Unidentified National Objects

Ian McKay, Raphael Samuel
1991 Labour (Halifax)  
Raphael Samuel, éd., Patriotism: The Making and Unmaking of British National Identity. I-.History andPolitics. II: MinoritiesandOutsiders. Ill: National Fictions (London and New York: Routledge 1989). THERE ARE 57 ARTICLES, together accounting for over a thousand pages, in this History Workshop examination of patriotism. A diligent reader will emerge with fresh insights into the mythical John Bull and Britannia, into reggae and into "Greensleeves, n into Joseph Conrad and into the English
more » ... o the English country garden. Here, as one has come to expect from History Workshop, are pages crowded with detail and brimming with life. They range from engaging first-person accounts of childhood and adolescence to highly abstract discussions of literature, from left-wing polemics against demagogic nationalism to pristinely academic dissections of obscure texts and mythologies. Some of the essays are fairly venerable reprints from other books, others are lightly edited comments from the 1984 Workshop which preceded this collection. One pulls up several old boots (the research for one piece was done in 1966!) and numerous new and undeveloped minnows when fishing in this vast heterogeneous collection, but when there is so much, and so much that is richly nourishing and suggestive, it seems almost churlish to lodge the inevitable complaints about unevenness, or to bemoan the looseness of the conceptualization, the self-indulgently confessional and "amateur'* tone, and the complacency with which utterly opposed readings of nationalism and history are merely juxtaposed and never compared or assessed, or to lament the vagueness of the entire project's Ian McKay. "Unidentified National Objects." Labour/U Travail, 28 (Fall 1991), 285-94. 286 LABOUR/LE TRAVAIL definition. (We never learn, for example, just what is meant by die phrase "national identity" which supposedly refers to the phenomenon whose "making and unmaking" we have been tracking over a thousand pages.) This is empiricist social history, theory, debates over method, definitions, and ideological starting-points are all obscured by the luxuriant undergrowth of empirical detail and fascinating anecdote. It makes for a wonderful, if often quite perplexing, read. Where there is no unifying theory, decisions to include or exclude readings can and do seem capricious. This is most clearly the case in Vol. 2, on "Minorities and Outsiders," by far the weakest of the three, which reprints old stuff and dismisses die inconvenient Celtic fringe with two short articles, one an overly detailed examination of the exhausted topic of Sir Walter Scott, and die other a crudely utilitarian and panglossian apologia for die marginalization of die Welsh language. Perplexing, contradictory, fascinating, and occasionally dazzling: die qualities of Uùs heterogeneous collection are like those of die nationalism it explores. The reader is advised to read Samuel's introductory essay and men pick and choose from die following volumes those pieces which pertain most to his or her own interests. Nationalism and "National questions" have long represented one of die most glaring deficiencies of Marxist dieory and die historiographies dependent on it. Marx proclaimed that workingmen had no country, dien proceeded to counsel die proletariat to become die first class in die nation: and Marxists since Marx have been no less contradictory, as they have inched towards a comprehension of nationalism diat avoids die twin traps of economism and elitism (compellingly intertwined when die Marxist theorist assumes die noble mande of die Enlightenment and, from his or her position high above die cut and timist of political debate, adjudicates die various degrees of "progressiveness" -or even die ontologkal status -of whatever nationalism has reached die top of die agenda). Marxist political economy and much marxist labour history dispenses witii die national problem by placing national identity under a ceteris paribus clause. It is a simple matter of commonsense, of "pragmatic research strategy," to take national definitions for granted -to begin ("since one must begin somewhere") witii die nation-state as a given. Odier tilings being equal: die définirions of political economy work most happily when tiiere is an unproblematical national boundary enclosing diem. One speaks quite easily, for example, of Canadian working-class history, and proceeds to use categories from political economy and labour history, often developed in odier national contexts, to construct die narrative of dus "Canadian working class," which is taken to be a real entity widi a history, common traditions, unifying interests. Yet how do we mean tiiis word "Canadian?" Does it merely define a local stage where die universal and international drama of class formation happens to unfold (but dien why should die marxist internationalist focus on so small and insignificant a stage?) Or does the Canadian stage structure in some sense the content of the unfolding class drama? An Enlightenment Marxism, disdainful of nationalism, particularism, and regionalism, instructs die labour UNIDENTIFIED NATIONAL OBJECTS 287 historian to marginalize questions of belonging which do not stem from class (or, today, "class-and-gender"). Yet, as often as it is expressed, the national question returns: it haunts the very definition of the central category of our analysis, "the Canadian working class," in which an ostensible internationalism is subverted by the (problematical and contestable) nationalist assumption that there is in a singular Canada such a unified social entity as "a" nation: that boundaries of class and "nation" (however defined) somehow coincide and reinforce one another. A kind of nationalism has been naturalized through the unexamined use of a highly ambiguous adjective. Canadian working class history remains a deeply ambiguous and problematical phrase. These conceptual difficulties are not ours alone: there are plainly many parallels in Britain. Raphael Samuel's introduction to Vol I is exemplary for honestly facing up to the dilemma faced by History Workshop in analyzing the problematical concept of the British national identity. The project of "People's History" contributed, he argues, to a certain nostalgic folk nationalism, in its fascination with the peculiarities of the English. Thus any debunking of "Englishness" would come perilously close to bringing the whole trajectory of History Workshop into question. Radical history has its own doctrines of essentialism, its own ways of assigning people in the past to their positions at the "core" and at the "periphery" of historical significance. Enthusiasm for the "Freeborn Englishman" appealed to the notion of a national essence of individual rights and freedoms; painstakingly detailed reconstructions of rural villages suggested a "true" English countryside. Samuel balks at the "invention of tradition" approach, which had initially inspired some of the contributors to the Workshop. (One could envisage an invention of die "English tradition" to parallel Trevor-Roper's famous dissection of the Highland Tradition of Scotland). For Samuel, what is wrong with the "invention of tradition" is that, in die case of England, national "traditions" are often of considerable age, and the approach does not lend itself to perceptive analysis of the uses to which various traditions are put Yet Samuel clarifies the reasons for his rejection of the "invention of tradition" school, when he equates it with "debunking" or even with "deconstruction" (an equation which Trevor-Roper and Eric Hobsbawm might find rather mystifying). The critique of the "invention of tradition" (which in fact relativizes only certain wounded minority traditions, leaving unscathed the esteemed academics' own, and which implies a "natural" division between traditions invented and those somehow "uninvented") could have been taken in a very different and more interesting direction than this. In the end, and with many reservations, Samuel still wants to preserve the oneness of the nation, whose molecules and organs, in all their plurality, are visualized (via Edmund Burke) as the "little platoons" of a comprehensible British whole. There seems to be no underlying ideological orientation to this collection, and yet again there is: the radical pluralism of post-Marxist social theory provides the writers with an implicit vocabulary, and underwrites the (implicit) idea that first-person confessions and narratives are entitled to the same consideration as the
doi:10.2307/25143516 fatcat:uj2fbamrobfxvdkfj5ejv42q2u