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Nationalist Movements in Comparative Perspective

Daniele Conversi, The Basques, the Catalans and Spain: Alternative Routes to Nationalist Mobilisation, Hurst & Company, 1997. Paperback, 312pp, £15.00. Gershon Shafir, Immigrants and Nationalists: Ethnic Conflict and Accommodation in Catalonia, the Basque Country, Latvia and Estonia, State University of New York, 1995. Paperback, 279pp, £15.99.

Reviewed by John Sullivan

BOTH THESE books employ the comparative method which assumes that, by contrasting distinct situations, differences will be highlighted and light will be shed on each. Conversi chooses the Basque country and Catalonia, the most important regional nationalisms within Spain, on the grounds that the similarities derived from being economically developed regions within the same state should highlight the differences. In The Basques... chunks of history and sociology from both areas are regurgitated. We are told that Catalonia has an old literary language and culture, while the Basque language, Euskera, was until recently a peasant tongue, which has yet to produce a substantial literature, something known to anyone with a nodding acquaintance with either.

Anyone who has read Marriane Heiberg’s, The Making of the Basque Nation, would learn very little on the Basque country from Conversi’s book. There is nothing as good on Catalonia in English, but reading a comparative study seems a roundabout way of learning about the area. The author’s method does not enable him to focus on the crucial aspects of either region. There are terribly plodding accounts of Catalan literature, but no extracts which would convince a sceptic of its value, so the effect is to give credence to the prejudice of other Spaniards that Catalans are intrinsically boring. On the Basque country there is enormous detail on Krutwig, an ETA theoretician of the 1960s, which fails to convey the lunacy of his ideas, while there is too little on economic and social developments. There is no clear cut-off point and surprisingly little attempt to get up to date. The book is the product of a doctoral thesis at the once prestigious London School of Economics.

Shafir has attempted a more difficult task in comparing not just nationalist movements, but immigrant and national minorities within them. He chose Catalonia, the Basque country, Latvia and Estonia because they are economically developed areas of larger states. He contrasts the open attitude of Catalan nationalism, eager to claim immigrants as Catalans, to the desire of early Basque nationalists to use the Basque language as an instrument to exclude immigrants from the local community, and notes that that attitude has softened in recent years. He argues that the different approaches reflect the contrast between a Catalan bourgeoisie, confident of its economic position and its developed language, and Basque rural elites trying to maintain their privileges against modernising forces in a region where Spanish had been the language of commerce and government for centuries. Shafir argues that immigrants will be keener to learn the local language where it promises economic advancement and is the language of the local elite. All of this is convincing. His Basque material is generally accurate and where it seems dated that is a consequence of a rapidly changing situation.

When it comes to the Baltic states (Lithuania is not studied) the situation is so different that the choice of countries to compare seems arbitrary. Estonia and Latvia had been part of the Czarist empire, but had become independent states in the interval between the World Wars, before being annexed by the Soviet Union in 1945. In their first incarnation they had been rather tolerant of large national minorities. In contrast, the states which have emerged from the break-up of the Soviet Union have ferociously intolerant nationality laws, denying citizenship to people whose grandparents arrived after 1940. Shafir describes an ethnic division of labour where Russians and other Slavs tended to be employed in heavy industry tied to plants in other Soviet republics. The collapse of the Soviet Union threatened such people with the loss of both jobs and citizenship.

Do the nationalist movements studied here indicate that the nation is a community of destiny as both Otto Bauer and José Antonio Primo de Rivera maintained? Estonian and Latvian nationalism allowed local elites, many of whom had been advocates of market forces in the Soviet Union, to escape from the centrally planned economy. Is it more useful to see nationalism as a tool which can be used for a variety of purposes?

The comparative method is a godsend for research students searching for a research topic once most nationalisms have been studied, but otherwise it is of little value. Shafir’s observations on Estonia and Latvia are interesting but the Spanish situation is so different that the comparisons he makes are of limited value. His contention that Catalan nationalists, secure in their established culture, have been anxious to integrate the immigrants, while Basque nationalists have often shown a Thatcherite fear of being swamped, is generally accurate, but this can change. A recent study showed that less than 42 per cent of those arrested for ETA activities had exclusively Basque names, while a new Catalan ordinance will make it an offence for a shopkeeper not to display notices in Catalan.

Marxism, Philosophy and Dennett

Daniel C. Dennett, Brainstorms, Penguin, 1997. Paperback, 377pp, £12.50

Reviewed by Tony Whelan

DANIEL C. DENNETT is an articulate, middle-aged, American professional philosopher, with a pleasing literary style. His 1995 book on Darwin and evolution was published in this country as a hardback [2] to ecstatic reviews. By contrast with many much-talked-about science books, which affect non-scientists’ coffee-tables more than their reading habits, it is a science best-seller that people actually seem to have read. Its commercial success as a paperback (whereon those reviews are excerpted [3]) must have led Penguin paperbacks to republish Dennett’s earlier (1978) book about the mind [4]. This is a collection of essays and lectures, some dating from the very early 1970s, which carry the signatures of their time and place of origin as well as of their author. Where previously published, they first appeared in American academic philosophy journals, while the lectures appear to have been delivered to audiences of philosophy students.

The likeable signatures include lucid writing, good jokes, of which those about Watergate and the death of Jack Ruby may puzzle a generation younger than this reviewer, and a humane tone that probably predominated in the works of young American academics at the times of writing, but is frequently absent from both earlier and later works. The language, on the other hand, seems archaic, since the book largely predates the influence of 1970s feminism, and is replete with tacit assumptions that an individual human is a male.

Dennett’s subject-matter includes psychology, analogies between the human mind and computers, the artificial intelligence (AI) project within computing, and of course language, which has rightly preoccupied philosophers, computer scientists and specialist mathematicians since at least the 1890s. Today’s widespread availability of personal computers, and their use in many workplaces, may make Dennett’s extensive references to computing a positive selling point. In combination, the attractive signatures (probably still attractive to a late ’90s British readership), the computer-related selling point and the success of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea are likely to make Brainstorms another commercial success. But whether it is fated to be widely read as well as purchased I rather doubt.

For it really is written for professional philosophers. Many of the discussions it contains require considerable familiarity with the work of other philosophers, or with the borderline area of mathematics that straddles logic, "foundations" and computing. References, for example, to Church’s Thesis (in the mathematics of computability) and to the work of the martyred gay English mathematician Alan Turing (whose archetypal and abstract Universal Machine can in principle mimic the activities of any digital computer) will be hard going for any non-specialist, despite Dennett’s lucid explanations.

From the standpoint of revolutionary socialism, this is probably a pity. For any serious revolutionary needs to address the question, why has the working class in the major "advanced" countries failed to be as rebellious against the capitalist system as anticipated and hoped by the founders and major protagonists of Classical Marxism? There are, of course, numerous attempts both to answer that question and to explain it away, including the Leninist idea of a labour aristocracy (some insights, but fundamental flaws) and the world-embracing conspiracies against the self-appointed leaders of the working class that figure in the belief-systems of the more absurd Trotskyist sects (no insights, only flaws). Yet far too many of those attempts utilise concepts of human beings, and of Laws of social development, which treat people (except the enlightened few making the attempt) as close approximations to the "particles" of classical mechanics, and hence as subject to Laws characterised by both the simplicity and the ineluctable inevitability of Newton’s "F=mv".

In the real world, both revolutionaries and the rest of the human race are decision-taking, purposive protagonists of their own fates, in circumstances they can only partially control, and an important merit of Dennett’s philosophy is that he treats them as such. The concept of "intentionality" is central to his work, and although in his usage the term is technical, and refers to linguistic entities, it is related (more closely than Dennett, perhaps, concedes) to the day-to-day concept of an individual’s intentions or purposes.

So parts of Dennett’s discussion can be useful to revolutionary socialists, if hardly indispensable. On the other hand, the view of human beings which informs both Brainstorms and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea has serious flaws, of which one is shared by a large number of (capital "M") Marxists, including most mainstream Trotskyists, and one is, to my surprise, even endorsed by an eminent academic writing on behalf of the British Socialist Workers Party [1]. To take the latter first, it involves the relationship between the theories by which people seek to understand some aspect of the universe and the actual development of that aspect: precisely, it involves Dennett’s criticisms of the left-wing American scientist Stephen J. Gould, and of his emphasis on the role of "contingency" in evolutionary history.

Gould’s idea is expounded at great length in the magnificent Wonderful Life [6], and his replies to Dennett’s criticisms [7, 8] also cover other points of their dispute about evolution which lie outside the scope of this review. (They are well worth reading, along with Dennett’s response [5], in a local reference library if nowhere else.) Gould argues that, if the "tape" of evolution was "rerun" for, say, the last thousand million years, the outcome in terms of present-day species would be significantly different from what we find here and now. Human beings, in particular, are neither the aim nor the apotheosis of the evolutionary process. The essence of Gould’s argument is actually a point of (non-formal) logic, namely that any predictive theory about any aspect of the universe contains – usually implicitly, preferably explicitly – a ceteris paribus clause: the assumption that, other things being equal, the passage of a given amount of time, starting from specified initial conditions, will necessarily bring about specified final conditions. (The branch of modern mathematics known as Chaos Theory also reminds us that, in any complex system, what is known and specified about the initial conditions will be abstracted from what is being described, and hence both a simplification and an approximation. This accounts for the celebrated "butterfly effect", according to which a butterfly flapping its wings in Wigan can trigger the onset of monsoons in south-east Asia.)

The Socialist Workers Party’s Alex Callinicos rejects Gould’s ideas about contingency [1, pp.109-113], accusing him of playing into the hands of "post-modernists happy to use the writings of a leading scientific populariser to prove that natural as well as human history is nothing but the play of ‘contingency’" [ibid, p.113]. This seems to me a fundamental error with far-reaching consequences for revolutionary practice, for the logic of Callinicos’ argument is also Dennett’s: that the real history of evolution can be understood solely by reference to explanations internal to the mechanisms specified in evolutionary theory (i.e. Darwinian natural selection and its relatives); while the logic of Gould’s position is that explaining real history also requires us to take account of mechanisms external to that theory. The political analogue would be (and, alas, occasionally is) to assert that Britain is capitalist, Italy is capitalist, and that nothing else needs taking into account in explaining the history of or in deciding on strategy and tactics in, whichever country one is discussing. On such a version of Marxism, facts such as modern Italy’s republican constitution, or the widespread corruption that have marred its national political life throughout the last half century, are trivial features that do not distinguish that country in any important fashion from the United Kingdom (recent Dianolatry notwithstanding). The specific, concrete features of Italy or the UK – inexplicable within a general theory of "capitalism", but of vital import in real political work – are hard to handle on such a basis.

Of course Alex Callinicos, and the SWP, would not go so far as the position just outlined (at least not explicitly), but the logic of Callinicos (and Dennett) pushes them in that direction. Over racism, which the SWP genuinely detests, an inability adequately to distinguish the specific, concrete positions of black and of white working class people in Britain has certainly got it into deep trouble in, for example, its handling of the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence.

And the other common error, which might conveniently be labelled "singular dualism", is a pervasive feature of modern western thought, influencing Dennett’s Brainstorms and Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-criticism alike, and (probably by the Argument from Authority) finding its way also into Callinicos’ discussion. In the latter’s rendering, "human thought and language ... beliefs and desires point beyond themselves to the world" [1, p.108, added emphasis], and the difficulties involved are twofold. In the first place, the thoughts, languages, beliefs and desires of human beings are part of the world, as well as (often) pointing to the rest of it, so that Callinicos’ formulation, and those of far too many other revolutionaries, build into the very bases of their thought the profound disadvantages of (philosophical) dualism which they would elsewhere explicitly disavow. And in the second place, for any individual human (or small group of humans), that rest of the world includes billions of other people. Effectively neglecting the fact that others have thoughts and desires, and are acting in and on the world, is an error found far too often amongst Revolutionary Marxists: how often have we heard or read a political "leader" arguing that some policy, such as calling for a General Strike, is "objectively correct" despite the overwhelming neglect by which the slogan is greeted? If the same leader came along and advocated an "objectively correct" way of driving from Hackney to Halifax, regardless of the intentions and actions of other drivers along the route, we would doubtless go by train and not his minibus (it’s usually "his"). But traditions dating back to the early Comintern too often require dedicated activists to turn in practice into voluntarist semi-solipsists, driven by false expectations that a few more papers sold, a few more slogans expounded, a few more revisionists exposed, and The Revolution Will be With Us.

Dennett’s book, therefore, is worth a read, if you’ve lots of time for reading. But if your shelves (like mine) are brimming with things you ought to read but haven’t, and if you would like a science book that will help understand society today as well as dinosaurs one hundred million years earlier, put Gould’s Wonderful Life on the top of your pile "to read".


1. Alex Callinicos, "Minds, machines and evolution: a reply to John Parrington and Joe Faith", International Socialism 74, 1997, pp.101-116.

2. Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Allen Lane the Penguin Press, 1995.

3. Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Penguin, 1996.

4. Daniel C. Dennett, Brainstorms, Penguin, 1997.

5. Daniel C. Dennett, "‘Darwinian Fundamentalism’: an Exchange", New York Review, 14 August 1997, pp.64-65.

6. Stephen J. Gould, Wonderful Life, Penguin, 1991.

7. Stephen J. Gould, "Evolution: the pleasures of pluralism", New York Review, 26 June 1997, pp.47-52.

8. Stephen J. Gould, "‘Darwinian Fundamentalism’: an Exchange", New York Review, 14 August 1997, p.65.

How Should We Defend the October Revolution?

John Rees with Robert Service, Sam Farber and Robin Blackburn, In Defence of October, Bookmarks, 1997. Paperback, 137pp, £4.50.

Reviewed by Bob Pitt

THIS BOOK, published to coincide with the eightieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, brings together a number of articles that originally appeared in the Socialist Workers Party’s publication International Socialism in 1992. It provides a reminder of the fact that while the SWP’s practical politics may be a bit on the puerile side, its theoretical journal is usually worth a read.

The main article, which occupies two-thirds of the book and gives the collection its title, is by leading SWPer John Rees. It represents a concerted attempt to defend the October Revolution against its detractors on both the right and the left. This is followed by critical responses from the anti-communist historian Robert Service and from two ex-Trotskyists – Sam Farber and Robin Blackburn. The book closes with the article "Dedicated Followers of Fashion", Rees’s reply to his critics.

Any revolutionary worth the name should sympathise with Rees’s concern to uphold the honour of Bolshevism. The collapse of the Soviet Union into capitalist restoration has given renewed life to all the old anti-Leninist slanders, and many socialists, far from standing out against this, have bent with the prevailing ideological wind. But the question is – does Rees’s approach provide an effective defence of October?

In part, it does. The research which went into writing the article is impressive and Rees (or his collaborators – half a dozen of the SWP’s intellectuals are credited for their assistance) provides a lot of useful information. But the end result is an almost entirely uncritical attitude to the Bolsheviks which, I would argue, undermines the author’s case.

By 1921 the situation in Russia was catastrophic, and genuine workers’ democracy was impossible in such conditions (aside from anything else, there were hardly any workers left to exercise it). But the subjective response of the Bolsheviks to this situation was, by any honest evaluation, characterised by an excess of authoritarianism, which they tended to justify as an essential feature of the proletarian dictatorship.

A number of questions arise from this. Was the Kronstadt rebellion dealt with correctly? Did the Workers’ Opposition have to be banned? Was it necessary to suppress the left Mensheviks? And isn’t it possible to answer all of these questions in the negative and still defend the October Revolution?

One of Rees’s critics, David Finkel, whose article "Defending ‘October’ or Sectarian Dogmatism?" in International Socialism 55 is not reprinted here, hit the nail on the head: "It is as if the entire ’defence of October’ depends on upholding the Bolsheviks’ correctness at every significant moment, aside from purely tactical matters. This is a brittle orthodoxy indeed: it seems to say that if at any point there were principled violations of revolutionary democracy by Bolshevism in power up to (say) the early NEP, the whole case for the revolution may crumble."

This is no individual error on John Rees’s part, for a refusal to admit to any serious mistakes by the Bolsheviks characterises most of the Trotskyist groupings today. A few years ago, when the book The Serge-Trotsky Papers was published, not a single Trotskyist publication in Britain, to my knowledge, was prepared to admit that Serge was correct against Trotsky on any of the disputed issues concerning the degeneration of the October Revolution. (The exception to this was a critical defence of Serge in Workers’ Liberty by Tony Dale, who for his pains was given a severe ticking off by one of the organisation’s apparatchiks in the following issue.)

One critic whose contribution to the International Socialism debate does appear in this volume, Sam Farber, counterposes to Rees’s orthodoxy a more nuanced analysis which he claims is based on Victor Serge. My view is that Farber’s own book, Before Stalinism, in fact derives from a rather one-sided interpretation of Serge’s legacy. But I would agree with him that this provides the basis for a more fruitful approach to the subject.

Farber, who in the early 1960s was involved with the SWP’s predecessor organisations, the Socialist Review Group and the International Socialists, also points out that this tendency once held a view of Bolshevism which drew precisely on the critical tradition associated with Serge or Rosa Luxemburg. The reason for the change of line is not hard to find. When Tony Cliff ditched the libertarianism of the old IS and set out to build his own toytown Bolshevik Party, the history of the Russian Revolution had to be rewritten accordingly. So now the emphasis is on the far-sighted party leadership which commits none but the most secondary errors. This is a method which, for all its declarations of loyalty to October, distorts the history of the revolution and, moreover, seriously miseducates the SWP’s own members.