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Nationalism Against Marxism

John Sullivan

THE MOST common criticism of Marxism is that it is blind to the national question. The right wing of the labour movement takes that view to its logical conclusion by supporting its country’s rulers and their wars. Others, notably Otto Bauer, tried to remedy Marxism’s alleged deficiencies by devising a theory on the national question. Bauer’s theory was a weapon against internationalism, and a justification for Social Democrats to support their rulers. It remains an ingenious device to justify capitulation to imperialism, and a straitjacket for confused leftists.

Michael Löwy1 worries about the absence of a general theory of the national question or nationalism in the work of Marx and Engels, but he has created an imaginary problem, as "Nationalism" describes such diverse phenomena that a general theory is neither useful nor necessary. A nation is an imaginary construct, so it is not surprising that there is no agreement on what it consists of. "Nationalism", like Stalinism, is not a coherent doctrine but a political practice.

Löwy and his co-thinkers should not, however, be attacked as "revisionists" offending against Holy Writ, as the founding fathers could be wrong. Engels’ disapproval of the Ruthenian peasants for massacring the Polish gentry in 1846 seems misguided, and a little snobbish.2 However, we need not keep going on about it, as he did not advocate "gentry preservation" in principle.

Marx’s nationalist critics claim that the origins of nations go back to prehistory. Much of nationalist history tries to demonstrate the ripening of group identities into nationhood, but there is little evidence for that claim.

Otto Bauer sought an ancient lineage for national groups in order to explain conflicts produced by administrative changes made a few generations before his own time.3 Stalin, in Marxism and the National Question, agrees with Bauer that a nation is "a historically evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a community of culture". If a group claiming to be a nationality lacks one of these criteria it cannot join the club. Yet if you consult an atlas you will see that all actually existing nation states fail the test. Groups do not grow towards a preordained identity in the way that a child becomes an adult, and a self-conscious national/cultural identity generally emerges only when the culture is waning. Trying to revive it is like attempting to resuscitate a corpse. It is unkind to laugh at Americans in Europe searching for their roots, or Scots computer engineers wearing kilts, as these are merely naive versions of a general fallacy.

National groups are not preordained, but contingent and ill-defined. Thousands of ethnic groups have emerged and perished, and the "winners" who achieved national status did so largely because of outside events, not through an inherent logic of nation formation.

Even firmly established nationalisms have had "accidental" origins. Consider Euskadi/The Basque Country. The Basques in Northern Spain speak a non-Latin language, Euskara, but until the late 19th century this had no political significance. Although Saint Francis Xavier puzzled his Japanese converts by breaking into Euskara on his death bed, Basque servants of the Crown or Church were happy to use Spanish or Latin outside the family. However, when British capitalism developed the iron mines of Vizcaya in the 1880s, thousands of workers who moved there from elsewhere in Spain formed trade unions and a powerful Socialist Party. Carlism, the traditional Catholic form of reaction was an inadequate weapon to fight the "foreign" workers, as it supported Don Carlos’s claim to rule all Spain. Sabino Arana, the son of a Carlist family, learned Euskara, designed a national flag and imported the, then new, racial concepts, in support of his claim that the immigrants were racially inferior. Basque nationalism is now the most vital in Western Europe, where ETA is joint leader with the IRA in the armed struggle league.

Nationalists argue that although fully fledged nationalism did not emerge until the French revolution, the ethnic groups which eventually formed nations were taking shape much earlier. They see the struggles of Scots weavers against their employers, Greek bandits pursuing their customary trade, or Catholic Basques opposing Liberalism, as steps in achieving that destiny. In reality those conflicts were usually just what they seemed, not manifestations of proto-nationalism.

Nationalist theory assumes that humanity is divided into distinct groups, each with an identity/culture and community of interest. Such groups used to be described as "races". When "race" developed unpleasant connotations it was replaced by "ethnicity", a term which suggests that group identity is not exclusively biologically based. But, substituting "ethnicity" for "race" does nothing to fight racism. Everyone knows that the divisions between warring groups in the Balkans are not "racial", but faced with murderous group conflict the point seems pedantic.

In reality nations or ethnic groups are generally built from above and, until modern times, were rather fluid. Although the Bible has the Israelites demanding that Samuel give them a King,4 the opposite usually happened. A powerful warrior would gather people round him, so creating the "ethnic" group from above, often from very varied elements. Modern historical and archaeological research does not support the idea that the population of the British isles, for example, was formed by waves of invaders of distinct ethnic groups (Celts, Saxons, etc).

Almost any characteristic can be advanced as a pretext to justify the claim to be a nation. Take, for example, The South Moluccans. After World War II , when the Dutch lost control of their East Indian empire, some of their local troops from South Molucca were settled in Holland with their families. By 1966 young people from that community, angry about oppression and poverty, turned to militant nationalism, armed struggle, kidnapping and hijacking. Rival governments in exile emerged, one in New York, the other in Benin. Inevitably, the Fourth International gave the emerging nation critical support. The community suffered real oppression, but was nationalism a better strategy than a struggle for civil and economic rights?

Or consider The Lazi, a Turkish group with a distinct dialect and some less distinct customs. Wolfgang Fuerstein, a German anthropologist, decided that their dialect qualified as a language, and that they were, therefore, a distinct people whose national identity should be recognised. He won the support of Neil Ascherson, a journalist on the Observer, for the Lazi cause. Fuerstein created an alphabet which allowed Lazuri to be written for the first time. Most Lazi were indifferent, feeling themselves to be Turkish and Muslim, although some of the secularised diaspora in Istanbul were interested and published a periodical in 1993-4 using Fuerstein’s alphabet. Things might well remain there, but can we be sure that this is not the beginning of a national liberation movement?

The Lemkos, sometimes called Rosyn, live mainly in the Ukraine and Poland and are generally regarded as Ukrainian. However, Robert Magosci, a Toronto-based academic, has decided that they are a distinct, separate group with more in common with Danubian people. Ukrainians have a hard time in present day Poland, so downplaying that identity might seem a good idea, except that Polish nationalists are able to hate more than one group of people at a time.

It would be wrong to see Magosci and Fuerstein as cynical entrepreneurs. Magosci’s ideas will not endear him to the rich Canadian Ukrainians who fund research in his field, while Fuerstein is now unable to conduct fieldwork in Turkey. Are they, and Ascherson, therefore harmless nutters? Hardly. The Turkish state has not yet persecuted the Lazi, but any threat to its territorial integrity would change that. Caution might be advisable. Both Turkey and Poland are part of the "free world", so NATO will not support minority national aspirations.

Nationalists claim that the contours of genuine nation states are fairly clearly based on geography, ethnicity or language, and those criteria will seldom be in conflict, so it is usually easy to detect bogus claimants to national status.

So, consider The Northern League. Italy, the centre of the Roman Empire, with rather clear geographical boundaries, was once the very model of the modern nation state. Byron thought a free Italy would be the "poetry of politics", and its unification in 1870 aroused enthusiasm well beyond its borders. There must be few places less favourable to a nationalist breakaway. Yet, a series of corrupt governments and the political incapacity of the workers’ parties allowed a regionally based Northern League to invent a separate ethnic identity, mount a chauvinistic campaign against southerners and become a serious electoral force.

Those examples are not especially bizarre. If we examine the origins of practically any claim to nationhood we will find similar absurdities.

The triumph of nationalism leaves no space for those without a territory. Early in the 20th century, as the Austro-Marxists developed a policy which allotted most people a nationality, they decided that the Jews did not qualify. That was hard luck as most nationalists did not want them in their club. This time round, in spite of the vastly increased number of nations touting for members, not everyone is accepted and the future looks bleak for failed candidates such as the Kurds.

Gypsies suffer increased persecution in Kosova, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic, with very little complaint from advocates of national liberation. How could this be otherwise, when the new states are defined by ethnicity? There is no need to deny the prejudice and discrimination under Stalinist or Hapsburg regimes to realise that in this respect their successors are worse. The new regimes cannot accept "fuzzy" situations where a national identity competes with other identities, linguistic, religious or whatever.

Nationalists claim that while conflict between imperial states and oppressed nations is to be expected, conflict between small nation states and ethnic groups within them is much less likely. This is self-evident nonsense. Anyone who believes it, does not read the newspapers.

Nationalists argue that people long to have their very own nation state, and that their struggle to get it should be supported. They believe that hostility to national aspirations explains the collapse of the USSR and its Eastern European satellites, which like other multi-national states are seen as artificial creations and seething cauldrons of ethnic hatred. The Stalinist episode, like colonialism, was an interruption to a natural process.

In fact, the "nation states" which succeeded the USSR are based on the administrative divisions within it, not on pre-existing proto-nations. Elites opposing the regime turned (quite late) to organise regionally. Nationalism was a source of legitimation even if it had to be created in a hurry. All of the "nation states" which emerged are really heterogeneous – fortunately for the ruling elites, as it gives them minorities to persecute. As nationality is the criterion for belonging, a non-national is untrustworthy by definition.

Just as the new nations which emerged after World War I were set up by the victors in that war as bulwarks against the spread of revolution, the emergence of new states from the wreckage of the USSR and Yugoslavia has been determined by the Western powers through their agencies, NATO and the IMF, not by the slow ripening of national feeling. Bauerists, fixated on imaginary ancient identities, have little interest in the external factors which shape the world. Of course, a state cannot be formed overnight, but Bosnia demonstrates that six weeks is nearly enough. If the Russian Federation, or the Congo, is the next to be dismantled it will owe more to such external factors than to ancient national identities.

Well-funded corporations, cultural bodies, "non-government" organisations and charities are busy spreading ethnic hatred in the former Soviet bloc. As an ethnic identity is always a consciousness of difference from others, the line between celebration of a culture and hostility to those who do not share it is hard to draw.

Significantly, the neo-Austro-Marxists have little to say on the need for a unified market, which was one of the main reasons for early Marxists to favour large units (but not nationalism): for example, the amalgamation of the petty German principalities. "Classical" nationalists sought state control of foreign trade, and the imposition of tariffs to protect native industries from foreign competition. The rulers of most new nations want none of this.

Is the SNP’s fight to preserve the Scots’ regiments in the British army a nationalist demand? As the new Bosnian state’s constitution specifies that the head of the national bank shall not be a Bosnian citizen, is it really a nation state? The reduced powers of modern states mean that their rulers will emphasise the few which remain. They may be forbidden to set the exchange rate for the currency, but they will still be allowed to persecute "their" citizens and refugees fleeing from NATO’s wars.

What would be achieved by abandoning the search for a general theory of nationalism? In a sense, nothing. Real world problems would not vanish, but they could be addressed with sober senses, free from the prevailing ideological straitjacket. English fans of foreign nationalisms are like the Manchester United fans who have never been to Manchester, but do not like their local team. They could adopt another hobby.


1. Michael Löwy, Fatherland or Mother Earth, Chapter 2.

2. "The Magyar Struggle", cited in R. Rosdolsky, Engels and the "Non-Historic" Peoples (Critique 18-19), p.59.

3. Jon Breuilly, Nationalism and the State, pp.322-5.

4. I, Samuel, 8.