Neil Davidson, Nation-states: Consciousness and Competition, Haymarket Books, Chicago, £16.99 9781608465682
Neil Davidson is probably the most influential socialist writer on the subject of nations and nationalism in Scotland today. His analytical power has made him a force not only in academia, where he has pushed the boundaries of nationalism studies in general and interpretations of Scottish national history in particular, but more importantly in political activism where he has helped to transform the left’s relationship to the national question.
The Radical Independence Campaign for instance, has been one of the most significant socialist projects in Scotland in recent years, and would have been unimaginable without the influence of Davidson’s ideas, particularly on the group of younger socialists who founded the campaign. It is perhaps remarkable, therefore, that in this period so dominated by the national question in Scotland that it has taken a US publisher to reproduce some of his finest essays on the questions of the nation, national consciousness and nationality.
Thankfully, Haymarket books have curated a magnificent selection of Davidson’s writings, exploring various aspects of nationhood and the under-explored yet vital subject of ‘national consciousness’. Nation-States: Consciousness and Competition also includes significant discussions of the relationship between capital and nation states and important subsidiary arguments on the relationship between nationalism and the enlightenment, the viability of ethnicity as a concept and the approach of the ruling class to far-right social movements (timely, as the book correctly treats the EU and Brexit as national questions).
Davidson’s analysis of nationhood and its historical and contemporary realities is a triumph of non-dogmatic historical materialism, tracing the development of nation states in tandem with the capitalist system and avoiding the popular temptation to read present and hegemonic notions and institutions, in this case nations and national consciousness, back into a history where they make no sense.
Davidson presents a strikingly different approach to most contemporary analyses of the Scottish national question, arguing convincingly that Scottish nationhood finds its origins after the Act of Union of 1707. He does so through an examination of the international pressures of the world system of the eighteenth century, as well as the material realities of Scotland the Britain at the time.
The implications of this theory, which is argued with daunting ferocity, are, of course, radical. They make resolution of the constitutional affair in Scotland a vital political question, and one that cannot be separated from the historical and present realities of British class society. But they also endanger a growing convergence of opinion, born of political expediency, between opponents and supporters of Scottish independence on the socialist left.
For left nationalists, the end of the Union represents simply the re-establishment of the historic Scottish nation, ‘extinguished’ in the treachery of 1707. The political priority of many left nationalists, thus, becomes independence for its own reasons. For left supporters of the Union, the modern origins of the Scottish nation make the independence movement objectively reactionary – a defiant march into the past in avoidance of the challenges the working class faces in the contemporary world.
Rather, Davidson’s theory allows for the appreciation of the independence movement as a moment of rupture against the British ruling class and its state, without assuming anything about the nature of the newly independent country or the necessity for nations to acquire statehood.
The inclusion in the volume of Davidson’s responses to the Communist Party’s John Foster, one of the few other Scottish socialist historians to seriously interrogate the origins of Scottish nationhood, displays Davidson’s devastatingly methodical powers of reason in laying out his argument.
In all this, the reader is struck by the almost frightening scale of the reading involved in each essay. It is tempting to imagine that even someone violently opposed to Davidson’s conclusions on the subject of nationhood could safely enjoy reading them. Yet, as alluded to before, Davidson’s arguments have a growing resonance in active left wing politics. His sophisticated Marxist understanding of the Scottish national question, and the theoretical apparatus that surrounds it, is key to making the left an effective force in an era when debates about nations and nationalism are moving to the centre of political discourse.
Sarah Collins is a ember of RISE and a founding member of Radical Independence Campaign