Tom Nairn: the world and Scotland too

David Hayes
2 June 2012

Perry Anderson, New Left Review

For originality of mind, Tom Nairn is without equal among his contemporaries. In fifty years, there has never been a time in my memory in which what he was saying went with the flow of opinion, on the left or at large. At the turn of the 1960s, he was the first to understand what would become of Labourism in Britain. He was the only voice to write powerfully in favour of Europe, at a time when the European project was universally suspect on the left. He pioneered critical retrospect of the United Kingdom, and scandalised people by looking forward calmly to its break-up, three decades ago. His great essay, "The Modern Janus", remains a landmark exploration of nationalism, the subject on which he has written most, and in its warmth most unfashionably. His stunning response to the world after 9/11 in openDemocracy started a new set of reflections, challenging conventionally progressive views once again, on the significance of boundaries for deep structures of human nature. All of this in a style of extraordinary vigour and beauty - and not least humour: writing as democratic as his own unswerving politics. One thinks: if only there were more like him. But that would be a contradiction in terms.

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Stephen Howe, Bristol University

Tom Nairn is one of the tiny handful of writers who have throughout my adult life - indeed pretty much from adolescence - reshaped the way I think at every stage, with every passing year, every new book, essay or review.

It was probably his amazing essay on Enoch Powell and English nationalism which made the first deep impression. At that point I knew nothing, and don't suppose I cared much, about Scotland or its politics. It was Nairn, with just a few others - Neal Ascherson comes especially to mind - who convinced me not only that Scotland mattered, but that what was happening there and in some other seemingly small places might be intellectually far in advance of the political mainstream in bigger countries. (As Hugh MacDiarmid wrote, smallness means insignificance or lack of richness only to those who will not look: "Our multiform, our infinite Scotland small?...")

The global reach of Nairn's thought, the astonishing range of reading, of interests and of knowledge, should be far better appreciated on an international scale than it is. He is too rarely acknowledged among the globally influential theorists of nationalism - perhaps partly because he never pursued a conventionally prestigious academic career, partly because he has simply had too many ideas. To be accepted as a major social or cultural theorist, a maitre a penseur, it seems advantageous to have just one big idea, and keep repeating it with slight variations all one's life. Tom Nairn has never done that, never apparently aspired to that kind of monumentality or stasis.

Rather, what has above all marked Nairn out, is the astonishing mobility of his thought. Even where he returns repeatedly to the same themes, there are constant transmutations, a kind of accumulation-through-variation. It's very organic: one can see multiple essays, over many years, as sprouting out and off from one another, like ever-varying, ever-renewed branches from the same great tree. Or a succession of extraordinary fireworks which, instead of going "bang" and then vanishing, are superimposed upon one another, hanging there in the sky together, an ever more intricate overlay and tracery, beautiful and sometimes just a bit scary.

The finest political essayist of his generation? The label is again too limiting, since he has been so much more than that. Tom might not much like the comparison, given that William Hazlitt wasn't noted for his love of the Scots, but perhaps he is the nearest thing our islands, in our time, have had to Hazlitt.

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Juliet Mitchell, Cambridge University

Dear Tom,

Happy birthday! But also the warmest congratulations on a surprisingly large number of extraordinarily impressive years of writing and being. I am in Bouzigues and the list of your articles won't open so this will have to be a personal letter. We go back well over forty years and to think back is to see thousands of bright spots in a tapestry, a number of first experiences that make the beginning of our friendship seem as though it took place in the infancy of our adulthood!

I ate my first mussels in mayonnaise in a Routier cafe that you had brilliantly selected by the roadside; read the early Marx stunned by the neatness of the notes in your copy; thought about the differences of industrial evolution and revolution from your lecture to Hornsey students; shared too large sardines in Vigo; laughed at the way you tied your shoes and encountered personal contradiction in your modest love of your immodest car. You were like a peapod who when shelled would burst out with wonderfully witty cannonballs (not peas) of iconoclasm.

The tapestry of more recent years is more evenly woven - Rhodes, Prato, Cambridge with Millicent ... all summer and sunny. In between, through the humps and heaves of life, for me you have always been there, a dear, dear friend. Above all, the fun and kindness of Saturday suppers at Ted and Peg's; your courage in nursing your parents in that cavernous flat in Edinburgh repeated so sadly with Chris and beyond. Your work is inspirational - and you are too.

With love,


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Anthony Barnett, openDemocracy

A 75th birthday calls for a little mischief. Tom was sacked as a lecturer from Hornsey College after he supported the students in 1968. The celebration of May ‘68 he then wrote with Angelo Quattrocchi, The Beginning of the End, takes a marvellous delight in the revolutionary impulse. Tom's essay in it is called "Why it happened". His first section, "The Totally Unexpected", explains that 1968 in France was not a revolution like 1789 because the student movement was too weak and secondary - but because it was "too big and too novel". Later he mocks the media's small-minded search for the movement's leaders. Then he turns to the French Communists.

"They fail to grasp its historical significance, as well as its immediate sociological nature. Student revolt is the self-definition of students as workers. It is the rejection of the entire, ancient, now phoney category of student-hood, the assertion that intellectual work is now what it is: the fabric of the new society. What misleads the managers of the Parti Communiste Francaise is that this self-definition - being a free action - is naturally that of the non-alienated worker. This is a creature they know nothing about. He would be less frightening if he was green and had six legs: then one could propose an official exchange of views, with an eye to peaceful co-existence. But these are real monsters, walking paragraphs from the 1844 manuscripts and the Grundrisse, the living accusation of all that western communism has become. They may be a time-bomb behind the eyes of western capitalism, tomorrow. It is the Communists who are threatened, today."

For such lèse-majesté he would not be forgiven; especially after leaving Marxism behind for its failure to welcome the singing hopes within the two-faced nature of national sentiment. For all its stupendous sweep and detail, Eric Hobsbawm's The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 - can read like a report to the central committee of the solar system on the balance of forces on planet earth. Its view of 1968 is that it "was neither an end nor a beginning, but only a signal." Yet in his bibliography of twenty-two pages and nearly 500 authors and books, Tom Nairn does not figure, despite the transparent reference to his claim.

This refusal is a sign of Tom's indigestible moral force. England-Britain does not have an intellectual philosopher-writer who is also a defining public intellectual; no Sartre or Habermas. Tom does not qualify for this even if he has named the place with his sobriquet Ukania. But in Scotland he does have such a presence (even if the country is too pinched and intolerant to accord him a recognised position). I have often been struck by what it means to other Scots that I am his friend. For example, in 1992 I organised some Charter 88 Sovereignty Lectures to large audiences in the Logan Hall. Shirley Williams gave one, with the rising star Tony Blair as one of her discussants. Afterwards he asked me, "Where did all these people come from?" It was a contrast to Gordon Brown who gave the opening lecture - which was the most packed of all. In it, he set out for the first time his engagement across the range of constitutional reform and the need for community (it has just been republished on the web). His first words to me afterwards were not about the thousand people but about one: "Was Tom Nairn here?"

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Christopher Harvie, MSP

Thirty-two years ago, there appeared the Red Paper on Scotland, 500-odd pages of minute-print sectarianism edited by the young student-rector of Edinburgh University, Gordon Brown. Tom Nairn's piece was easily the most readable thing in the book, and marked the Flying Scotsman's landfall on his native shores, after an earlier more sceptical bout with the beast, "The Three Dreams of Scottish Nationalism" of 1968.

Tom is now 75 but I doubt whether the soon-to-be-prime-minister will figure among the tributes. Gordon doesn't do gallantry (thank God) or wit. But two other sons of Kirkaldy do: Adam Smith punted a Chic Murray line in deadpan, while Tom - on, say, royal couture in The Enchanted Glass - is where Billy Connolly meets Karl Marx: what Gwyn Alf Williams (no mean performer himself) called his "psychiatric vocabulary".

Nairn sees his own style as derived from the French feuilleton. I would have drawn a parallel with a Scots tradition of flyting (unmannerly, elaborate argument: learned, passionate, witty) running from the Renaissance makars via Urquhart of Cromarty to Thomas Carlyle: the melding of theory and language, the taste for the explosive epithet, but also the compulsion to spring out of the prison of theory in search of new synergies.

"Are you, sir, a Red Progressional?" asks a peasant of a disguised king in Robert Louis Stevenson's Prince Otto. The memories go back: Nairn at South Edinburgh Labour Party meetings in the 1960s, irrupting at Woburn Sands in 1973, off to educate himself about the renascent national movement; a communard with Neal Ascherson, Isabel Hilton and Linda Myles in Edinburgh; getting the dispirited ranks into some sort of order after the 1979 referendum debacle. And later on the Forth coast, at Burg Hohenzollern and most recently (and quite unexpectedly) at his home town and my putative constituency, Kirkcaldy.

At Freudenstadt in 1994 he turned up, very ill, and gave, haltingly, "The Abbot of Unreason and the Lord of Misrule", a brilliant dissection of capitalism's dependence on morality-free microstates. Recollecting this, Australian Tom must be the same age as Rupert Murdoch. Think about that: the crushing of the easy, self-serving world of Metrolit between the pincers of Scots rationalism, left and right. Murdoch seems to be broiling in the moronic inferno he has crafted. Thanks to the Sage of Freuchie, Scotland, so far, hasn't been trampled to death by geese.

Funfundsiebzig und Keine bisschen leise! ("75 and as noisy as ever!") as the Germans would say. Well, some of us will move a motion to honour him in the Holyrood parliament. We fully expect a chorus of disapproval.

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Aviel Roshwald, Georgetown University

Among the professional hypocrisies that afflict academia, perhaps the most pervasive and endemic arises from the affectation whereby we set about unmasking the hidden motives and unspoken agendas underlying all manner of institutions, ideologies, and movements, while for our own part pretending to speak in the name of a dispassionate, social-scientific objectivity. Even more insidious is the posturing of postmodernists who implicitly claim ultimate truth value for their deconstruction of the very ideas of rationality and dispassionate inquiry.

It is, among other qualities, his impatience with both these stances that has made Tom Nairn such a refreshing presence in the republic of letters. Never one to hide his own passionate involvement with both Scottish nationalism and global issues of social and political justice, Nairn's scholarly and other writings over the decades can be read in part as a record of his own struggle to reconcile his rationalist understanding of the role played by material forces in shaping history with his personal experience of the power of cultural particularism, national loyalties, and seemingly primordial emotions in the molding of individual and collective identities.

His willingness to discard or modify previously held positions in light of new evidence and fresh insights has earned him accusations of heresy from those who are loath to diverge from the straight and narrow path of rigid ideological doctrine. Particularly shocking to some has been his increasing willingness over the years to postulate that nationalism may derive part of its continued strength not only from the specific dynamics of uneven global modernisation but also from the intersection of that process with universal human needs and sentiments that transcend any particular era.

To some, such analytical perspectives suggest an abandonment of the ethical commitment to humanity at large. And yet Tom Nairn has made a forceful and convincing case to the effect that only through an empathetic understanding and qualified embrace of nationalism can advocates of pluralistic and progressive values hope to anchor it in principles of democracy. Indeed, Nairn has suggested that, for all of the horrific abuses that have been committed in its name, without the national there can be no meaningful self in self-determination.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with him, it seems fair to say that it is precisely Tom Nairn's openness to new ideas and the sophistication and versatility with which he links them to their seeming opposites that lie at the root of his youthful intellectual vigor as he passes the three-quarters-of-a-century mark at full stride.

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A full list of Tom Nairn's articles on openDemocracy to date:
"Pariah Kingdom"
(May 2001)

"High Noon for the centre left"
(25 May 2001) – with Matthew d'Ancona, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, and Matthew Taylor

"The centre at the edge" (18 July 2001) – with Hugh Brody, Todd Gitlin, Anthony Barnett and David Hayes

"Black Pluto's door: after 11 September"
(4 October 2001)

"Turning-point politics: from salvaging the past to protecting the future"
(16 January 2002)

"The Lord of the Rings: ethnicity in your dreams"
(27 February 2002)

"The party is over" (May 2002)

"Just another country" (11 September 2002)

"America vs Globalisation " (a five-part essay, January-February 2003)

"Authoritarian Man: the Axis of Good"
(31 July 2003)

"The Free World's end?" (1 December 2004)

"Don't vote for Bullshit" (12 April 2005)

"Britain's tipping-point election" (June 2005)

"After the G8 and 7/7: an age of 'democratic warming'" (July 2005)

"On the beach: a bonfire of monarchies in Melbourne" (November 2005)

"Ending the big 'ism" (January 2006)

"Five down, two hundred-and-ninety-five to go" (12 May 2006)

"The Queen: an elegiac prophecy"
(27 September 2006)

"Not on your life"
(15 May 2007)

Pat Kane, Scottish Futures

One's surprise at news of Tom Nairn reaching 75 comes from the continuing vigour of his prose style, and the increasing relevance of his theories on nationalism - that is, as a steering mechanism for those who wish to handle modernity on their own, rather than imperial, terms.

If you read his London Review of Books review of Antonio Negri & Michael Hardt's Multitude ("Make for the Boondocks", 5 May 2005), you witness one titan of the old New Left generating more insight about the real political consequences of globalisation via his engagement with another (assisted by a younger colleague), than would a twelve-month overfunded think-tank symposium. Nairn doesn't just run a precise scholarly rule over a glamorous post-Marxism, he brilliantly identifies its appeal - as the desperate updaters of the 19th-century role of the intellectual, who now invoke the fusion of planetary networks with lifestyle militancy as their revolutionary subject, rather than the proletariat or the "people".

Yet Negri & Hardt's "globalisation", the perverse twin of the neo-liberal version, is as suppressive of genuine human diversity - of which one expression is nationalism - as the cold-war blocs it supersedes. Their contempt for European constitutional reform, whether bottom-up or top-down, brings this response from Nairn:

"Is it not reasonable to think that such struggles may, after the disappearance of Cold War shackles, result in attempts at new kinds of democracy, better forms of representation, closer links between societies and states? And that the smaller scale of such resolutions may be more favourable to experiments than the mastodons of earlier times? Or that armour-plated nationalism might, in these circumstances, give way to a more sustainable, outward-looking version?"

That's the authentic Tom - tenaciously unwilling, with all the force of the Scottish constitutional patriot that he is, to surrender a vision of small-nation modernity to any precipitate universalisers or globalisers, from right or left. When Nairn calls us in this piece "a necessarily disruptive and nomadic species", he includes the forming of combinations of culture, territory and political power - which may provide the resources out of which "nations" are formed - as part of that "necessary disruption". Another Nairn essay from the mid-1990s (published in the New Statesman) praised the fall of the tower of Babel in the old biblical mythology: using anthropology, he argued the need (against Marxist universalist historians like Eric Hobsbawm) for a "confusion of tongues" to properly energise human development.

Tom's consistent message - that time after time, the post-1945 nationalist impulse throughout the world has constantly been misunderstood by our Axes of Power - is never more borne out than in contemporary Iraq. Here, one "mastodon" state could only recognise another big state as legitimate, and thus found itself stunned by the emergent resurgence of ethnic-religio-regional enmities - suppressed and pathologised by a polity which was forged, in its initial case, in the cauldron of Empire.

Nairn is himself consistently misrecognised as purely a voice of Scottish political nationalism - though he is undoubtedly its most eloquent and world-class defender. But he is also, in the manner of Ernest Gellner, a highly original thinker about the quantity, and quality, of human collective development. If anyone needs their cell-ageing processes tampered with, to give him another seventy-five years of cogitation to help us negotiate this loomingly turbulent century, it's Tom Nairn.

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David Hayes, openDemocracy

A Scottish education in Scotland's capital city in the early 1970s still had no place for Scotland on the curriculum. In the event, the Scotland section of the public library on George IV Bridge became for years an auxiliary schoolroom. One book shines in the memory: Karl Miller's enthralling anthology of autobiographical essays, Memoirs of a Modern Scotland. The recollections of Hugh MacDiarmid, Alastair Reid, Muriel Spark, Wiiliam McIlvanney and Sorley Maclean sparked other journeys in tracing their own. Among them was a piece in a very different register, less intimate but in voice as much as subject compelling: Tom Nairn's The Three Dreams of Scottish Nationalism.

What stays with me is the shock of discovery. Here was someone writing about Scotland in a way that took the country seriously; someone who argued that its history belonged to the future as well as the past. How amazing was that!

Tom Nairn entered my life at that instant, and he has never left it. In that moment, I glimpsed what I had started to glimpse in MacDiarmid, Edwin Morgan and Liz Lochhead (also nowhere on the curriculum): that it was possible to be Scottish and part of the modern world.

Tom Nairn - along with other slayers of the tartan monster, Neal Ascherson in journalism, Murray Grigor in film, Christopher Harvie in the academy, Angus Peter Campbell in Gaeldom - taught me that point of origin could be a resource not a confinement, a route to dialogue with the world on equal terms not a cringing heritage-fest.

Fast-forward thirty years.

When one generation takes absolutely for granted what its predecessor fought from the ground of incomprehension upwards to establish, that is a sign of imperishable progress. It doesn't happen by itself; it takes intelligence, courage, single-mindedness, and far-sightedness. It is the hard work of pioneers, lighthouse-men and women. And it's only in recalling imaginatively the starting-point of the journey made that one can measure its true distance.

Tom Nairn opened the windows of Scotland and let the world in. He dragged us into a new relationship with the multiverse. He rethought nationalism, Britain, the monarchy, Europe, left and right. America, globalisation. He designed a map of the world where Caledonia was neighbour to Cambodia and Catalonia, and made that seem both natural and a challenge.

The most amazing thing of all is that he is still doing it.

A fabulous essay on Northern Ireland - also serendipitously discovered, in a magazine called Bananas - was subtitled "relic or portent?" Tom Nairn, you're all portent. You're so far ahead of us we'll spend a lifetime catching up.

The Sunday Post (to recall the notorious, French-revolution-derived sentence that concluded Three Dreams) limps on. There are rumours of one or two ministers still about. New monsters of the deep have emerged. But Scotland is a changed country able to think and talk about itself in ways made possible very largely by Tom Nairn's work. Sláinte to you, Tom, and to a fourth dream!

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