State and Nation: An Interview with Neil Davidson

Nam June Paik, Video Flag Z

Ben­jam­in Birn­baum: In which con­text did you decide to write Nation-States: Con­scious­ness and Com­pe­ti­tion? Polit­i­cal­ly, ter­ri­to­ri­al frag­men­ta­tion is again on the polit­i­cal agen­da in Europe and on the aca­d­e­mic lev­el since the 1990s a “new gen­er­a­tion, con­front­ed with the sud­den emer­gence of cat­a­stroph­ic post-com­mu­nist nation­alisms in a sup­pos­ed­ly ‘glob­al­ized’ world, has had a greater inter­est in ‘the dynam­ics of rel­a­tive­ly rapid changes in degrees of eth­nic, racial or nation­al group­ness.’”1

Neil David­son: The essays and chap­ters in the book were writ­ten for a num­ber of dif­fer­ent occa­sions between 1999 and 2014. My ini­tial impe­tus for writ­ing about nations and nation­al­ism was an attempt to under­stand devel­op­ments in my own coun­try – Scot­land – which in 1997 had just vot­ed in a ref­er­en­dum to estab­lish a devolved par­lia­ment, which opened in 1999. I was par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in why nation­al­ism as a polit­i­cal move­ment had his­tor­i­cal­ly been so weak in Scot­land, even though “Scot­tish­ness” as an iden­ti­ty is para­dox­i­cal­ly very strong. The dom­i­nant nation­al­ism was British (or even Irish, for many Scots of Irish Catholic descent), not Scot­tish. Given the recent polit­i­cal hege­mony of the Scot­tish Nation­al Par­ty (SNP) it is easy to for­get that, although it has been in exis­tence since 1934, it had pre­cise­ly one MP at West­min­ster before 1967, and then for a mat­ter of months. It only formed a major­i­ty gov­ern­ment at Holy­rood since 2007 and achieved a major­i­ty of Scot­tish MPs at West­min­ster in 2015: and even now it is not the case that a Scots nec­es­sar­i­ly vote for the SNP on a nation­al­ist basis. Explain­ing the par­tic­u­lar­i­ties of the Scot­tish ques­tion led me into wider con­sid­er­a­tions of nation­hood in gen­er­al, but there were also three oth­er fac­tors, all of which were inescapable through­out the 2000s for any­one work­ing in the field. One, of which the Scot­tish sit­u­a­tion was an exam­ple, was the emer­gence of “state­less-nation” nation­alisms in the advanced West, in sit­u­a­tions where there was not (or was no longer) nation­al oppres­sion, as in Cat­alo­nia and Que­bec. The sec­ond was the dis­in­te­gra­tion of exist­ing nation-states on what was often referred to as an “eth­nic” basis, most obvi­ous­ly in Yugoslavia and in sev­er­al cen­tral African states. The third was the claim by neolib­er­al glob­al­ists that the nation-state form was becom­ing redun­dant, although we have obvi­ous­ly heard less about this since the bail-outs of 2008.

BB: In the Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo Marx and Engels wrote “the work­ing men have no coun­try” which – inter­pret­ed in a very abstract way – became one of their most famous state­ments on the nation­al ques­tion. Yet, lat­er writ­ings on Poland and Ire­land focused on a con­crete polit­i­cal strat­e­gy, under­scor­ing the dialec­ti­cal rela­tion­ship between nation­al self-deter­mi­na­tion and pro­le­tar­i­an inter­na­tion­al­ism. Which lessons can be drawn from Marx and Engels regard­ing the nation­al ques­tion and what did the word “nation” mean to them?

ND: Marx and Engels used the word “nation” in a num­ber of dif­fer­ent ways: some­times, like Johann Herder, to mean a peo­ple; some­times, like Adam Smith, to mean a ter­ri­to­ri­al unit; and some­times to mean a mix­ture of the two. In oth­er words, like vir­tu­al­ly every­one else of their peri­od, they used the word very loose­ly and in a com­mon-sense way – quite dif­fer­ent­ly from the sci­en­tific rig­or with which they defined “the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion,” for exam­ple. They cer­tain­ly didn’t asso­ciate nations specif­i­cal­ly with cap­i­tal­ism – indeed, Engels occa­sion­al­ly talks about the “Ger­man nation” exist­ing dur­ing the fall of the Roman Empire. For this rea­son – as a mod­ernist in rela­tion to nation the­o­ry – I don’t think that Marx and Engels’ ran­dom and unthe­o­rized com­ments on par­tic­u­lar nations are the basis for a Marx­ist the­o­ry of the sub­ject; their the­o­ry of ide­ol­o­gy has much more to offer us; more specif­i­cal­ly, what Marx him­self had to say about reli­gion. This has of course long been sub­ject­ed to both care­less and delib­er­ate mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion. The point of the pas­sage con­tain­ing the ref­er­ence to “the opi­um of the peo­ple,” is not that reli­gion is a drug admin­is­tered by a rul­ing class to dull the sens­es of the peo­ple, but that it is man­u­fac­tured by the peo­ple them­selves to fill the void cre­at­ed by what the lat­er Marx would call their alien­ation. In this sense nation­al­ism is the mod­ern form of reli­gion, with the state, or forces seek­ing to estab­lish a new state, occu­py­ing the orga­ni­za­tion­al role once played by the Church.

Where Marx and Engels have impor­tant things which are direct­ly about nations is in rela­tion to the atti­tude social­ists should take towards speci­fic nation­al move­ments. At heart their atti­tude is based on whether the suc­cess of any move­ment – seces­sion­ist or irre­den­tist – is like­ly to advance the pos­si­bil­i­ty of the social­ist rev­o­lu­tion, although this was often in indi­rect ways. Essen­tial­ly, they saw nation­al­ism, in the sense of polit­i­cal move­ments lead­ing to the estab­lish­ment of nation-states, as part of the process of bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion which would sweep away pre-cap­i­tal­ist forms and enable the con­di­tions for the cre­ation of a work­ing class. This is the con­text in which they decid­ed which nation­alisms to sup­port and which to oppose. Poland and Ire­land are respec­tive­ly oppressed and held back in devel­op­men­tal terms by the British and Rus­sian Empires, and so had to be sup­port­ed. Equal­ly, nation­al move­ments which relied on the great empires for their exis­tence, such as pan-Slav­ism in 1848, had to be opposed. It is of course pos­si­ble to agree with the lat­ter con­clu­sion with accept­ing the mys­ti­fied non­sense about “non-his­toric nations” that Engels some­times used to sup­port it.

BB: You state the clas­si­cal Marx­ists have devel­oped very lit­tle sys­tem­at­ic thought on the con­cept of the nation and the main thoughts – main­ly for­mu­lat­ed by the Aus­tro-Marx­ists – basi­cal­ly reflect non-Marx­ist approach­es. What did they neglect and what might con­sti­tute the basis for a Marx­ist approach to nation the­o­ry?

ND: If we leave aside the Aus­tro-Marx­ists, most of the Clas­si­cal Marx­ist dis­cus­sions of nation­al­ism fol­low Marx and Engels in focus­ing on strate­gic ques­tions: in oth­er words, which nation­al move­ments – if any – should be sup­port­ed and which opposed. It is inter­est­ing that the fig­ures asso­ci­at­ed with the two nations which most pre­oc­cu­pied Marx and Engels, Rosa Lux­em­burg (on Poland) and James Con­nol­ly (on Ire­land), took dia­met­ri­cal­ly opposed posi­tions. (Con­nol­ly was of course Scot­tish, but of Catholic Irish descent.) I have some sym­pa­thy with Luxemburg’s dis­missal of the notion of “the right of nations to self-deter­mi­na­tion” as a form of meta­physics, but Lenin’s dis­tinc­tion between “oppres­sor” and “oppressed” nations was nev­er­the­less essen­tial as an oper­a­tional start­ing point, at least dur­ing the colo­nial era. Today the sit­u­a­tion is more com­plex. Clear­ly there are still oppressed peo­ples like the Kurds, Pales­tini­ans and Tibetans, but the notion of oppres­sion is not par­tic­u­lar­ly help­ful in for­mu­lat­ing a respon­se to the Scot­tish or Cata­lan nation­al move­ments: a wider con­cep­tion of what is in the inter­ests of the work­ing class is required.

The Clas­si­cal Marx­ists did not, how­ev­er, have very much to say about what actu­al­ly con­sti­tut­ed a nation, oth­er than pass­ing ref­er­ences to the cen­tral­i­ty of shared lan­guage and the suit­abil­i­ty of the nation-state form for cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment. It is for this rea­son that many of the most influ­en­tial con­tem­po­rary Marx­ist ana­lysts of nation­al­ism have turned to non-Marx­ist thinkers for a the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work, most notably in Tom Nairn’s reliance on the Webe­ri­an Ernest Gell­ner. I am not sug­gest­ing that there is no val­ue in Gellner’s work, inci­den­tal­ly – quite the con­trary – but the point is that it had a coher­ence that Marx­ist equiv­a­lents lacked. The Aus­tro-Marx­ists might seem to be an excep­tion and Otto Bauer’s writ­ings are cer­tain­ly high­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed, but in ways which seem to me to involve a con­cep­tion of nation­al­ism which is (to use Antho­ny Smith’s terms) peren­ni­al­ist or even pri­mor­dial – any form of iden­ti­ty which a ter­ri­to­ri­al­ly based group might hap­pen to have in, say, the Fifth cen­tu­ry CE, is ret­ro­spec­tive­ly labeled a “nation.” But a cen­tral Marx­ist claim is sure­ly that some types of ide­ol­o­gy and con­scious­ness are only pos­si­ble at cer­tain points in his­to­ry. When the­o­rists aban­don this per­spec­tive it usu­al­ly means that have become sub­ject to the very ide­ol­o­gy which they were seek­ing to explain – as I think was the case for both Bauer and Nairn.

BB: In your book you dis­tin­guish nation­al con­scious­ness and nation­al­ism. Could you explain the­se two terms and the impli­ca­tions of this dis­tinc­tion (also with respect to the con­cept of iden­ti­ty)?

ND: Nations can be defined in either objec­tive or sub­jec­tive ways. The for­mer, which usu­al­ly involves a check­list of fac­tors like lan­guage or ter­ri­to­ry, cer­tain­ly presents an appear­ance of sci­en­tific rig­or. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, nations have a ten­den­cy to emerge in groups where the­se fac­tors are absent, incon­ve­nient though this undoubt­ed­ly is for social and polit­i­cal sci­en­tists: telling the Swiss that they are not a nation because they lack a com­mon lan­guage, or the Kurds that they are not a nation because they lack a con­tigu­ous ter­ri­to­ry is, how­ev­er, unlike­ly to con­vince either of the­se (oth­er­wise very dif­fer­ent) groups. In fact, the only con­ceiv­able def­i­n­i­tion of a nation which does not imme­di­ate­ly lead to anom­alies and excep­tions is a sub­jec­tive one: a group of peo­ple feel them­selves to be col­lec­tive­ly dis­tinct from oth­er groups, usu­al­ly for accu­mu­lat­ed his­tor­i­cal-cul­tur­al rea­sons, but they need not be. The rea­sons may be dif­fer­ent from case-to-case, but this sub­jec­tive feel­ing of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion is the only attrib­ute which they all have in com­mon. This sense of mutu­al recog­ni­tion is what I call “nation­al con­scious­ness”: a more-or-less pas­sive expres­sion of col­lec­tive iden­ti­fi­ca­tion among a social group. It is per­fect­ly pos­si­ble for a peo­ple – includ­ing, until recent­ly, the major­i­ty of mod­ern Scots and Cata­lans – to pos­sess nation­al con­scious­ness with­out becom­ing nation­al­ists, but it is not pos­si­ble to be a nation­al­ist with­out hav­ing nation­al con­scious­ness.

Nation­al con­scious­ness is not the same as nation­al iden­ti­ty. Iden­ti­ties are the ensem­ble of all the exter­nal signs through which peo­ple show both to them­selves and to oth­er peo­ple how they have cho­sen to be cat­e­go­rized. The­se signs can be as vis­i­ble as par­tic­u­lar types of cloth­ing or as audi­ble as par­tic­u­lar ways of speak­ing, but most often they are sim­ply the ways in which peo­ple respond to being addressed in a par­tic­u­lar way. Nation­al con­scious­ness, then, is an inter­nal psy­cho­log­i­cal state which seeks expres­sion in the out­ward signs of iden­ti­ty.

Nation­alism is a more-or-less active par­tic­i­pa­tion in the polit­i­cal mobi­liza­tion of a social group for the con­struc­tion or defense of a state. As a polit­i­cal ide­ol­o­gy, nation­al­ism – any nation­al­ism, rel­a­tive­ly pro­gres­sive or absolute­ly reac­tionary – involves two inescapable prin­ci­ples: that the nation­al group should have its own state, regard­less of the social con­se­quences; and that what unites the nation­al group is more sig­nif­i­cant than what divides it, above all the class divide. Final­ly, it is pos­si­ble to demand a nation-state with­out either nation­al con­scious­ness or nation­al­ism: this was cer­tain­ly the case in Scot­land dur­ing the 2014 inde­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum, when many Scots cam­paigned and vot­ed for sep­a­rate state for “social” rather than “nation­al” rea­sons.

BB: The soci­o­log­i­cal tra­di­tion inspired by Durkheim and Weber under­scores the need for soci­eties to cre­ate cohe­sion in order to coun­ter­act the dis­in­te­gra­tive effects of indus­tri­al­iza­tion. In what way the Marx­ist focus on the dom­i­nance of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion gives deep­er insights regard­ing the devel­op­ment of nation­al con­scious­ness?

ND: The key fig­ure here is nei­ther Durkheim nor Weber, but one which I have already men­tioned – Gell­ner. Nation­al­ism here is essen­tial­ly a sub­sti­tute for the role of reli­gion in what Webe­ri­ans call tra­di­tion­al or agrar­i­an soci­eties. In effect they dis­miss the idea that nations are per­ma­nent aspects of the human con­di­tion before indus­tri­al­iza­tion, only to rein­tro­duce it as inescapable after the process has begun. The Marx­ist empha­sis on the dom­i­nance of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion is part­ly based on the his­tor­i­cal fact that some pop­u­la­tions devel­oped both nation­al con­scious­ness and ful­ly formed nation­al­ism before indus­tri­al­iza­tion began, above all in Eng­land, but also in the Unit­ed States and France, and to a lesser extent in the Unit­ed Nether­lands. To argue that nations only appeared at some stage in the lat­er 18th cen­tu­ry would be as absurd as argu­ing that cap­i­tal­ism only appeared at the same peri­od. In fact, nation­al con­scious­ness took as many cen­turies to become the dom­i­nant form of con­scious­ness as the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion did to become the dom­i­nant mode of pro­duc­tion, and it did so as a con­se­quence of the lat­ter.

In the­se pre-indus­tri­al cap­i­tal­ist states nation­al­ism was the pro­duct of four main ele­ments. The first ele­ment was the for­ma­tion of exter­nal­ly demar­cat­ed and inter­nal­ly con­nect­ed areas of eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty. In this con­text, the impor­tance of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment is less in the domain of pro­duc­tion than that of cir­cu­la­tion, for it was in the cre­ation of trade net­works that mer­chant cap­i­tal began to link up dis­persed rural com­mu­ni­ties both with each oth­er and with the urban cen­ters to form an exten­sive home mar­ket. Linked direct­ly to this ele­ment was a sec­ond, the adop­tion of a com­mon lan­guage by the com­mu­ni­ties that were being con­nect­ed to each oth­er at the eco­nom­ic lev­el. The need to com­mu­ni­cate for the pur­pos­es of mar­ket exchange began to break down the dis­tinc­tive­ness of local dialects, forg­ing a lan­guage com­mon, or at least com­pre­hen­si­ble, to all. Lan­guage in this way began to set the bound­aries of the eco­nom­ic net­works referred to above, bound­aries that did not nec­es­sar­i­ly coin­cide with those of medieval king­doms. Clear­ly such eco­nom­ic and lin­guis­tic uni­fi­ca­tion was far eas­ier in a small cen­tral­ized king­dom like Eng­land than in a ter­ri­to­ry like the Ger­man Empire. The for­ma­tion of stan­dard forms of lan­guage was immea­sur­ably aid­ed by the inven­tion of print­ing and the pos­si­bil­i­ties it pre­sent­ed for the cod­i­fi­ca­tion of lan­guage in mass-pro­duced works. The increas­ing stan­dard­iza­tion of lan­guage then fed back into its orig­i­nal eco­nom­ic for­ma­tion, as the mer­chants whose trad­ing net­works had orig­i­nal­ly defined the ter­ri­to­ri­al reach of lin­guis­tic com­pre­hen­si­bil­i­ty, increas­ing­ly iden­ti­fied them­selves with that ter­ri­to­ry, to the exclu­sion of rivals who spoke a dif­fer­ent lan­guage.

The third ele­ment was the char­ac­ter of abso­lutism, the form tak­en by the feu­dal state dur­ing the eco­nom­ic tran­si­tion from feu­dal­ism to cap­i­tal­ism. The local juris­dic­tions that char­ac­ter­ized the clas­sic epoch of mil­i­tary feu­dal­ism began to give way to greater con­cen­tra­tion of state pow­er, notably through the intro­duc­tion of stand­ing armies and, part­ly in order to pay for them, reg­u­lar cen­tral­ized tax­a­tion. Death and tax­es both involve bureau­cra­cies that required a ver­sion of the local lan­guage, com­pre­hen­si­ble across the state ter­ri­to­ry, with which to con­duct their busi­ness, thus strength­en­ing the sec­ond, “lin­guis­tic,” ele­ment referred to above. They also had two unin­tend­ed effects. On the one hand, the intro­duc­tion of reg­u­lar tax­a­tion and the adop­tion of mer­can­tilist poli­cies rein­forced the eco­nom­ic uni­ty that had begun to emerge spon­ta­neous­ly from the activ­i­ties of mer­chant cap­i­tal­ists. On the oth­er, the mil­i­tary rival­ry that char­ac­ter­ized the new sys­tem neces­si­tat­ed mobi­liz­ing the active sup­port of the bour­geois minor­i­ty as a source of finan­cial back­ing and admin­is­tra­tive exper­tise. Despite the­se inno­va­tions it is nev­er­the­less impor­tant not to mis­take the role of abso­lutism in the birth of nation­hood, which was that of a mid­wife, not that of a moth­er. The arrival of nation­hood coin­cid­ed not with the estab­lish­ment of the abso­lutist states but with their over­throw.

The fourth and final ele­ment is the Ref­or­ma­tion, which made reli­gion more than an ide­o­log­i­cal­ly pious enhance­ment to the image of the rul­ing dynasty. Wherever Protes­tantism became the dom­i­nant reli­gion with­in a given ter­ri­to­ry after 1517 it con­tribut­ed to the for­ma­tion of nation­al con­scious­ness by allow­ing com­mu­ni­ties of belief to define them­selves again­st the intra-ter­ri­to­ri­al insti­tu­tions of the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire. In part, this was through the avail­abil­i­ty of the Bible in the ver­nac­u­lar, but this in turn was depen­dent on the exis­tence of pre-exist­ing lin­guis­tic frame­works in which mar­ket trans­ac­tions and state admin­is­tra­tion could be car­ried out. In short, Protes­tantism act­ed as a stim­u­lus to nation­al con­scious­ness only to the extent that the devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal­ism had pro­vid­ed it with the frame­work to do so. Nat­u­ral­ly the process went fur­thest in Eng­land, but even there it was not until after the death of Eliz­a­beth in 1603 that Protes­tantism came to be sep­a­rat­ed from reg­nal sol­i­dar­i­ty with the monar­ch.

Out­side of a hand­ful of coun­tries, how­ev­er, cap­i­tal­ism and indus­tri­al­iza­tion arrived simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, so in a sense Gell­ner is right to say that mass nation­al­ism was a pro­duct of indus­tri­al­iza­tion, but his insight was too focused on the func­tion­al­i­ty of nation­al­ism for indus­tri­al soci­eties. At least as much atten­tion should be paid to the way in which indus­tri­al­iza­tion, and the relat­ed process of urban­iza­tion, togeth­er pro­duced the changes in human con­scious­ness which made nation­al­ism pos­si­ble (for the sub­or­di­nate class­es), as to the way in which the more com­plex soci­eties they pro­duced made nation­al­ism nec­es­sary (for the dom­i­nant class). It is all too easy to ignore how unprece­dent­ed the­se expe­ri­ences were (and still are) for the peo­ple under­go­ing them.

BB: You point out that cap­i­tal­ism is a sys­tem of com­pet­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion based on wage labor. The­se two aspects indi­cate the rea­sons for the per­sis­tence of the states-sys­tem: first, the need for cap­i­tals to be ter­ri­to­ri­al­ly aggre­gat­ed for com­pet­i­tive pur­pos­es; sec­ond, the need for that ter­ri­to­ry to have an ide­o­log­i­cal basis – nation­al­ism – that can be used to bind the work­ing class to the state and to cap­i­tal.2 You regret that analy­ses often overem­pha­size either inter­nal pol­i­tics or geopo­lit­i­cal rela­tions. How can one dis­cuss the nation-state in a more bal­anced way?

ND: Part of the prob­lem is the way in which the way in which the acad­e­my is divid­ed into more-or-less arbi­trar­i­ly defined dis­ci­plines, so that nation­al con­scious­ness is a sub­ject for Social Psy­chol­o­gy while the nation-state is the province of Inter­na­tion­al Rela­tions. This way of study­ing the world, which was as alien to Adam Smith as it was to Karl Marx, has the intend­ed ide­o­log­i­cal effect of frag­ment­ing our under­stand­ing of how it works. There are times, of course, when one needs to inves­ti­gate a speci­fic aspect of the social whole, but this can only be done sat­is­fac­to­ri­ly by keep­ing in mind that, how­ev­er micro­scop­ic the sub­ject, it is part of a greater whole from which its sig­nif­i­cance is derived. There is no par­tic­u­lar­ly spe­cial way of deal­ing with aca­d­e­mic frag­men­ta­tion in rela­tion to the sub­ject of the nation, oth­er than by fore­ground­ing the notion of total­i­ty in rela­tion to it, as in the case of any oth­er sub­ject.

BB: Could you elu­ci­date why “nation­al con­scious­ness does not com­pete with rev­o­lu­tion­ary class con­scious­ness direct­ly for the alle­giance of work­er, but as a key ele­ment in reformist class con­scious­ness” and its con­se­quences for a rev­o­lu­tion­ary agen­da?3

ND: Reformist con­scious­ness was famous­ly described by Gram­sci as “dual” or “con­tra­dic­to­ry”; on the one hand accept­ing the per­ma­nence of the sys­tem, on the oth­er reject­ing the effect of its oper­a­tion. The most basic expres­sion of this con­tra­dic­tion is an accep­tance by work­ers of the wages sys­tem accom­pa­nied by a rejec­tion of the par­tic­u­lar lev­el of wages which they are being offered, but it extends to all aspects of social life. Work­ers remain nation­al­ist to the extent that they remain reformist. And from the point of view of the cap­i­tal­ist class in indi­vid­u­al nations it is absolute­ly nec­es­sary that they do so, or the dan­ger is always that work­ers will iden­ti­fy, not with the “nation­al” inter­est of the state in which they hap­pen to be sit­u­at­ed, but that of the class to which they are con­demned to belong, regard­less of the acci­dent of geo­graph­i­cal loca­tion. Nation­al­ism should not there­fore be seen as some­thing which only “hap­pens” dur­ing sep­a­ratist move­ments on the one hand, or dur­ing fas­cist and impe­ri­al­ist man­i­fes­ta­tions on the oth­er: the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem gen­er­ates nation­al­ism as a nec­es­sary, every­day con­di­tion of its con­tin­ued exis­tence. It devel­ops new struc­tural capac­i­ties, new mod­es of expe­ri­ence and new psy­cho­log­i­cal needs in the peo­ple who have to work in the fac­to­ries and live in the cities. It is this need for some col­lec­tive sense of belong­ing with which to over­come the effects of alien­ation, the need for psy­chic com­pen­sa­tion for the injuries sus­tained at the hands of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety, that nation­al­ism pro­vides in the absence of rev­o­lu­tion­ary class con­scious­ness, but in con­junc­tion with reformist class con­scious­ness. One might say that the ori­gins of nation­al con­scious­ness see the emer­gence of an iden­ti­ty-ensem­ble ade­quate to the his­tor­i­cal con­di­tions of gen­er­al­ized alien­ation; but the needs pro­duced by cap­i­tal­ist indus­tri­al­iza­tion last as long as the sys­tem itself.

It imper­a­tive that loy­al­ty to a state be secured, and the nation is the means. Work­ers have often been asked to accept ris­es in inter­est rates, cuts in wages and ser­vices, or par­tic­i­pa­tion in impe­ri­al­ist wars, but nev­er for the ben­e­fit of cap­i­tal­ism, always for the ben­e­fit of a par­tic­u­lar nation, for “the nation­al inter­est.” It is not only the state which makes such appeals. The orga­ni­za­tions of the work­ing class them­selves rein­force reformist class con­scious­ness with­in a nation­al con­text. At the most ele­men­tary lev­el this is because such orga­ni­za­tions are unwill­ing to chal­lenge the nation­al­ism with­in which polit­i­cal dis­course is con­duct­ed, for fear of being labeled unpa­tri­otic. More impor­tant­ly, how­ev­er, it is because they seek either to influ­ence or deter­mine pol­i­cy with­in the con­fines of the exist­ing nation-state. Typ­i­cal­ly, there­fore, nation­al­ism is invest­ed with the con­tra­dic­to­ry char­ac­ter of the reformist world view.

BB: Again­st the com­mon assump­tion that neolib­er­al­ism doesn’t need the state you hold that it doesn’t only need the state, but with ref­er­ence to David Har­vey you affirm that the neolib­er­al state “needs nation­al­ism of a cer­tain sort to sur­vive.”4 Can you explain this link?

ND: In a sense this is only the con­tem­po­rary form of the gen­er­al cap­i­tal­ist need dis­cussed in my pre­vi­ous answer. The neolib­er­al orga­ni­za­tion of cap­i­tal­ism height­ens three exist­ing ten­den­cies: the trans­for­ma­tion of human rela­tion­ships to mar­ket trans­ac­tions, the reduc­tion of human capac­i­ties to mere fac­tors of pro­duc­tion and the self-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of human beings pri­mar­i­ly as con­sumers. The result is to raise lev­els of atom­iza­tion and alien­ation to a pre­vi­ous­ly unimag­in­able extent, with poten­tial­ly dan­ger­ous con­se­quences for cap­i­tal, which still has to achieve the tac­it accep­tance, and prefer­ably the active sup­port, of the work­ing class in the process of its own exploita­tion. Oth­er­wise, the sys­tem is poten­tial­ly threat­ened, either by social break­down, as indi­vid­u­al­ized con­sumers trans­fer the com­pet­i­tive­ness of the mar­ket to all oth­er areas of life, or by social con­flict, as work­ers begin to dis­cov­er or redis­cov­er their class-con­scious­ness and mobi­lize in their col­lec­tive inter­est. But repres­sion on its own will not pro­duce the degree of will­ing accep­tance that the sys­tem requires. In the­se cir­cum­stances nation­al­ism plays three roles. First, it pro­vides a type of psy­chic com­pen­sa­tion for the direct pro­duc­ers, which is unob­tain­able from the mere con­sump­tion of com­modi­ties. It is, as they say, no acci­dent that the nation­al­ist turn in the ide­ol­o­gy of the Chi­ne­se rul­ing class became most marked with the ini­tial open­ing up of the Chi­ne­se econ­o­my to world mar­kets in 1978 and the sup­pres­sion of the move­ment for polit­i­cal reform in 1989, which was fol­lowed by a “patri­otic edu­ca­tion cam­paign” the gen­er­al tone of which con­tin­ues to this day. Sec­ond, it acts as a means of recre­at­ing at the polit­i­cal lev­el the cohe­sion which is being lost at the social lev­el. Third, it uses this sense of cohe­sion to mobi­lize pop­u­la­tions behind the per­for­mance of nation­al cap­i­tals again­st their com­peti­tors and rivals. This last aspect requires some elab­o­ra­tion, because poten­tial­ly it involves risks or at least incon­ve­niences for cap­i­tal. The impe­ri­al nation­al­ism unleashed by the Con­ser­v­a­tives before 1997 in rela­tion to “Europe,” was not because the EU was in any sense hos­tile to neolib­er­al­ism, but as an ide­o­log­i­cal diver­sion from the fail­ure of neolib­er­al­ism to trans­form the for­tunes of British cap­i­tal. The nation­al­ism invoked for this pur­pose now places a major obsta­cle for British politi­cians and state man­agers who want to pur­sue a strat­e­gy of greater Euro­pean inte­gra­tion, how­ev­er ratio­nal that may be from their per­spec­tive, as can be seen in the cur­rent ref­er­en­dum over British EU mem­ber­ship.

But there is anoth­er dan­ger for the rul­ing class­es too, name­ly that neolib­er­al nation­al­ism will lead to the frag­men­ta­tion of neolib­er­al states. The dif­fi­cul­ty here is a deep­er one. Because nation­al­ism is such an inescapable aspect of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment, the first respon­se to intol­er­a­ble con­di­tions is to seek to estab­lish a new nation-state, although this is usu­al­ly only pos­si­ble where some lev­el of nation­al con­scious­ness already exists, as it does, for exam­ple, in Scot­land. In oth­er words, neolib­er­al­ism may require nations, but it does not require par­tic­u­lar nations. And invok­ing nation­al­ism as a coun­ter­weight to neolib­er­al social and eco­nom­ic pol­i­cy can involve a dif­fer­ent set of prob­lems for indi­vid­u­al rul­ing class­es; not prob­lems of the order of class war or the war of each again­st all, but those involv­ing the uncer­tain­ties and incon­ve­niences caused by the poten­tial frag­men­ta­tion of the nation-state. This out­come is gen­er­al­ly only pos­si­ble where an alter­na­tive nation­al con­scious­ness is avail­able and asso­ci­at­ed with a dis­tinct ter­ri­to­ry with­in the state.

In spite of the risks or incon­ve­niences for cap­i­tal, how­ev­er, it is not clear what could replace nation­al­ism as a means of secur­ing even the par­tial loy­al­ty of the work­ing class to the cap­i­tal­ist state and pre­vent­ing the for­ma­tion of rev­o­lu­tion­ary class con­scious­ness. Could loy­alties be trans­ferred upwards to a glob­al or even region­al state? This seems implau­si­ble. As Bene­dict Ander­son once remarked: who would die for Come­con or the EU? Nor could loy­alties eas­i­ly be trans­ferred down­wards to indi­vid­u­al cap­i­tals. It has been known for work­ers to sup­port their com­pa­ny, even to make sac­ri­fices to keep it in busi­ness. But this tends to hap­pen where firms are local, well estab­lished and where work­ers are employed on a long-term basis. Where work­ers make sac­ri­fices in terms of job loss­es, wors­ened con­di­tions and real cuts in pay, they do not do so because of loy­al­ty to the firm, but because they see no alter­na­tive that does not involve the even worse fate of los­ing their job entire­ly. Indi­vid­u­al man­agers or “team-lead­ers” may inter­nal­ize the ethos of McDonald’s or Wal-Mart, but work­ers can­not: the real­i­ty of the dai­ly con­flict between them­selves and the employ­er is too stark to be over­come. Beyond this, even those com­pa­nies which still retain health insur­ance and pen­sion arrange­ments come nowhere near pro­vid­ing the inte­gra­tive func­tions of even the weakest nation-state. The oil mil­lion­aires and media celebri­ties who respec­tive­ly fund and front the Tea Par­ty in the US may intend to make that coun­try even safer for Wal-Mart and Wall Street; but their free mar­ket rhetoric always has to be expressed in terms of reclaim­ing the nation from the Marx­ist antichrist in the White House and the lib­er­al elites who threat­en Amer­i­can free­dom, not restor­ing the rate of prof­it.

BB: Not all social con­flicts can be direct­ly reduced to class strug­gle. Dur­ing recent con­flicts such as in Yugoslavia or Rwan­da and also in rela­tion to Islam the term eth­nic­i­ty has been imposed as a major explana­to­ry fac­tor of con­flict. To what extent should this term be regard­ed as insight­ful?

ND: The way in which the notion of “eth­nic­i­ty” is cur­rent­ly and increas­ing­ly being used con­tains a num­ber of prob­lems for the left. Two stand out in par­tic­u­lar. On the on hand, those who approve of eth­nic­i­ty as the affir­ma­tion of an cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty, in so far as they empha­size sup­pos­ed­ly innate dif­fer­ences between human social groups, are in dan­ger of lend­ing cred­i­bil­i­ty to the cur­rent form tak­en by racist ide­ol­o­gy. On the oth­er hand, those who dis­ap­prove of eth­nic­i­ty as a man­i­fes­ta­tion of (real or imag­ined) exclu­sion­ist trib­al­ism are in dan­ger, in so far as they sug­gest that “eth­nic” nation­alisms are par­tic­u­lar­ly prone to oppres­sive behav­ior, of obscur­ing those char­ac­ter­is­tics which all nation­alisms have in com­mon, whether they are oppres­sor, oppressed, or fall into nei­ther of the­se cat­e­gories.

“Eth­nic­i­ty” has been defined in three ways: first, where mem­bers of a group have a com­mon line of descent and con­se­quent­ly a shared kin­ship; sec­ond, where they have a com­mon posi­tion with­in the inter­na­tion­al divi­sion of labor and con­se­quent­ly a shared occu­pa­tion; and third, where they have one or more cul­tur­al attrib­ut­es in com­mon and con­se­quent­ly a shared iden­ti­ty. Eth­nic­i­ty in the first sense no longer exists. Indeed, even before cap­i­tal­ism had pen­e­trat­ed all cor­ners of the world in the search for mar­kets and raw mate­ri­als, the growth of trade, con­quest and migra­tion had already made the exis­tence of endog­a­mous gene pools increas­ing­ly rare. The sec­ond mean­ing retains some valid­i­ty where it is used to describe either the way in which exist­ing occu­pa­tion­al pat­terns in pre-cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties were used by Euro­pean colonists to clas­si­fy the pop­u­la­tion as sup­pos­ed­ly endog­a­mous groups, or where the migra­tions set in train by colo­nial­ism had led groups to define them­selves as either endog­a­mous, or in pos­ses­sion of some qual­i­ty or char­ac­ter­is­tic which dis­tin­guished them from the native pop­u­la­tions around them. It is the third mean­ing which is cur­rent­ly dom­i­nant and which I find the most prob­lem­at­ic, since it is effec­tive­ly a way of label­ing peo­ple through the use of an ide­o­log­i­cal super-cat­e­go­ry that includes vir­tu­al­ly any char­ac­ter­is­tic they might con­ceiv­ably pos­sess.

For social­ists, the aim is to over­come the divi­sions which are increas­ing­ly described as “eth­nic,” by remov­ing the oppres­sions that give them sig­nif­i­cance, not to per­pet­u­ate or add to them. This may mean sup­port­ing oppressed nations or peo­ples, but the notion of “eth­nic­i­ty” is ulti­mate­ly a means of divid­ing peo­ple up into ever more arbi­trary clas­si­fi­ca­tions. At best, under the guise of cel­e­brat­ing “cul­tur­al dif­fer­ence,” it only obscures what peo­ple have in com­mon by empha­siz­ing rel­a­tive­ly super­fi­cial aspects of our social world. At worst, in a strug­gle for scarce resources it can be used as a means of mark­ing down cer­tain peo­ple for per­se­cu­tion.

BB: In France, Ernest Renan’s idea of a civic nation­al­ism, opposed to an eth­nic nation­al­ism is pret­ty wide­spread. Inso­far as both types of nation­al­ism act with­in the frame of a nation-state, can there be sub­stan­tial dif­fer­ence between the­se two alleged­ly inflex­i­ble, pure types of nation­al­ism?

ND: “Civic” nation­al­ism is fre­quent­ly pre­sent­ed as the only true form of nation­al­ism. Cer­tain nation­alisms are said to be inher­ent­ly oppres­sive pre­cise­ly because they are based on an “eth­nic” iden­ti­ty. The con­trast is often made between this kind of nation­al­ism and one described as “civic” or ‘social” – Scot­tish and Cata­lan nation­al­ism, for exam­ple, are fre­quent­ly described in this way, not least by Scot­tish and Cata­lan nation­al­ists them­selves. What is inter­est­ing about the argu­ment about “civic” nation­al­ism is that it is pre­cise­ly the one that has his­tor­i­cal­ly been used to defend mul­ti-nation­al oppres­sor nation­alisms like those of Britain, in addi­tion to those with repub­li­can con­sti­tu­tions like France. There are sig­nif­i­cant dif­fi­cul­ties for social­ists in attempt­ing to use “civic” nation­al­ism as an alter­na­tive to “eth­nic” nation­al­ism. Two in par­tic­u­lar stand out. The first is that the cat­e­go­ry of the “civic” avoids any engage­ment with the fact that there are cer­tain activ­i­ties which nation-states must under­take, regard­less of how non-eth­nic they may be. One of the­se, as many refugees from Syr­ia and oth­er war-torn zones are cur­rent­ly dis­cov­er­ing, is defend­ing bor­ders again­st peo­ple who are defined as “not-of-our-nation.” The sec­ond is that, as I said in respon­se to the pre­vi­ous ques­tion, eth­nic­i­ties can either be invent­ed to cat­e­gories groups by their ene­mies or as self-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion by those groups them­selves, with­out any ref­er­ence to real or imag­i­nary kin­ship rela­tions: cul­ture can just as eas­i­ly be made the basis of eth­nic­i­ty as blood-and-soil trib­al­ism. Pre­cise­ly because eth­nic­i­ty is a social­ly con­struct­ed cat­e­go­ry, how­ev­er, eth­nic cat­e­go­riza­tions can be pro­duced any­where with the same dis­as­trous results that we have seen in the Balka­ns, Rwan­da, Iraq and Ukraine. Con­se­quent­ly there is no rea­son why “civic” nation­al­ism can­not be trans­formed into “eth­nic” nation­al­ism in their turn under cer­tain deter­mi­nate con­di­tions, just as it did in Ger­many – a mod­ern, devel­oped and high­ly cul­tured cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety – dur­ing the 1930s. This is a con­clu­sion that adher­ents of “civic” nation­al­ism are, of course, most anx­ious to avoid.

BB: In the Cri­tique of the Gotha Pro­gram­me, Karl Marx wrote “The work­ing class must orga­nize itself at home as a class and that its own coun­try is the imme­di­ate are­na of its strug­gle – inso­far as its class strug­gle is nation­al, not in sub­stance, but […] ‘in form.’” To what extent can exit from the Euro­pean Union can con­tribute to shift the bal­ance of pow­er in favor of the work­ing class in Europe?

ND: The EU and its pre­de­ces­sors have always embod­ied the way cap­i­tal­ism has been orga­nized at any par­tic­u­lar time. It is not, in oth­er words a body sus­pend­ed above shifts in the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem reflect­ing “Euro­pean val­ues” or oth­er lib­er­al fan­tasies. As the tran­si­tion to neolib­er­al­ism was imposed with­in the con­stituent nation-states, it was bound to be embed­ded in the EU’s own poli­cies and rules and the EU accord­ing­ly began its own march towards neolib­er­al­ism no lat­er than the Sin­gle Euro­pean Act in 1986. This has been con­firmed and deep­ened by every sin­gle sub­se­quent Pact and Treaty from Maas­tricht on 1991 onwards. What made the process eas­ier than in the indi­vid­u­al nation-states was that the EU always lacked most of the demo­c­ra­t­ic con­straints which made the tran­si­tion at least a con­test­ed process in Britain or Italy, even in the peri­od when it did more-or-less embody more social demo­c­ra­t­ic con­cep­tion of own­er­ship and con­trol.

Hayek argued in 1939 that “Inter­state Fed­er­al­ism” at the Euro­pean lev­el would be desir­able because it would ensure that eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty should be removed as far as pos­si­ble from the respon­si­bil­i­ty of med­dling politi­cians who inter­fered with the mar­ket order to win elec­toral sup­port from igno­rant vot­ers. The EU has fol­lowed Hayek’s advice by cen­tral­iz­ing pow­er in the hands of appoint­ed offi­cials, above all in the Com­mis­sion, which alone has the pow­er to ini­ti­ate leg­is­la­tion, three types of which – reg­u­la­tions, direc­tives and deci­sions – are bind­ing. The Par­lia­ment has a right to be con­sult­ed, in cer­tain cir­cum­stances, but none to ini­ti­ate leg­is­la­tion in its own right: in this respect it has far less pow­er than any nation­al gov­ern­ment, or for that mat­ter, any devolved gov­ern­ment like the Scot­tish or Cata­lan. But this is not the only demo­c­ra­t­ic deficit. If the Com­mis­sion is a supra­na­tion­al body, the Euro­pean Coun­cil is an inter­gov­ern­men­tal one. It con­sists of the heads of state or heads of gov­ern­ment of the mem­ber states, who are of course elect­ed in their own coun­tries, but not of course by the inhab­i­tants of the oth­er coun­tries whose fate the Coun­cil decides. The­se struc­tures are one rea­son why we should reject claims that the EU is as amenable to reform as any nation-state. In fact it is much less so. Cap­i­tal­ist states are per­ma­nent struc­ture until they are over­thrown, although they can adopt dif­fer­ent poli­cies accord­ing to the polit­i­cal par­ties or coali­tions which over­see the appa­ra­tus at any time, and the­se can be more or less ben­e­fi­cial to the work­ing class and oppressed groups. The prob­lem with the EU is that, although it is not a nation-state, the bal­ance between unelect­ed state man­agers and elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives is even more heav­i­ly weight­ed in favor of the for­mer in the EU than in its con­stituent mem­bers. Reforms are nev­er eas­i­ly achieved, par­tic­u­lar­ly under neolib­er­al­ism, since it has removed sev­er­al mech­a­nisms from con­trol of states. Nev­er­the­less, it is not impos­si­ble. In any event, it would be eas­ier to achieve reforms in any mem­ber state than in the EU, where it requires win­ning una­nim­i­ty in the Coun­cil, and there is more pos­si­bil­i­ty of simul­ta­ne­ous rev­o­lu­tions in all 28 of them than of this hap­pen­ing.

The sec­ond Hayekian aspect of the EU is the use of rule-bound poli­cies – on lim­its to pub­lic spend­ing, on debt as a pro­por­tion of GDP, on com­pe­ti­tion – to lim­it what nation­al politi­cians can do at the behest of their elec­torates. Since the rules do not allow for deval­u­a­tion or the lev­els of state expen­di­ture or debt which would have been nec­es­sary to stim­u­late the econ­o­my, the only remain­ing respon­se to the cri­sis of 2008 was aus­ter­i­ty. The EU’s embrace of the Transat­lantic Trade and Invest­ment Part­ner­ship (TTIP) – far more enthu­si­as­tic than Washington’s, inci­den­tal­ly – and the pos­si­bly even more insid­i­ous Trade in Ser­vices Agree­ment (Tisa) are only the lat­est and most extreme exam­ples of this. In this con­text it is incred­i­ble to me how light­ly how some Remain sup­port­ers are pre­pared to pass over the expe­ri­ence of Greece. In Yanis Varoufakis’s rev­e­la­tions about his encoun­ters with the Troika, it was the EU insti­tu­tions – the Euro­pean Cen­tral Bank and the Com­mis­sion – and not the Inter­na­tion­al Mon­e­tary Fund which were the most unbend­ing.

The lack of democ­ra­cy and pres­ence of bind­ing rules would be rea­sons enough to leave the EU, but there are least three oth­ers, each of which attests, not only to the inher­ent­ly reac­tionary nature of the project, but to how it fails to per­form even the role for which it is most cel­e­brat­ed by lib­er­al boost­ers: over­com­ing nation­al self-inter­est. First, the EU is designed to main­tain the struc­ture of exist­ing inequal­i­ties between Euro­pean nation-states. Beneath all the talk of “sol­i­dar­i­ty” this is inescapable: a finan­cial and indus­tri­al struc­ture designed to meet the needs of the strongest economies – France and Ger­many and, since the advent of the Euro, increas­ing­ly just the lat­ter – but which forces the weakest to play by the same rules, will always be detri­men­tal to them, par­tic­u­lar­ly when there is no mech­a­nism to trans­fer funds or resources with­in the EU in the way that can be done with­in nation-states.

Sec­ond, although the EU is not an impe­ri­al­ist pow­er in its own right, as a col­lec­tive body it does, how­ev­er, increas­ing­ly act as an adjunct to NATO, and con­se­quent­ly as a sup­port to US inter­ests. This role was inscribed onto the EU’s DNA from the begin­ning. The US ini­tial­ly encour­aged and sup­port­ed the for­ma­tion of the EU’s pre­de­ces­sors as part of a Cold War bul­wark again­st its Rus­sian impe­ri­al rival, and this is the main rea­son why there was no war in (West­ern) Europe between 1945 and 1991: although engaged in in eco­nom­ic com­pe­ti­tion with each oth­er, the EU mem­ber-states were unit­ed behind the USA in the same geopo­lit­i­cal alliance. But if the EU itself does not act as an impe­ri­al pow­er, the main con­stituent nation-states increas­ing­ly do, and they by no means always bow to Washington’s wish­es. Here again we see the more pow­er­ful plac­ing their own inter­ests over those of sup­posed Euro­pean uni­ty. For some this is exter­nal­ized, as in the per­sis­tent­ly under­es­ti­mat­ed French pres­ence in Cen­tral Africa, but for oth­ers it is man­i­fest­ed in the heart of Europe itself – most obvi­ous­ly in the case of Ger­many, whose recog­ni­tion of Croa­t­ian inde­pen­dence in 1992 con­tribut­ed to the sub­se­quent Yugosla­vian blood­bath.

Third, the EU is struc­tural­ly racist. The very idea of “Europe” is nec­es­sar­i­ly exclu­sion­ary. It is lit­tle remem­bered now that Moroc­co applied for EU mem­ber­ship in Sep­tem­ber 1987, much to the hilar­i­ty of the Com­mis­sion­ers, who turned it down on the grounds that it “did not meet the cri­te­ria for mem­ber­ship.” The much vaunt­ed “free­dom of move­ment” with­in the EU is pred­i­cat­ed on block­ing the move­ment of those with­out, as tens of thou­sands of des­per­ate refugees are cur­rent­ly dis­cov­er­ing. The spec­ta­cle of the­se peo­ple being trapped in the camps, behind barbed-wire fences and fac­ing the police dogs and tear gas on the bor­ders of Euro­pean civ­i­liza­tion is obscene enough, but it is com­pound­ed by the atti­tude of the con­stituent states them­selves. For here again their indi­vid­u­al inter­ests take prece­dence over even col­lec­tive bar­bar­i­ty, as the Schen­gen Agree­ment col­laps­es into a free-for-all to defend indi­vid­u­al bor­ders again­st the alien hordes.

There is one final pos­i­tive argu­ment for the EU, which tends to be expressed by sec­tions of the rad­i­cal left. It is that cap­i­tal­ism rules every­where, from the EU right down to our indi­vid­u­al work­places. But, so this sto­ry goes, at least the EU ful­fils one of the few pos­i­tive func­tions of cap­i­tal­ism: it brings togeth­er work­ers into one of the largest groups on earth, and their pres­sure can trans­form the EU. This is a clas­sic exam­ple of con­fus­ing our wish­es for real­i­ty. The EU orga­nizes the rul­ing class, it does not orga­nize work­ers. As Trot­sky once wrote in anoth­er con­text, a brake can­not be used as an accel­er­a­tor. There are no EU-wide polit­i­cal par­ties, or trade unions, or move­ments. Sol­i­dar­i­ty across bor­ders does not depend on con­sti­tu­tions or insti­tu­tions, but on the will­ing­ness of work­ers to sup­port each oth­er, even if in sep­a­rate coun­tries. Instead of invok­ing imag­i­nary bat­tal­ions of work­ers orga­nized at a Euro­pean lev­el, it would more use­ful to begin build­ing where we are. The strug­gle again­st neolib­er­al cap­i­tal­ism is unlike­ly to begin simul­ta­ne­ous­ly across the whole of the EU, or to be con­fined with­in its bound­aries. What we are like­ly to see is an uneven series of move­ments of dif­fer­ent inten­si­ties, with­in dif­fer­ent nation-states which, if vic­to­ri­ous, could form new alliances and ulti­mate­ly a Unit­ed Social­ist States of Europe. How­ev­er, this vision can­not be real­ized with­in the EU, but only built afresh on its ruins.

BB: Regard­ing US for­eign pol­i­cy in the Mid­dle East you observe that “fail­ure to ground analy­sis in the class basis of mod­ern states leads to a restrict­ed notion of what is ratio­nal for state man­agers and con­se­quent­ly a fail­ure to under­stand why they take cer­tain actions.”5 What place is there for anti-impe­ri­al­ism with­in an anti-cap­i­tal­ist strat­e­gy?

ND: The point I was try­ing make in the pas­sage you quote was main­ly direct­ed again­st some ver­sions of the “Polit­i­cal Marx­ism” asso­ci­at­ed with Bren­ner, Wood, Teschke, et. al, in which cap­i­tal­ism is reduced to mar­ket depen­dence or com­pul­sion. But cap­i­tal­ism is not sim­ply about mar­kets – indeed, if this def­i­n­i­tion were tak­en at all seri­ous­ly then you would have to doubt whether it exists across most of the world even now. In the speci­fic con­text of impe­ri­al­ism, how­ev­er, the fix­a­tion on mar­kets leads to either (what are effec­tive­ly) Webe­ri­an con­clu­sions, in which geopol­i­tics is treat­ed as a sep­a­rate sphere from eco­nom­ics, or to regard­ing deci­sions by politi­cians and state mangers as “irra­tional,” because they don’t imme­di­ate­ly cor­re­spond to the needs of speci­fic cap­i­tal­ist groups. Now, it is clear that the US-based oil com­pa­nies were not exact­ly enthu­si­as­tic about the Iraq War, but the cap­i­tal­ist state has to act in the inter­ests of nation­al cap­i­tal as a whole, not mere­ly par­tic­u­lar sec­tors, which is ulti­mate­ly what the war was about: the US teach­ing for­mer allies and cur­rent  ene­mies what would hap­pen to them if they got out of line, show­ing allies that the US is still the only state which deploy the nec­es­sary lev­els of fire­pow­er to sub­due rogue states, con­trol­ling Chi­ne­se access to oil sup­plies, and so on – none of which has much to do with mar­ket com­pe­ti­tion as such. Leav­ing aside the unspeak­able mis­ery the inva­sion of Iraq has caused for the Iraqis, it was in most respects a fail­ure for the Amer­i­cans, but that does not mean it was irra­tional, sim­ply that it was a gam­ble, the out­come was con­tin­gent on a num­ber of fac­tors which they could not fore­see, not least lev­els of inter­nal oppo­si­tion.

As this sug­gests, I do think that anti-impe­ri­al­ism is a nec­es­sary part of any seri­ous ant­i­cap­i­tal­ist strat­e­gy, but it is impor­tant to under­stand what this means. Part of the left’s inabil­i­ty to arrive at a coher­ent posi­tion on the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion in the Mid­dle East is because  Stal­in­ists and oth­er “social­ism-from-above” types actu­al­ly believe that (e.g.) Assad is an anti-impe­ri­al­ist – or who at any rate can­not see any prospect of an alter­na­tive to him ever emerg­ing from below. But there is also anoth­er prob­lem of a more the­o­ret­i­cal nature, which takes two forms. One is a series of mis­un­der­stand­ings of the Clas­si­cal Marx­ist posi­tions on impe­ri­al­ism and self-deter­mi­na­tion which were estab­lished imme­di­ate­ly before and dur­ing the First World War. The oth­er, com­pound­ing the ini­tial error, is to imag­ine that the­se posi­tions can sim­ply be trans­posed from the peri­od in which they were for­mu­lat­ed to today with­out any seri­ous attempt to assess what has changed in the inter­ven­ing peri­od (although this prob­lem scarce­ly con­fined to the issues of impe­ri­al­ism and self-deter­mi­na­tion).

When Karl Liebknecht raised the slo­gan “the main ene­my is at home” he did not mean to imply that the only ene­my was at home. The con­text is cru­cial here. The right and cen­ter of the Sec­ond Inter­na­tion­al jus­ti­fied sup­port­ing “their” states in the First World War on grounds of either self-defense or because the oth­er side was worse in some way – less demo­c­ra­t­ic, more oppres­sive to the colo­nial peo­ples over which it ruled, and so on. This was why under­stand­ing the sys­temic nature of impe­ri­al­ism was so impor­tant: it was irrel­e­vant who fired the first shot as com­pe­ti­tion between the dom­i­nant states would have led to war at some point in any case. Hence the neces­si­ty for social­ists every­where to oppose the state in which they found them­selves, rather than using the actions of its ene­mies as an excuse for not doing so. But Lenin did not imag­ine that rev­o­lu­tion­ary oppo­si­tion to Rus­sian bar­bar­i­ty required him to remain silent on Ger­man atroc­i­ties, and he was not, in fact, silent on them. The slo­gan “turn the impe­ri­al­ist war into a civil war” was meant to be applic­a­ble every­where, on both sides, from Britain to Japan.

At least some con­tem­po­rary would-be anti-impe­ri­al­ists have aban­doned sev­er­al aspects of this tra­di­tion. For one thing, impe­ri­al­ism is no longer under­stood as a sys­tem, as an inescapable aspect of con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal­ism. Instead, impe­ri­al­ism is a pol­i­cy car­ried out by gov­ern­ments, or it is an attrib­ute pos­sessed by par­tic­u­lar nation-states, or it takes the form of sen­tient beings with cog­ni­tive or emo­tion­al capac­i­ties – as in those extra­or­di­nary for­mu­la­tions where impe­ri­al­ism is rei­fied so that “an” impe­ri­al­ism “wants,” “needs,” or “thinks” this or that. Most­ly US impe­ri­al­ism is held respon­si­ble for any event or process from the for­ma­tion of Da’esh to the Ukraini­an rev­o­lu­tion: no one else pos­sess­es any agen­cy, or has any moti­va­tions. Every­thing that hap­pens is appar­ent­ly the result of the omnipo­tent if hid­den hand of “US impe­ri­al­ism.” With an ene­my this pow­er­ful is there any point in resist­ing? Some­times the US is replaced by an undif­fer­en­ti­at­ed and uni­fied “West­ern impe­ri­al­ism” in which there are appar­ent­ly no con­flict­ing inter­ests, com­pet­ing cap­i­tals or geopo­lit­i­cal rival­ries. In fact, this usage rather gives the game away. “West­ern” impe­ri­al­ism used to be coun­ter­posed to the (sup­pos­ed­ly non-impe­ri­al­ist) “East.” Now, the notion that there could be “degen­er­at­ed” or “deformed” worker’s states in which actu­al work­ers were not only pow­er­less but sub­ject­ed to mon­strous bureau­crat­ic oppres­sion was always a piece of meta­phys­i­cal clap­trap, but call­ing for their defense at least had a cer­tain log­i­cal con­sis­ten­cy. What are quite incred­i­ble are the calls by Stal­in­ists and at least some ortho­dox Trot­sky­ists to defend, to excul­pate, Putin’s Rus­sia or Assad’s Syr­ia – both cor­rupt, unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic, but con­ven­tion­al­ly cap­i­tal­ist states. Pur­sued log­i­cal­ly, in 2011 this would have led – and in some cas­es did lead – to sup­port­ing the Egyp­tian Rev­o­lu­tion (because it was direct­ed again­st am ally of the US), but oppos­ing the Syr­i­an Rev­o­lu­tion (because it was direct­ed again­st an ene­my of the US). It is incum­bent on social­ists in the West to oppose their government’s bloody inter­ven­tions in the Mid­dle East and else­where, but there is no rea­son why this should also involve sup­port­ing the regimes which are mur­der­ing the work­ers and peas­ants who will be the basis of any renewed rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment.

This inter­view orig­i­nal­ly appeared in Péri­ode.


  1. Mike Davis, “Marx’s Lost The­o­ry,” New Left Review II/93 (May-June 2015). 

  2. Neil David­son, Nation-States: Con­scious­ness and Com­pe­ti­tion (Chicago: Hay­mar­ket, 2016), 220. 

  3. Ibid., 70. 

  4. David Har­vey, A Brief His­to­ry of Neolib­er­al­ism (New York: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2005), 85. 

  5. David­son, 228. 

Authors of the article

is member of the editorial committee of the French-language review Période and graduated from Sciences Po Paris.

lectures at the University of Glasgow. Among other works, he is the author of The Origins of Scottish Nationhood (Pluto, 2000), How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions (Haymarket, 2014), and Nation-States: Consciousness and Competition (Haymarket, 2016).