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International Socialism, January 1978


Laurie Flynn

Spartacus Without the Slaves

Tom Nairn and Scottish Nationalism


From International Socialism (1st series), No. 104, January 1978, pp. 20–22.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Sally Kincaid.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Break-up of Britain
Tom Nairn
NLB £7.50

The blurb on the jacket of Tom Nairn’s new book The Breakup of BritainCrisis and neo nationalism announces that this is no ordinary volume. This is ‘the most powerful and original reflection on the UK to have been written since the war’.

Since the book was published a few months ago most reviewers have more or less endorsed this not inconsiderable claim. It would be nice to be able to add another enthusiastic endorsement to the pile. For we are short, desperately short, of serious Marxist writing about the profound political crisis that racks Great Britain Limited. And we are desperately short of serious socialist analysis of the new national question that has burst on to the scene as the crisis has matured.

Nevertheless another such endorsement just will not do. This is not to say that by having a stab at Tom Nairn’s book you will be entirely wasting your time. On the contrary, there is food for thought within the covers. The book does contain valuable insights into the ‘slow-motion landslide’ which British capitalism is going through. And in between the big words that are used to back up the considerable claims for this book, there are even some really nice bits of writing.

On page 58 for example Nairn comes up with a truly delightful characterisation of the aims of the mafia style extended family which really runs these islands. The aim, says Nairn, is to ‘change just as much as is necessary for everything to go on as before.’

But this doesn’t add up to the kind of overview we need. Indeed such overview as Nairn gives us is shot through with so many peculiarities as to make it neither particularly valuable nor particularly Marxist.

For starters, Tom Nairn’s book contains several more instalments of a strange and misguided theory which has been haunting the poor man for years. According to Nairn the decay and decline of the British system is not the twilight of a once immensely successful capitalist system now in eclipse. On the contrary Britain’s problems result according to our Tom from the fact that Britain never became capitalist enough.


Because Britain was the first country to industrialise a unique state structure emerged. The bourgeoisie never completed its revolution and was tragically bought off by the aristocratic embrace. Once they had given way, the die was cast. The challenge of the Labour Movement in Britain could never go beyond a reformism which today is the firmest prop of this decaying system.

Peel away the odd bits of truth from this rather generous summary of Nairn’s analysis and you find some truly terrifying statements. These indicate not only an unnecessarily tragic view of the British working-class movement, but something much worse: Tom Nairn has a quite naive enthusiasm for some truly thrusting bourgeoisie.

The following samples are all drawn from the pages of The Break Up of Britain:

‘... the whole problem lies in the fact that Britain does not possess a dynamic but a frustrated capitalist class.’ (p. 56)

‘... the domestic capitalist class is so short sighted and dependent.’ (p. 56)

‘If one seriously believes that the “entrepreneurial class” took over 19th century Britain, then the entire subsequent history of entrepreneurial backsliding and chronic industrial failure becomes incomprehensible.’ (Footnote p. 27)

Then on page 45 we get an even franker formulation which insists that the industrial bourgeoisie doesn’t have ‘an obvious vested interest’ in the British state.

Tom really ought to try his message out on the powerful industrial capitalists who even at this moment are working overtime to strengthen that state machine he claims they have no obvious vested interest in, and who are worried about anything that threatens its stability from Grunwick picket lines to devolution.

Tom Nairn’s naive admiration for real bourgeois, for thrusting entrepreneurs, is complemented, I’m afraid, by a fairly thoroughgoing refusal to view the working class as any kind of independent force in history.

For Tom Nairn, Britain’s unique state form simply imprisoned the working class challenge within a ‘paralytic over stability’ deprived of any tradition of ‘popular mobilisation from below’. In other words all the shots were called and the die was cast quite independently of the real struggles of men and women in history.

The coming together of the industrial bourgeoisie and the landed aristocracy has nothing at all to do with an alliance forged out of fear of revolt from below. On the contrary it is to be explained by Britain’s ‘firstness’ or uniqueness. In all this the revolutionary or potentially revolutionary challenge of Chartism doesn’t rate a mention. Neither does the crisis of the First World War and after. In Nairn’s history Spartacus is shorn of its most vital component – the slaves.


In an earlier version of one of the essays that make up his new book Tom Nairn took his pessimism to the very edge. ‘When revolution came to the world of advanced capitalism, it came as fascism, the ultra-nationalist reaction to the threat of socialist and communist advance (a threat that was in fact remote)’ he wrote in the 1975 Red Paper on Scotland.

‘... In the time of the second international as well as now, it became evident that the left had pinned far too much faith on the rationality of working-class based social struggle … and far too little on the non-rational strengths of nationalism.’

Leaving aside the grossly distorted picture of the early history of the twentieth century, this and other rather more tentative statements in the new book do explain Tom Nairn’s fascination with the new nationalism. It has quite simply superceded other items in the Nairn book of short cuts to the beginning of a truly human history.


Earlier in his journey Tom Nairn really believed that Harold Wilson and his White Hot Technological Revolution would lead to some sort of breakthrough. Then came the May Events in France and Tom got a glimpse of the power of the working class. It didn’t last him for long. By 1975 he was looking around for another force to unblock the drains.

As he puts it in The Break Up of Britain (p. 89): ‘The fact is that neo nationalism has become the grave digger of the old state in Britain and as such the principal factor making for a political revolution of some sort – in England as well as the small countries.’ But this begs the question. What sort of political revolution is it to be? And will it be a revolution rather than just a re-arrangement?

Not all of Nairn’s analysis of neo nationalism is wrong-headed. He is undoubtedly right to attack those socialists who seek refuge from the complexities of living history through pious affirmations of the unity of the British working class.

And Nairn is equally right to go after those sentimental Scottish socialists who yatter on about the ‘innate democratic spirit of the Scottish people’ and who imagine that this, plus an assembly in Edinburgh, will parachute us into nirvana. But Nairn is all the time hedging his bets, pulling away from the deeper controversy that the rise of neo-nationalism brings in its wake. That controversy concerns the possibilities of reform versus the need for revolution. It concerns the prospect of any kind of serious change from above versus socialism from below.

Nairn is right to insist that there is no simple pure revolution. No ball passes clean through the glass. It clears and finds (and forces) its way. Yet despite this passing strength, Nairn’s ‘treatment of the national question is seriously deficient.’

Tom starts by levelling just this accusation against the Marxist tradition. The national question is, he insists, one of its ‘notorious weaknesses’. Regrettably he seems to prefer to give this assertion a regular outing rather than to provide a halfway adequate account of what Marxist tradition there is.

The Break Up of Britain is centrally concerned with Scotland. Yet there’s not one single mention of John Maclean, the great Scots-born revolutionary who favoured the perspective of a Scots Workers’ Republic. There’s not a single mention of the argument and agony his position caused or of the positions advanced against it.

There’s not a single mention of James Connolly, the Irish revolutionary, and his writings on the national question in Ireland. This is absolutely inexcusable in a book which pretends to deal with the Irish dimension to the present crisis.

True Tom Nairn does claim that only some forward development of the position advanced by Lenin can provide us with firm bearings for today. But even in his presentation of Lenin’s position and of the alternatives argued against it, Nairn does his readers no great service.

The Break Up of Britain paints no halfway adequate picture of how deep the divisions were, how sharply they were argued, what a matter of life and death for the revolutionary movement they really were.

We do hear that there was an argument between old Lenin and the Polish born revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg.

But we are not told how resolutely Luxemburg argued her position, how she insisted that the Bolshevik insistence on support for the inalienable rights of all people’s to self- determination played into the hands of ‘bourgeois nationalism’ and in her view caused the defeat of the revolution in Finland.

We do not hear about the searching argument that went on in the Bolshevik Party in 1917 after the publication of Lenin’s shattering April Theses for workers power and insurrection, and how that involved sharp debate on the national question.


Nor do we hear very much about how the Bolshevik policy on the national question was trampled on and destroyed by the rise of Stalinism. Instead Tom Nairn all the time seems to want to back away from this controversial issue. Is he concerned in case he might upset someone? Is he worried he might have to take sides?

In truth the Marxist tradition on the national question is not half the weakling that Tom suggests. Nor is Lenin’s position to be commended only for its ‘pragmatism’ and ‘tactical flexibility.’ That is not the essence of the man’s position, as Tom Nairn contends. On the contrary the essence of the position is the unshakeable commitment to international socialism, married and fused with the political vision to translate it into the harsh world of imperialism, chauvinism and racialism.

In the world in which we live each and every society is pinioned within the iron grip of international capitalism. To the vast multinational power of capital only one force can be counter-posed. That force is the international unity of the working class. Socialism therefore is international or it is nothing. Socialism sets out to abolish the antagonisms and divisions between the peoples of the world. Socialism means large units, closer and closer fraternal relationships between all countries and peoples. Ultimately it means, in the shape of fully flowered socialism itself, a United States of the World.

But ours will be free unions of free nations. There will be not a whiff or trace of chauvinism or national oppression about them. Unless they are free of these ‘qualities’ they will not survive. They will not be worthy of survival!

The greatest possible care must be taken in the practical translation of this policy. Again and again in all those countries and arrangements of states, the revolutionary elements must prove that they believe in the right of all peoples to decide their own future. They must never, even by default, place themselves in a position where it looks as if they are defending Westminster or any other Ministers’ exclusive right to set up a state.

That is the first half (and maybe more than half) of the treasure that is to be found in authentic Bolshevism.

The other part of the policy amounts to this. While we have nothing whatsoever in common with those who like Eric Heffer can only see working class unity within a Lands End-John O’Groats BRITISH context, our job isn’t only to fight British nationalism.

Above all we value the international unity of the working class. So we must fight for the closest possible alliance of workers irrespective of any-reshaping of the frontiers of individual states. We do not, and cannot, even unintentionally favour the Scottish employing class over the ‘British’ or ‘English’ version. We cannot vouch for any society over which any such people exercise any measure of control.


In his book Tom Nairn steers towards this position. But he also pulls away from it at crucial points, above all when he comes to write of Ireland.

In fact Tom Nairn sells the pass on Ireland. He is at once fascinated by the ‘strength’ of the Protestant working class and deeply hateful of the IRA. He insists that there is an Ulster nation. He argues that their ‘liberation’ is an important step on the road to socialism. He believes that the Ulster Workers Council and its strike of 1975 was a great step along the way, the greatest act of working class solidarity since the War. But what of Portugal? What of Hungary in 1956 or the days of Stettin?’

Sadly, shamefully Tom turns his wrath on the republican movement. They and Catholic nationalism, he claims, are the historical obstacle in Ireland’s path to socialism.

Where, oh where does imperialism come into this? Or the British Army? They don’t rate too much of a mention. And yet it was imperialism and partition which created the monstrous obstacles the workers of Ireland must overcome.


James Connolly saw the hellish prospect that was in store as early as 1910. He wrote about the prospect in his disturbing, prophetic Ireland upon the Dissecting Table to which Tom Nairn doesn’t accord a mention. It was probably this realisation of what partition would do which decided Connolly that the Easter Rising, risky perhaps even doomed as it was, was essential.

It is quite simply a disgrace that Tom Nairn should have spurned this history. In place of the bloody quagmire of history Tom has come up with a pleasing mental solution to the problem. There is just one problem with his ‘solution’. It is neither workable or creditable. It is a cosy comfortable cop-out which gets you off the hook at a price. The price is aligning yourself with those forces who have bled and exploited Ireland, and against those who want to fight it. The price isn’t only paid in terms of Ireland. It has to be paid in the Middle East and Southern Africa, indeed in every settler state.

Nairn’s writing on Ireland is also an excuse to give an outing to another aspect of his theory.

‘Together Bible fundamentalism and Union Jackery made impossible the formation of a normal national intelligentsia ... in Ulster ... The absence of an intellectual class explains the bowler hatted “inarticulacy” of the community in a public or historical sense.’

What patronising nonsense! Once again, it seems we are back to the supreme irony of history, an irony which becomes even more ridiculous when you remember that Tom Nairn contrives to attack sectarian Marxism as allegedly practised by the SWP among others. Yet his own notions of history are every bit as sectarian as anything to be found on the wildest shores of Trotskyism.

Just as Trotskyist sectarians believe that all that has ever been lacking in history for ‘normal’ development is the Party or the Programme, so too with our Tom. Only in his case it’s an ‘intellectual class’ or a ‘Marxist intelligentsia’ that failed to turn up for dinner.

Tom’s fundamental elitism comes through again and again if you read the book carefully and critically. And in Nairn’s case the inevitable consequence of this elitism is despair. That despair comes through very very clearly on page 248 where Nairn writes the following:

‘There is not much point in blaming intellectuals for being unable to make a revolution themselves; history has forced most of them to be content with home movies of the world revolution. But one may at least criticise the film.’

Such pathetic resignation is not at all necessary. There is in these islands today a chance to develop a new and full blooded socialist movement. Working-class people are casting off old ideas and looking round for new ones. The rise of the neo nationalist movement does eat away at the state form which has so long held us prisoner. So do the forces of multinational capitalism. So does the decline of Labour Party reformism!


In such a situation it isn’t sectarian to try to build a party. It is vital, perhaps even a matter of life and death given that the slow motion landslide is speeding up and other ghastly organisations are creeping on to the stage offering a future that begins at Nuremburg and ends at Belsen.

People like Tom Nairn could help build an alternative if they were a wee bit more humble and less anxious to strike a pose. If their Marxism is to mean anything they must come to terms with working class people as their audience. And for theoretical as well as practical reasons! After all, wasn’t it old Marx himself who after reading some all-knowing ‘Marxist’ publication of his own time commented: ‘I am not a Marxist’. The emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself. That is Marxism. All the rest is commentary!

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