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.

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