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New Left Review I/94, November-December 1975


Tom Nairn

The Modern Janus

The theory of nationalism represents Marxism’s great historical failure. It may have had others as well, and some of these have been more debated: Marxism’s shortcomings over imperialism, the State, the falling rate of profit and the immiseration of the masses are certainly old battlefields. Yet none of these is as important, as fundamental, as the problem of nationalism, either in theory or in political practice. It is true that other traditions of western thought have not done better. Idealism, German historicism, liberalism, social Darwinism and modern sociology have foundered as badly as Marxism here. This is cool comfort for Marxists. The scientific pretensions and the political significance of their ideas are greater than those of such rivals, and no one can help feeling that they ought to have coped better with such a central, inescapable phenomenon of modern history. My thesis is that this failure was inevitable. It was inevitable, but it can now be understood. Furthermore it can be understood in essentially materialist terms. So as a system of thought historical materialism can perfectly well escape from the prolonged and destructive impasse in which it has been locked on the issue. However, the cost of doing so is probably ‘Marxism’. Materialism cannot escape unmarked and unchanged from the ordeal, for an obvious reason. The reason is that to perceive the cause of this failure is to see something of Marxism’s real place in history, some of its limitations, some of the unconscious roots which tied it blindly to the course of modern historical development. It means seeing Marxism itself as a part of history in a quite uncomplimentary sense, one which has nothing to do with the holy matrimony of theory and practice. It means losing for all time that God-like posture which, in the guise of science, Marxism took over from Idealist philosophy (and ultimately from religion).

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