Nationalism has been a great puzzle to (non-nationalist) politicians and theorists ever since its invention, not only because it is both powerful and devoid of any discernible rational theory, but also because its shape and function are constantly changing. Like the cloud with which Hamlet taunted Polonius, it can be interpreted according to taste as a camel, a weasel or a whale, though it is none of these. Perhaps the error is to apply zoological criteria instead of meteorological analysis. We are—to continue the metaphor—at present living through some sort of climatic change visibly affecting this type of meteorological phenomenon. Let us begin, unlike Tom Nairn, whose recent book suggests these reflections, by charting this change.footnote＊ The political crux of modern nationalism is the demand for ‘self-determination’, i.e. to constitute something like a ‘nation-state’ as today understood: a sovereign and ideally homogeneous territorial unit inhabited as ‘citizens’ by the members of a ‘nation’, as defined in a variety of conventional ways (ethnic, linguistic, cultural, historical, etc.). Conversely, the citizens of modern territorial states are believed normally to constitute such a ‘nation’, those who do
Nevertheless, a strong case can be and was made in the nineteenth century for a certain type of ‘nation-state’, though it has little to do with nationalism in the current sense, except in so far as this also means a convenient form of emotional cement or civic religion to weld together the citizens of such states, divided by class and in other ways (‘patriotism’). Such nation-states were the main building blocks of world capitalism during a lengthy period of its development, and with it of bourgeois society in the ‘developed’ world; as Marx recognized when he described that society in the Communist Manifesto as both a global unity and ‘an interdependence of nations’. They represented that crucial element—the creation of the internal conditions (e.g. a ‘national market’) and the external conditions for the development of the ‘national economy’ through state organization and action. Probably, as recent Marxists like Perry Anderson and Immanuel Wallerstein have argued, the existence of an international complex of separate states was also essential to the global growth of capitalism. World capitalism consisted primarily of a set of economic flows to, from and between such developed national economies. Marx, though in other respects not a nationalist, accepted the historic role of a certain number of such national-state economies, which was indeed generally assumed in the nineteenth century.
The case for such nation-states was not nationalist in the current sense, inasmuch as it did not envisage a world of nation-states irrespective of size and resources, but only one of ‘viable’ states of medium to large size, which consequently 1. excluded a large number of ‘national’ groups from statehood, and 2. de facto abandoned the national homogeneity of most accepted ‘nation-states’. The classic statement of this programme was the outline of the ‘Europe of Nations’ produced in 1858 by Mazzini, who incidentally (like Cavour) found it difficult to fit into his scheme one of the few undeniable national mass movements of the time, the Irish. He envisaged a Europe composed of eleven states or federations, all of which (with the significant but apparent exception of Italy) were multi-national
For the same reason, the prejudice (even among nationalists) against the pulverization of states (i.e. against mini-nations and mini-states) was deeply ingrained, at least in Europe. Petty German principalities or Central American republics were jokes, ‘Balkanization’ a term of abuse. The Austrians after 1918 could not be convinced of the viability of their small state, though this has been demonstrated since 1945. Danzig was regarded as an abortion, unlike Singapore today. The main significance of such international recognition as was given to most of the surviving pre-bourgeois mini-states was for the purposes of philately and company registration. And indeed, by contemporary standards, they were at best tolerated freaks.
The present situation is totally different. First, the characteristic nationalist movement of our time is separatist, aiming at the break-up of existing states including—the fact is novel—the oldest-established ‘nation-states’, such as Britain, France, Spain and even—the case of Jura separatism is significant—Switzerland.footnote3 It is perfectly possible to find ad hoc explanations for each of these cases of fission, as Nairn does for the possible break-up of Britain; but these, as he agrees, are beside the point so long as the generality of the phenomenon is not recognized and