At the Fairground

Tom Nairn

  • Republics, Nations and Tribes by Martin Thom
    Verso, 359 pp, £45.00, July 1995, ISBN 1 85984 020 5

If this new year was a precedent, there will be serious prophetic constipation till around 2001. The Independent on Sunday of 22 December last weighed in with a mere forty crystal-gazers, from Ian Angell, ‘darling of the doom-and-gloom conference circuit’, down to Theodore Zeldin’s ‘persuasively touchy-feely manifesto’, An Intimate History of Humanity. Yet quite a few gloomsters were not checked in, notably éminence noire Conor Cruise O’Brien. Was the Indie trying to cheer us up? Or perhaps it was offering a little consolation to those already suffering from the fin-de-siècle drowning sensation. More serious victims might also try turning to Martin Thom’s careful and deep fathoming of a similar great transition two hundred years ago: the birth of modern nationalism. There is more to be learned on that particular subject here than from most contemporary fulminations, not excluding my own. Then, too, in the decades following 1776 and 1789, the world passed through post-revolutionary rapids which permanently altered the shape and direction of the human river. Then, also, society (in particular the upper stratum) was suffering from manifestly lost bearings and complaining loudly about it. And then, as now, pundits of all lands found themselves blessed by the Zeitgeist, and redoubled their efforts until no open space was without its fairground tent and its impatient queues eager for lessons in portent-reading. As Martin Thom patiently points out over and over again, the trouble was not that the hucksters were mistaken. They were often quite right about what was going wrong. But that was unimportant, or at least ceasing to matter. As regards what was actually coming into being, on the other hand – the future pressing its way into the present through a myriad of unsuspected channels – they were mistaken, or at best accidentally half-right. In one sense that didn’t matter: they had spent the money long before anyone could sue them.

In another sense, alas, it mattered a lot. Rune-reading is a ridiculous business. And yet one can also see from Thom’s careful account how in those circumstances – just like these now recurring – there was really no alternative to it. The enlivened sensibility of a transition time can never wait stoically on events. It is compelled to cry out for some notion of what lies in store. And the answers to such cries may be terribly influential, as well as wrong. This is the real reason the curious activity of prophecy counts for so much. The most garbled, or even insane, forecast can end up moving things in one direction rather than another. Illusions, too, may weigh on events, sometimes long and grievously. They may not really ‘make the future’ in the deepest or longest-range sense. But they can powerfully inflect what might be called the middle range of historical development. And then – within that zone – some combination of personalities and (mainly military) accidents could always mean there might be no alternative.

For example, the belief that an Aryan race was genetically destined to conquer and rule planet Earth was a baseless delusion. Spielberg fans, however, will be intrigued to know that around 1940 Heinrich Himmler’s Ancestral Heritage organisation Ahnenerbe included people convinced that the Aryans were of extra-terrestrial descent and had been sent to Earth equipped with superhuman electrical powers. Expeditions went out looking for scientific proof of this hypothesis in the usual location: Tibet. Had the Nazis got away with it, we may be reasonably confident that academic learning of a sort would then have tried to oblige them. Equally, the conviction that ‘primitive communism’ might be successfully re-created in a supranational and industrialised form out of the ruins of the Romanov and Habsburg Empires was a prophetic mirage. What that involved was the discovery of an entire supranational social class equipped with equivalent electric powers. Geographical Tibet was not on this menu. However, Lenin did think that a virtual-Tibetan élite of superman-monks was required to galvanise the proletariat. Attempts to realise these prophecies – and the struggle between them – have accounted for much of the past century. Fortunately they ran out of steam before annihilating the species. But does even the most fervent optimist think this could not have happened?

It is a mistake to turn one’s back on the fairground. Early in the 20th century it really mattered to oppose Nietzsche and Lenin, and to do so in terms other than those of diehard conservatism or philistinism. Presumably it will go on mattering as we move into the 21st century, accompanied by another bunch of mournful palm-readers and sermonising snake-oil reps. What Republics, Nations and Tribes makes very clear is how careful we will have to be. Apocalyptic oratory relies chiefly on a deft conjury of simplifications: ‘globalisation’, ‘demise of the nation state’, ‘global warming’ and so forth. The safest assumption is that it may be at least as difficult to define such terms today as it was to define ‘nation’, Volk, revolution and patriotism in the 1790s and early 1800s.

It may, for example, be far from simple to record the nation state’s passing. Especially when, as Thom reminds us, practically no one discerned its arrival, or its eventual crystallisation into the general form of nationalism. During epochs of upheaval educated people naturally look backwards in time for clues and inspiration. Over most of the Early Modern globe – in the Mogul and Chinese Empires, in Islamic countries – the literate classes had lived in a retrospect of carefully gilded imperial and religious statehood. They inherited dynasties which were either ‘immemorial’ or had succeeded other ones without bringing about deep social changes. Their accompanying faiths were by definition eternal, and delimited only by a shifting frontier against outer ‘barbaric’ idolatry or unlettered animism. But 17th and 18th-century Europe was different. Uniquely, its intelligentsias dwelt in a world which had existed long before that of the reigning monarchies and the religions which they increasingly opposed. They lived, that is, in the partly mythic domain of Greco-Roman antiquity, and enjoyed a common high culture measured primarily in terms of familiarity with Aristotle, Stoicism and the chronicles of Republican Rome.

One crucial element of the remote models which informed this extraordinary mentalité lay in their being organised not by nation but by city-state. Hence Thom’s title, which denotes an ideological transition from an obsession with civic republics to one with tribally-configured nations. Pre-transition, the political ideals and heroic figures of the revolutionaries on both sides of the Atlantic remained those of the old urban patriciates: Athens, Sparta and above all pre-Imperial Rome. ‘Patriotism’ signified the actual or supposed attitude of ancient aristocratic élites towards their own city-countries, and their opposition to malevolent and obscurantist despots – especially Oriental despots like the Persian Darius or later the Ottoman sultans, who could be perceived as precursors of the Bourbons, the Stuarts and other Early Modern monarchs.

‘Country’ rarely meant ‘nation’ in anything like the modern sense: its core significance was always ‘city’, the civilised nucleus which really counted, with or without what Machiavelli called its contado or distretto – an attached countryside that might always be useful but was never essential. It is interesting to note the precise inversion of meaning here, since it lies at the core of Thom’s argument. Before long, 19th-century Romantic nationalism would be placing overwhelming emphasis on the virtues of the contado. A nation could (it was felt) do without its cities – dens of decadence, ‘cosmopolitan’ vice, traitors etc – but never without its healthy peasantry, folk traditions and a bloodstream free from alien admixtures. Thus arose what Thom calls the ‘tribe-nation’, a fateful post-Napoleonic idea-system which developed unstoppably east of the Rhine, spread to Central and Eastern Europe and then more patchily and belatedly to the extra-European and post-colonial world of the 20th century.

When Napoleon actually took over from the Directory, however, neither the Parisian têtes pensantes nor anybody else had much clue about this fantastic Pandora’s box. One important point of view – amusingly described by Thom – was that the Corsican chap might turn out like Cincinnatus: one more gift from the ever-fertile womb of classicism, arisen providentially to calm the post-Revolutionary tumult and thus prevent worse from happening. As no educated European needed reminding in 1796, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was a fifth-century BC Roman patriot who left his estate to become dictator and save the Republic from the onslaught of a foreign rabble. After a fortnight spent putting the latter in their place he is said to have returned willingly and humbly to man the plough, amid the grateful rejoicing of fellow Romans. Quite recently Lucius Quinctius had been popular in America, too. True, it had taken George Washington more than two weeks on the job, and he had not exactly returned to the plough. But he did not make himself into a bloodthirsty despot either, or set up in the throne business against George III. Hence classical retrospect had emerged fortified by the American Revolution. The weakness of Native American and imported Afro-American nationalism meant that more than a century would elapse before they were able to challenge its regular porticos and sweeping Roman avenues.

Alas, in France, and elsewhere in Europe, the mirage of classical republicanism was soon exposed as worse than useless. Enlightenment pundits were convinced that modern liberties could be based on the template of ancient liberty, divulged in semi-sacred scrolls handed down across a time of darkness, and then given a new and glorious articulation through the Renaissance. In reality, the old model was reaching the limit of its usefulness even as they meditated so stubbornly on such timeworn themes. Romanticism was already through the hallway and halfway up the stairs. The new template was upon them: terrible, wildly destructive and creative, and (above all) popular in a sense undreamt of by antiquity. Though the label was not invented until much later, ‘nationalism’ had been unleashed by Napoleon’s armies. Intuited and half-described by the great woman whose name recurs more frequently in Thom’s pages than any other, Germaine de Staël, its angel-demons were soon to bury classical civism deeper than Atlantis.

Half a century later it was Karl Marx who pronounced the finest and most-quoted elegy on the classicist delusion, at the start of The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. The nightmare of dead generations weighed on living brains, he pointed out, and ensured that those ‘creating something that has never existed’ would most likely perceive it as something that had always existed. One result was the ‘world-historical necromancy’ through which ‘Danton, Robespierre, Saint-Just, Napoleon, the heroes as well as the parties of the old French Revolution, performed the task of their time in Roman costume and with Roman phrases ... In the classically austere traditions of the Roman Republic its gladiators found the ideals and the art-forms, the self-deceptions that they needed in order to conceal from themselves the bourgeois limitations of the content of their struggles.’ But the ‘bourgeois’ limitations were also national. Elites might imaginatively reconfigure themselves along transnational guidelines: peoples could not. Least of all these increasing masses of people now drawn, forcibly and relatively quickly, away from their countrysides and into workshops, offices, stores and conscript armies.

Speaking Greek, Latin or French, the élites might believe they ultimately had more in common with one another than with their respectives canailles; the canailles themselves never could. For the latter, civic ‘patriotism’ was never a direct option: but nationalism was – modern, majoritarian, populist, vulgar, battling, emotive, the tabloid successor to the bewigged austerity of Greece and Rome.

Republics, Nations and Tribes attempts to follow this transition in extraordinary detail, through the texts, memoirs, letters and other records of many participants. It is, so to speak, a capillary view of how one world gestated and inched forward in consciousness until at last it began to burst out from the womb. At one end of the process we find polite effigies of Cincinnatus and Solon: from the other emerges the scarred, maudlin and yet irrepressibly alive (and comical) figure of Nicolas Chauvin, the Parisian vaudeville hero of the 1840s. Patriotism had turned into Chauvinism – originally a crazy concoction of Napoleonism, blood-worship, seven-year military conscription, Bedouin-bashing and sex. It soon caught on everywhere else. Sociologists like to tidy all this up under deceptively calm headings like ‘urbanisation’ or ‘modernisation’. It was what Marx, with an awful sense of vertigo, felt rurally-descended France lurching into as he sat composing his 18th Brumaire. The people were misbehaving themselves; if they turned into Frenchmen in this way, even a third-rate bum like Louis Napoleon would get his chance.

The detailed retrospect Thom conjures up also helps answer one obvious question about the transition. The philosophes were brighter than the nationalist intelligentsias who followed them; so how could they have been fooled for so long by the legend of antiquity? The whole Enlightenment depended on this narrow, rickety and backward-gazing cultural structure, on which the social modernity envisaged in the Encyclopédie could never conceivably have been built. One reason they remained unaware of the contradiction was that an important dimension of antiquity not only lived on but structured the daily life of most 18th-century intellectuals and influenced particularly strongly those who became revolutionary leaders in America, France and Britain. This was Roman Law. It was conceived as anything but limited or outmoded. Indeed, its resurrected forms were to be the mainframe of the civilisation articulated by the politician-lawyers behind all the great declarations and constitutional pronouncements of the time.

It is also, as Thom emphasises,

worth dwelling upon the survival, up until the very end of the 18th century, of small European states ... Notwithstanding the repeated attempts of the absolutist monarchies to destroy them, their position was, by 1748, more or less secure. At times they served as laboratories, with rival philosophes squabbling over their respective merits or shortcomings, as was the case, to a pronounced degree, with Geneva, in whose political affairs D’Alembert and Voltaire both meddled.

Geneva was also the inspiration of the most radical of these thinkers, Rousseau. In 1746 the Republic of Genoa had regained its independence and the astonishing deeds of its People’s Assembly were the talk of polite Europe. Thus, not long before the great revolutions which led to nation-building, it was by no means obvious that city-states were finished and small or micro-states obsolete.

Nationalism was to be more successful than absolutist monarchy in suppressing or sidelining them. But this came later, and its long-term costs were frightful. The broad band of small states which until the 19th century stretched across Europe from the Baltic to the Mediterranean were indeed ‘absorbed’ into the would-be tribe-nations of Germany and Italy. This process has traditionally been noted with a curious kind of bluff satisfaction by ‘internationalists’ and big-state wallahs of both Left and Right: the overcoming of feudal anachronisms and so on. They have usually ignored its most distinctive by-product: Fascism. If the Germans and Italians succumbed to ethnic-electrical supermania, as one might call it, this was partly in response to the digestion pains attending suppression of so much recalcitrant tradition and localism.

The now forgotten persistence of smaller-scale civic identities, Thom goes on, meant that the idea of federations or confederations of these entities also endured as a competitor to nationhood. The revolt of the United Provinces in the Netherlands had updated this conception, and after 1776 the American upheaval was at first interpreted in a similar way. All these tendencies served both to forestall and conceal the deeper current gathering momentum beneath them. ‘Tenacious traditions of city-state liberty and the wider arcs of Enlightenment conviction together inhibited for several decades the formation of the fully-fledged doctrine of the tribe-nation ... thereby providing breathing room for the otherwise endangered notions of city-nation and the general city of mankind.’ Yet that breathing room could not long endure. The rising canailles were stifled in it; Clausewitz’s total war flattened it; then industrialisation shattered its stilted partitions more decisively, and delivered the remains over to the new national leviathans.

Admirable as Thom’s account is, no one should think Republics, Nations and Tribes is an easy intellectual stroll. Dominated recently by the writings of J.G.A. Pocock, the history of Early Modern ideas is notoriously a zone of intricate and ambiguous exploration: the borderland of the modern age, a shadow-time entre loup et chien where nothing was in its own estimation the way it now appears to us. This book raises the shadows to a level of almost divinely mad scholarship, in which no byway goes unexplored (including the dead-ends) and each route-diversion leads inexorably to 17 others. Take Chapter 8, for example, on ‘Nations and Tribes’: an introduction on ‘The Mores of the Germans’ (as seen in Tacitus, Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, Houston Stewart Chamberlain and Eduard Norden) leads one on to the Asiatic Society of Calcutta, Friedrich Schlegel, Indo-European linguistics and Ernest Gellner’s essay on Bronislaw Malinowski; then back to John Anderson – the 1938 editor of Tacitus – as a prelude to the vital (yet en passant) observation that ‘the history of modern ethnology is inseparable from that of nationalism’; and so to Franz Boas, antiquarianism, assorted reflections on L’Esprit des lois and Rousseau, the method of voting in the pre-1789 Parlements and the numinous properties of many ancient Breton monuments. Certainly, all this ‘alerts us to that great hall of mirrors in which tribes and nations meet’, and it also brings a superb conclusion: ‘Whereas tribal liberty had been a dying song in a mountain fastness, it was now construed as immanent, ubiquitous and eternal, inhering in lichen-encrusted stones, or in “monuments” carried in speech across countless generations.’ A century and a half after Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d’outre-tombe we still hear echoes of that dying song. Countless generations are still whispering a monumental message to their even more numerous successors in an unimaginable future time.

Thom tries to trace just how this mentalité was formed, and each step in the itinerary is itself fascinating. Yet it is only fair to observe that most trail-followers are likely to expire somewhere along his convoluted way, and even the survivors will feel like breaking a few mirrors themselves before they reach the end.

This is all the more maddening because of the importance of the wider vistas the book opens up. Romanticism and its political analogue, nationalism, produced the greatest expansion of human sensibility and vision which history records. Whatever other ingredients flowed into modernity, these were surely among its necessary conditions. Had Neoclassicism endured much longer, even for the proverbial one thousand years, it could never have become the vehicle of mass democracy and culture. On the other hand, the actual vehicle which took over from it has now accomplished a good deal of its work: over a quickly expanding area of the world, ‘modernity’ has happened. During the same time nationalism saved the world from imperialism, at appalling cost. And yet these costs of ‘tribe-nationism’ remain far lower than the alternatives presented by successive waves of conquest and colonisation, or by the MAD superpower confrontation of the Sixties and Seventies.

If this is the case, then a successor-transition must be under construction. Something profound did end around 1989, even if it wasn’t History; hence another world should be gestating in ways broadly analogous to those described by Thom, but probably much more rapidly, leading us into a futurity as surprising and unforeseen as that of first-round industrialisation and nation-statehood.

The author’s own prophetic stance is conveyed most clearly in the Introduction: ‘I write from the conviction that before the age of nations there was an age of cities, and that after the age of nations there could be, if there is not a pandaemonium of “ethnic cleansing” instead, a new age of cities, in which regional assemblies, freed of the terminal claims of providence, could answer in all clarity to the rightful demands of cosmopolis.’ What this stalwart reasoning seems to suggest is that the demise of the tribe-nation and ethnic nationalism may lead to a revival of what the book correctly identifies as the much longer tradition of civic or city-focused nationalism. It is true that civic nationalism (or as the élitist intonation of the Enlightenment put it, patriotism) lasted for over two thousand years, while its tribal cousin and successor has been around for less than two centuries. Ethnic nationalism proved a different ball-game, and in some ways a far more important one. Republics, Nations and Tribes is an admirable study of how different its rules were, and of how practically nobody understood them until they were in operation. Through their play the majority came into history. Nor was there any other way in which that decisive entry could have been made. Once it has occurred, however, further and different rules are bound to impose themselves. Internationalist ideology – a reaction against the ascendancy of ethnicity (to which it was also tied), and essentially a mental cul-de-sac – provides no clues about what these will be.

Surely some other mode of differentiation is now more likely – a new vestment of nationalism drawing elements from both ethnicity and the far longer durée of the civic-territorial past. If I interpret Martin Thom’s insight rightly, he suggests that the latter ought to become more significant than the former. Whatever the ‘rightful demands’ of world order turn out to be, they will make space for hundreds or even thousands more independent states, but not – certainly not so easily – for thousands of ethnically-configured nations. This is an attractive argument, but with a central weakness. It remains hard to see how any contemporary and future statehood can remain other than a by-product of nationalism’s moment in history: that is, all-embracing, numinous, cultural, democratic and deeply personal in meaning. A world where all individuals belong can never return to being like the countries of antiquity or Early Modern Europe. There must be no return to ethnic-tribal cleansing; yet there can be no return to pre-pandaemonium conditions either – to the custodial governance of liberal élites acting out a civic spirit deemed forever inaccessible to the mob. Doom-mongering like O’Brien’s On the Eve of the Millennium pleads precisely for this impossible reverse motion, the salvation of an Enlightenment which began to be transcended in the period of Martin Thom’s book. Another salvation than this is due, and we need to be both wary and sanguine about its coming.