Ibelieve that a little philosophy is needed on the subject of the nation. It was the nation which first led me to question Marxism seriously. This was the real breach in the walls which let me make an outside tour of the fortress, rather than go on penetrating farther into it . . . it was what let me get out, and then situate it in a wider framework. In other words, it first allowed me to see Marxism as a decisive but not ultimate stage in our understanding of history.
In an article you published recently in Le Nouvel Observateur on the national question, you seemed to be criticizing the idea of the nation as a historically transitory category. You wrote that ‘like language, the nation is an invariable which cuts across modes of production’. Is it your view that the nation existed in pre-capitalist modes of production—under feudalism for example? Or do you think, on the other hand, that the nation and national states will go on existing under the communist mode of production?
There is a whole nest of questions here, one inside another. Let me begin with the last one—the nation in the communist mode of production. We do not want to
One of the things showing the communist mode of production’s utopian character is its postulated universality: the way it envisages the disappearance of cultural and national particularities. Here we have an idealist concept having no connection with the theory of contradiction as a permanent motor of history. This is really a residue (and maybe more than a residue) of speculative thought in Marx—in any case, an idea taken over from the Aufklärung.
Let me take up your question on the nation as an invariable cutting across modes of production. The question contains a snare. Why is this? Because the nation is in one sense a historically determined mode of existence, and to this extent a variable; yet what the nation expresses, that of which the nation is made, is an invariable. So while it is quite true that the nation is a historically transient category as something arising out of the ruins of feudalism, etc., historically determinate and hence variable, yet it is so as one phase of a primary determinant that remains invariable: the cultural organization of the human collectivity in question. This is what the Greeks called the Polis, and it extends from the days of clan and lineage to the nations of the present-day world; afterwards, it will go on developing.
I am pushing your question a stage further, if you like. We should not become obsessed by the determinate historical form of the nation-state, but try to see what that form is made out of. It is created from a natural organization proper to homo sapiens, one through which life itself is rendered untouchable, or sacred. This sacred character constitutes the real national question. This may appear a spiritualist notion, on the face of it. Well let me point out that all the official declarations of the existing socialist states do define their national soil as literally sacred, and also the duty of defending it. A strange terminology . . . for instance, during the Sino-Soviet conflict in the Far East military bulletins from both sides of the Yalu river employed the word ‘sacred’. We find this involuntarily religious vocabulary in
Now a slight shift of perspective: it is my belief that we must locate the nation phenomenon within general laws regulating the survival of the human species. This survival is won against death. Against entropy, that is, against the degradation of energy affecting thermal systems as well as human ones. Entropy is chaos, disorder, of which there are two concrete or perceptible aspects: time as the irreversible passage from life into death, as that which never returns; and on the other hand spatial disintegration, the disaggregation of a community and its reversion to an arbitrary state, to determination by mere probability. These are the twin threats of disorder and death. Over against them the human species necessarily sets two anti-death processes which enter into all forms of society, and hence must be considered primary or anthropological determinants.