.’ His ‘national nihilism’, as Isaac Deutscher put it, had got the better of him. In 1987, in ‘Figures of Descent’, which he now reprints together with some of his earlier NLR essays, in English Questions, he offered a more material and pointedly comparative account of what by then seemed to be a deeper and rather different kind of calamity. The imperial economy had now gone, and Labour’s Tory state had since been captured by a belligerent bourgeoisie. In the Sixties and Seventies, Anderson had been persuaded by Sartre. The highest task of a creative Marxism was to analyse ‘concrete universals’. Like other Marxists, he was trapped: the past foreclosed the political present, and revolution was the only escape. Seventeen years ago, in the wake of the radicals’ brief rule in Lisbon, and after ‘the better part of a decade’, as he now recalls, ‘of radical ferment in Western Europe’, he wrote a long piece on Gramsci – not reprinted here – ‘that sought to draw a balance-sheet of the last great strategic debate of the international labour movement, for struggles’, he then thought, ‘still pending’. When Franco Moretti, to whom he now dedicates A Zone of Engagement, wrote back from Italy, then in ferment, to say that the essay was in fact ‘a farewell in fitting style to the revolutionary Marxist tradition’, it was not a verdict, Anderson now concedes, ‘that I was disposed to accept. But not for the last time, his judgment proved better than mine’. As late as 1983, in an essay on Marshall Berman, Anderson could still allow himself to imagine ‘a diversity founded on the far greater plurality and complexity of possible ways of living that any free community of equals, no longer divided by class, race or gender, would create’. ‘What would be distinctive about a socialist revolution that created a genuine post-capitalist democracy is that the new state would be truly transitional towards the practicable limits of its own self-dissolution into the associated life of society as a whole.’ But this marked the end of his early expectations. By then, he knew that Régis Debray had been right: the events in France in 1968 announced a voyage to China which, like Columbus’s, rediscovered America. They were the beginning of the end, which came in Lisbon in 1974. If there was a new beginning, it happened then. Robert Dahl, whom Anderson does not mention, dates the start of what he regards as the most recent of the three great waves of enthusiasm for liberal democracy, the one we’re riding now, to Portugal in 1975.

Prompted by these events and a wider reading, Anderson’s view of history changed. ‘National fortunes,’ he wrote last year, looking back over his old essays on Ukania and replying to his critics, ‘are not just fates inscribed in industrial birth-certificates. They are also formed by variable national endowments, socio-cultural structures and political institutions.’ No past is normal, no future foreclosed. In principle, this could have given him new hope. In fact, he now wonders whether socialism, as we’ve known it, might not be over. Like the Jesuit experiment in Paraguay, where between the 1610s and the 1760s the native Guarani were organised into collective production and peace, it could simply subside into oblivion, an experiment traced only in memory. Or like the inspiration of the Levellers, it could die to be reborn, as the Levellers’ was – Anderson thinks – in France, on quite different terms. Or like French Jacobinism itself, it could mutate. Feminism, for instance, more of whose history lies before it than behind, might come to stand to earlier socialisms as earlier socialisms did to the Jacobins. ‘The structural consequences of real sexual equality for a capitalist society and economy look imponderably large.’ Or from a new crisis in the industrial economies, where rates of profit are already lower than they were in the long postwar boom, and are sustained by tightening credit – a crisis that might also ‘force the tremendous pressures of poverty and exploitation in the South into the arena of the North’ – there could emerge a new and far-reaching agenda for reconstruction. Liberalism also was long occluded, but is now again, in name, triumphant. ‘Oblivion, transvaluation, mutation, redemption: each, according to their intuition, will make their own guess as to which is more probable. Jesuit, Leveller, Jacobin, Liberal – these,’ Anderson concludes, ‘are the figures in the mirror.’

The more immediate ‘incognitos of fin-de-siècle politics’, however, for the still hopeful socialists as for the rest, are, as he says, the relations between capitalism, the nation-state and national identity. Anderson started to explore these in the Eighties, in a series of essays, some of which first appeared in this paper, and are now reprinted in Engagement, on Michael Mann, Norberto Bobbio, Roberto Unger, W.G. Runciman. Andreas Hillgruber, Max Weber, Ernest Gellner, Carlo Ginzburg, Isaiah Berlin, Fernand Braudel and Francis Fukuyama. More recently (LRB, 24 September and 22 October), he has extended himself to Michael Oakeshott and others of Oakeshott’s generation on ‘the intransigent right’, and to those in Ukania who have been resurrecting these theorists to explain and in one way or another defend the politics we’ve been suffering for the past dozen years. ‘The condition of a specific engagement,’ he says of these often magnificent essays ‘has always been respect.’ But he must also feel ‘a significant dissent. Without that, the precipitant of the form most natural to me seems to be lacking.’

His dissent from Unger is with his own past. He agrees that to realise the Brazilian’s programme would be to reverse the defeat of revolutionary movements and leftist experiments. Unger’s agenda is the boldest and most imaginative we have. It is also – a feature that Anderson perhaps undervalues – one of the more elaborate. But it’s a vision, as Anderson says, of a world without losers. Bobbio, by contrast, who impresses him in having had more impact on the politics of his society than any other intellectual in post-war Western Europe, and by an honesty that comes from practice, is too pessimistic. Democracy, Bobbio has argued, can be more attractively subversive than socialism: but extended representation is impossible, economic democracy under capitalism is unworkable, and too much participation is undesirable. There’s no doubt, agrees Anderson, that what Bobbio calls that ‘lofty velleity’, the synthesis of liberalism and socialism, ‘has so far failed to take’. And perhaps it never will. But a residual optimism of the intellect in Anderson resists the Italian’s conclusion that ‘nothing risks killing democracy so much as an excess of it.’

On nationalism, ‘the boldest and most original theory’, Anderson thinks, is Gellner’s. (This is not inconsistent with its proponent’s ready concession that the ‘Euclidean beauty’ of his argument far exceeds its correspondence to the facts. Nationalism, Gellner suggests, is a cognitive response to the perplexing paradoxes of division and connection in literate and industrialised societies. But it was powerful in Europe and the Americas before the advent of industry and widespread literacy, and is nowhere more powerful now than in many at best partially industrial countries in the East and South.) Anderson’s own objection is to Gellner’s rationalism, his indifference to nationalism’s emotional pull. Isaiah Berlin, by contrast, understands that well, and has written wonderfully about it. But Berlin believes that although values are diverse and conflicts between them inevitable, nations, like individuals, share a common discursive universe, grounded in what Berlin has recently described as ‘universal ethical laws’. For this reason, Anderson complains – with rare limpness, for he’s uneasy with theory that’s abstracted from circumstance, and forgets that socialists have also made the same sort of assumption – Berlin is too monist, or too parochially Western, too indifferent to the amorality of politics, and certainly too sanguine, for a Ukanian. about our lack of a liberal constitution.

It’s the demands of a still unrealised liberalism in the face of a transnationalised capitalism, political nationalisms, and the resurrection of the Right, that we now, Anderson insists, have to meet. It’s unlikely, as Marxists used to hope, that capitalism and nationalism will disappear together. Nor is it likely, as some used to believe, that the second will outlive the first. Quite the opposite. It’s now ‘more generally wondered’, as he says, ‘whether capitalism is not final, and nation-states fated to become nominal’. He may be right. Nations, as states, have lost most of their room for manoeuvre in the transnationalisation of finance and investment that now affects them all. In the European Community, and in future imitations of that association elsewhere, nation-states will also lose some formal powers. Their citizens will want collective identities with which to defend and ‘recover’ themselves against the transnationalisation of their fates. But unlike national ‘character’, which we used to assume – or so he claims – could change, ‘identity’ is a brittle and intrinsically illiberal item. It has an inflexibility whose ‘social projection’ lays it open ‘to a kind of structural anxiety’. It can rise to hysteria, and suddenly collapse. It’s not easy to predict its strength and political effects.

One local, recent and entertainingly hysterical effect has been to divide the Conservative Party over Europe. As Anderson explained in these pages a few weeks ago, Shirley Letwin – giving voice to those who confuse Thatcher’s dictatorial ways with individualism – has resurrected the myth of yeoman virtue to warn against the bureaucracies of Brussels. Ferdinand Mount – thinking for the less militant tendency – has been altogether more subtle. A free-trade area with a common currency and an impotent parliament (the extension at Maastricht of the Treaty of Rome), together with the power that European law can give to our judiciary, nicely restores that ancient balance of powers – the judges on one side, Parliament on the other, the executive in the middle, the crown on top, and the people nowhere – which myth-makers of a different sort have long been saying we’re privileged to live under. Each claim prompts tears and laughter; neither, however, is to be dismissed. The first has influence on the Tory backbenches, and the second, although driven by an Oakeshottian aestheticism that one does not associate with the present Cabinet, is at one with our ministers’ present intentions and those also of Labour’s front bench. (Anderson reminds us at the end of Questions that the slack and fearful Plant Report to Labour on whether the Constitution should be changed concludes that ‘there is a powerful case for leaving the central elements of the representative and electoral system which we believe to be of vital importance to the legislative function in place,’ and that reform of the upper chamber runs the risk that it could then ‘claim greater legitimacy in some constitutional deadlock with the Commons’.) Present realities, Anderson argues, make it plain that a more enlightened politics – the politics of ‘a rational Left’ – however global it might be in its conclusions, has first ‘to be national in its condition’.

Nevertheless, from where we now are, ‘various sorts of reconstruction can,’ he suggests,

be envisaged – some leading to further concentration and rationalisation of executive power, others away from it. But so far there is only one kind in the capitalist world that has linked economic success to democratic deepening. Social-democratic concertation only works where political representation is fully equitable, and governments can negotiate and ensure common lines of economic growth because they rest on genuinely broad social forces. Where these conditions are established, even modest initial goals can provide the momentum for a rolling agenda of reforms across successive administrations.

The substantive point is most recently supported in the striking contrast this autumn between the reactions in Britain and Sweden to a similar, and similarly severe, financial crisis. In the one, which does not have a social-democratic tradition, the Government found itself with a rebellious party, collapsing public support and no policy. In the other, which does, Government and Opposition agreed at once to resist devaluation and to compromise their other differences to prevent a rise in unemployment. If external conditions were ever to allow a more expansive ‘rolling agenda’, then some mutation or transvaluation, perhaps even a redemption, might take us to a future that we cannot now see. ‘No political movement ever realises exactly what it sets out to achieve, and no social theory ever foresees just what goes on to occur.’ (That, as Anderson says in a tour de force on Fukuyama’s End of History, is what the liberal Right does not see.) In the meantime, he suggests, we should improve existing lives and liberties. In Britain – he recalls Peter Pulzer’s piece in this paper (5 November 1991) on the Institute for Public Policy Research’s Constitution for the United Kingdom – this means reminding Labour, in which despite himself Anderson still has hope, that subjects are not yet citizens. We need more freedom of information, revitalised local government, electoral reform, and some sort of Bill of Rights.

If the political will were there, Pulzer thought, we could have all this almost at once. And once we did, he added, we’d wonder how we did without it for so long. But how do we get it? The Conservatives will not provide it. Nor will Labour. What was liberating about Anderson’s arguments in the Sixties, at least to those of us who had faith in Transport House, was to have it so persuasively explained that our favoured agents, labour and Labour, had lost their agency. It’s therefore puzzling that, in English Questions, he should now put so much hope in the Party. His own structural explanations for the absence of a constructive social democracy in Britain, which remain convincing, are explanations that the Labour Party cannot acknowledge and remain the Labour Party. It has rejected its more recent past, it has become equivocal about the Wilson and Callaghan years: 1945, dirigisme within a Tory state, remains its one claim honourably to have existed. If it is returned to power and takes Raymond Plant’s advice, it will do nothing to reduce the unchecked power of the executive. In any event, as Anderson himself concedes, even the most effective of the European social democracies have had to modify their policies, and in Scandinavia have been voted out of power. An economically sustainable social democracy of the kind we’ve seen elsewhere may now, he fails to add, be beyond the reach of any one nation-state.

This leaves the hope of Europe. It’s true, as Anderson says in his piece on Mount, that the present Community, revived by Mitterrand in 1983, driven by his appointment to the presidency of the Commission, sustained by an alliance between Paris and Bonn, and for different reasons supported by everyone except us, is an arena of economic concentration and executive closure, ‘a central monetary authority without any commensurate elected assembly’. Notwithstanding the agreement on social policy, from which Britain, alone of the Twelve, exempted itself, Maastricht is, as many now see, an arrangement drawn up by politicians and central bankers for politicians and central bankers. This is not to say that one should judge it, as Anderson seems at times to do, by the exacting and impractical standard of a popular sovereignty which can also deliver popular rule. No modern politics can deliver that, and there are persuasive arguments, from John Stuart Mill to Schumpeter, to suggest that we’d be unwise to try to make it do so. The more serious criticism is that there’s little mention in the Treaty on Union of an active government for Europe. The purpose of rule, to maximise the benefits of social co-operation, is not sufficiently secured by letting the consequences of tight money and the market take their course. Incomplete in this respect though it is, the Maastricht Treaty does give more power to the European Parliament in Strasbourg than our own procedures do to the Commons. It intends, it’s true, that the Council of Ministers and the Commission in Brussels will together initiate most of the legislation. But it does at least require them to accept suggestions from Strasbourg. And the Parliament there, which is not constituted in such a way as automatically to endorse the view from Brussels, and not subject to executive discipline, does formally have the last word.

For those who now despair of Britain, there is a deeper point. The balance of powers in Whitehall, suited to an imperial economy in which our currency governed all others, disastrous for a weakening and dependent state; the self-serving arrogance and complacency of our political class; our offensive constitution – the fact that even intelligent people like Ferdinand Mount endorse the insulting sovereignty of the monarchy, and defend Parliament on the arguments of the 1680s; the unhappy connection – from Londonderry to London – between English national identity and the Ukanian nation-state; all incline one to conclude that any political reform which takes this political nation as its starting-point is doomed. Ours is now a politics which can only be changed from outside. Even if, by some agency which no one can at present envisage, there were to be constitutional reform from within, the new would grow on the mould of the old, and be likely to strengthen the status quo. In this sense, there is reason actually to fear such a move.

This is the respect in which Anderson’s radicalism, like that of the IPPR, is now conservative. Preoccupied by the ravages of international finance, sensitive to the effect that these can have on national sentiment, and aware that no government has found a way in which to deploy the second against the first, he fails to ask the right question. The question is not how to square the transnational economy with national identity and the nation-state, but how effectively to separate state and identity in order to defend oneself more effectively against the new international economy. National sentiment no longer needs to be symbolised and celebrated in politics, and what we think of as the responsibilities of the nation-state itself have to be transferred to more powerful entities. Middle-sized nation-states of the kind that now exist in most of Western Europe are, as Daniel Bell once put it, too small to deal with the large problems and too large to deal with the small ones. Tinkering with the domestic machinery does not address the central issue.

Politicians elsewhere have long since seen this. For Jean Monnet in Paris in the Forties, as for liberals and socialists and indeed many old conservatives in Germany, Greece, Spain and Portugal somewhat later, a European Union was the best insurance for the future against the past. Nationalism had to be drained out of politics. For almost everyone in the Nineties, except some nervous Danes and the backward-looking majority in both main parties in the Commons, it now appears also to be the best available insurance against the present. For Italians – on this, Lombards and Calabrians agree – it’s even more urgent. It’s the only escape. So, too, for Britain. The last best hope for our national politics is that it cease to be a national politics.