Eric Hobsbawm, in the final chapter of a comprehensive survey on the history of nationalism, claimed that as a historical phenomenon, it had passed its heyday.footnote1 Employing a Hegelian idiom he suggested that the nation-state was now on a declining curve of historical viability, the beginnings of its fossilization clearing the way for deeper explorations into its origins, impact, and possible futures. Subsequently, this statement has occasioned some amount of criticism on the part of those who think it flatly invalidated by the rebondissement of national causes in the former Communist world. In fact Hobsbawm’s statement was suitably qualified to take into acccount the outbreak and intensification of national conflicts in such contexts. His claim that the nation-state was no longer a vector of historical development meant only that the dominant trends of state formation, immigration, and economic life in the world’s most dynamic societies were pushing beyond familiar national dimensions.

Despite the coquetting with Hegel, this vision of capitalism bypassing the nation-state is one of the central themes of classical Marxism. It has consistently held that capitalism’s laws of motion would eventually ‘break out’ of the constricting frame of the national market by way of imperialism, ultra-imperialism or just plain old free trade. No doubt the thesis found in the Communist Manifesto is more complex: the claim that all that is solid, nationality included, melts into air is balanced by another: this same capitalism gives rise to the territorially fixed and juridically invariant structure of the modern bourgeois state. Although these two themes jostle with one another in the pages of the Manifesto, Marx and later Marxists believing that proletarian revolutions were imminent stressed the first over the second theme, for herein dialectically lay the possibility that the widening cosmopolitan scope of the market would throw up working classes of proportionate scale. The transnationalization of the productive forces that capitalism is now setting into motion is historically unprecedented. But confounding Marx’s expectations, its main thrusts seem to undermine the very bases of successful class struggle in advanced industrial societies, and unlike past defeats it is difficult to foresee the conditions under which organized working classes will rise up again ‘stronger, firmer, mightier’.

According to Marx the modern class struggle passes through a series of historical stages beginning with riots and machine-breaking and ending in nation-wide civil wars. As a preliminary condition for the successful conduct of the class struggle the unregulated competition of all against all must be suppressed within the ranks of labour. Historically this has only been accomplished by forcing the state to recognize that the purchase of labour-power on the national market will be to some significant degree the outcome of politically regulated class struggles and negotiations. The state then is not just the functional weapon of the possessing classes in Marx’s theory, it is also the possibly unrecognized site and point of concentration of the struggle against those classes, ratifying its results. Far from opening the gates to more expansive working-class organization, the eclipse of the state has deepened its functional subordination to capital and threatens to dissolve the site and boundaries of sustainable collective action against it.

This development is difficult to understand from within the framework of Marxism—not only because of the strain it places on its theory of the state. The real challenge is rather to the anthropological basis of the Marxist theory of historical development. For Marx the irresistible scalar expansion of world capitalism could only temporarily leap beyond the dimensions of sustainable collective action against it. Capitalism’s laws of motion, even while constantly pulverizing the cultural and material basis of all limited forms of membership (locality, nationality, religion), were supposed to incessantly recreate the bases of class solidarity at ever more cosmopolitan levels. No single Marxist idea is at present more discredited than this one, as even the semblance of such a dialectic has been overthrown.

Régis Debray has argued that the principal victories of the Left in this century emerged out of an unacknowledged liaison with the nation, and that the future of the Left depends on its ability to reinvent a national politics for the twenty-first century.footnote2 Behind this strategic assessment is the claim that the springs of political action are ultimately rooted in the pathos of national membership, for it is only in the form of a ‘people’ that the masses erupt into political life and make history. In this view, nations are like the ‘fused groups’ of Sartrean philosophy—in modern politics, existentially more gripping and decisive than class. The problem with Marxism, according to Debray, is that its central concerns do not enable it to grasp the enigmatic form which such collectivities assume, not just in the preconditions of the great levées en masse, but in the very possibility of organized social life.

As a characterization of Marxism this is only half true; there are in fact many rich insights into the material foundations of the pre-capitalist peasant community in the Grundrisse. In his intriguing sketches of what for him were the four basic types of agrarian civilization in Eurasia—Oriental, Slavic, Mediterranean and Germanic—Marx argued that the distinctive communal organization of entitlement, cooperation and exploitation formed the primordial social relationship of these pre-capitalist societies. Capitalism is premissed upon the epochal suspension and negation of the communal organization of the direct producers in their relation to nature, to each other and to their lords. Released from the semi-natural foundations of the communal provision of peasant subsistence, whole regions of the earth are plunged into an inescapable market dependence, setting in motion an incessant expansion of the productive forces.

For Marx, to the extent that social reproduction is dominated by exchange-value, the structure of society arises out of the spontaneous and anarchic interplay of market forces, the antagonistic and exploitative embodiment of alienated labour. In the Philosophy of Right Hegel argued that the modern sovereign state, while based on this condition of radical alienation, transcended it by imparting to peoples organized into political communities a higher sphere of ethical life, historical personality and collective agency. Marx, in his famous critique of this work, retorted that the political community constituted by the modern state was merely an ‘imagined community’, powerless and unreal. In his essay On the Jewish Question, he depicted the public identity of the ‘completed bourgeois state’ as post-Christian, but stripped of all cultural and historical particularity as he argued it must be to achieve its final form, it would in conventional terms be a post-national state as well. The anationality of this depiction of the modern state is deeply embedded in all subsequent Marxist theory. Debray’s assessment in this sense holds true: while Marxism has analysed the bourgeois state, it invariably stumbles when it comes to consider what it means for a state to be a nation-state. The concepts of class society, civil society or mode of production do not entail the principle of subdivision implied when one casually speaks of ‘German capitalism’ or ‘Belgian capitalist society’. The enigmatic and under-theorized juxtaposition here of a reference to a bounded community defined by language, territory or history with a reference to a social structure the definition of which is indifferent to such boundaries, brings to light the difficulties that Marxism has had in formulating a more substantial conception of ‘community’.