It is quite possible that historians of the 2050s, looking back into our now closing century, will pick out, as one deep tectonic movement stretching across more than two centuries, the disintegration of the great polyethnic, polyglot, and often polyreligious monarchical empires built up so painfully in mediaeval and early modern times.footnote In most cases the disintegration was accompanied by great violence, and was often followed by decades of civil and interstate wars. In the 1770s the first nation-state was born in North America out of armed resistance to imperial Britain, but it was inwardly so divided that it subsequently endured the bloodiest civil war of the nineteenth century. Out of the prolonged collapse of the Spanish Empire between 1810 and 1830 came the brutal despotisms, rebellions and civil strife that have plagued Latin America until our own time. As a result of the Great War of 1914–1918 the Hohenzollern, Habsburg, Romanov and Ottoman empires blew up, leaving in their wake a congeries of small, weak, and generally unstable nation-states in Central and Eastern Europe and in the Near East.

The fall of the Ch’ing Empire in 1911 opened two generations of civil wars in China. Partition in British India, massive interethnic violence in Sri Lanka, the Thirty Years War in Vietnam, the continuing civil strife in Northern Ireland, the bloody collapse of the Ethiopian Empire, the horrors in Uganda and Zaire—all in differing ways can be seen as outcomes of the same long process.

Seeming to counteract this tectonic movement—which involved, of course, liberation as much as disintegration—was Communism in its early internationalist form. The success of the Bolshevik Revolution in the very heart of the evaporated Romanov empire permitted Lenin and his associates to reassemble many of the pieces of that empire during the early 1920s. But the Soviet Union did not regard itself as a huge new nation-state, rather as a sort of model for a future in which nationalism as a political principle would be finally superseded. Indeed, for a time, under the centralized control of a multiethnic and militant Communist Party, nationalism was reduced generally to a politically insignificant ‘cultural’ ethnicity.

This phase, however, did not last very long. Reeling under the ferocious onslaught of Hitler’s armies, Stalin and his associates discovered that encouraging nationalism was crucial to the war effort. In a famous speech delivered on 7 November 1941, the cpsu’s general secretary urged his listeners thus: ‘Let the manly images of our great ancestors Aleksandr Nevsky, Dmitri Donskoi, Kuzma Minin, Dmitri Pozharsky, Aleksandr Suvorov and Mikhail Kutusov inspire you in this war.’footnote1 Prosperous Europe has today forgotten how much it owes both to Stalin and to Russian nationalism for the destruction of the Nazi empire. But in the war’s aftermath, it proved implausible to add the communized states of Eastern Europe to the ussr, and thus began a pluralization of Communist states bearing national names. After Eastern Europe came Yugoslavia, North Korea, China, Cuba, and Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. In 1979 the first, and, it may well be, the last, wars between Communist states broke out, as Vietnam invaded Cambodia and China invaded Vietnam. A historical logic was already visible, if then generally unnoticed. Nationalism could be halted, but not permanently restrained or superseded. So that, during the 1980s, Stalin’s empire was just as surely imploding as Churchill’s had done.

Meanwhile, also in the aftermath of World War II, the bourgeois colonial empires of France, Britain, Holland, Belgium, and even Portugal collapsed, creating by the end of the 1970s a United Nations with four times the membership that had made up the pioneering League of Nations half a century earlier.

The last reincarnation of a pre-modern empire is China, where Mao Tse-tung, taking leaves out of the books of both Stalin and the Sons of Heaven, attempted heroically to create a socialist state on imperial foundations. But it was named The People’s Republic of China, and thus represented from the start a forlorn attempt to stretch the short, tight skin of nationalism over a vast multiethnic, multireligious, multilinguistic imperium. One is reminded of France in the 1950s, which still included Algeria as a part of the metropole, and which fought a horrifically brutal—and futile—war to keep things that way. It is thus quite possible that Mao’s empire too will crumble, at least at the edges. Taiwan is already effectively independent. Tibet may well follow, and perhaps China’s Turkic and Mongol zones in due course.footnote2 There is no reason to think that late empires die more peacefully than their predecessors, or that the aftermaths of their dying are any less tormented.

In what perspective does it make sense to reflect on all of this? There are, I believe, four misconceptions which ought to be discarded from the outset. The first is that what is going on is ‘fragmentation’ and ‘disintegration’—with all the menacing, pathological connotations these words bring with them. For this language makes us forget the decades or centuries of violence out of which Frankensteinian ‘integrated states’ such as the United Kingdom of 1900, which included all of Ireland, were constructed. Should we not really regard such ‘integrations’ as pathological when we see how calmly The Irish Republic and the United Kingdom have coexisted since the former was established in 1921—after decades of often violent repression and resistance? Or when we observe the brutal warfare still continuing in ‘integrated’ Northern Ireland? Behind the language of ‘fragmentation’ lies always a Panglossian conservatism that likes to imagine that every status quo is nicely normal.