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 not fit the bill being classified as ‘minorities’ or other ‘nations’ which ought logically to have their own state. The point has been reached where the terms ‘state’ and ‘nation’ are today interchangeable (‘United Nations’). Whatever our definition of peoples, nations, nationalities, etc., it is clear that this identification is historically quite recent, especially in the standardized form which has become fashionable and which misleads incautious observers, including Nairn.footnote1 In the first place, modern territorial states of the kind now taken to be normal were rather unusual until well into the nineteenth century, whether or not they claimed to be national. In the second place, the enormous difficulties and cruelties to which the attempt to divide Europe into homogeneous nation-states has led in this century (including separatism, partition, mass expulsion and genocide) demonstrates its historic novelty.

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 not only by current standards but also by the essentially nineteenthcentury Wilsonian ones of the post-1918 peace settlements.footnote2 The evidence is overwhelming that at this stage the crux of nationalist movements was not so much state independence as such, but rather the construction of ‘viable’ states, in short ‘unification’ rather than ‘separatism’—though this was concealed by the fact that most national movements also tended to break up one or more of the surviving obsolete empires of Austria, Turkey and Russia. Not only the German and Italian movements aimed at unification, but the Poles, the Romanians, the Yugoslavs (for whose eventual composite state there was no historic precedent), the Bulgarians (with Macedonia), very notably the Greeks, and even, through their (unhistorical) aspiration to unity with the Slovaks, the Czechs. Conversely, movements for the actual state independence of small nations, however defined, were exceedingly rare, as distinct from various degrees of autonomy or lesser recognition within larger states. Nairn is quite wrong in regarding the nineteenth-century Scots as a striking anomaly (‘the country’s nineteenth-century lack of nationhood, its neartotal absence from the great and varied stage of European nationalism’— p. 144). They were a nation all right and knew it, but, unlike several other small European nations, did not need to demand what they—or rather their ruling class—already enjoyed. It is pure anachronism to expect them to have demanded an independent state at this time.

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 explained. The problem as such is not British; merely its specific circumstances and political implications.