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Marxism and the National Question: A Reply to Al Richardson and Mike Jones

Dave Hollis

AS I READ the replies by Al Richardson and Mike Jones to Joe Rassool’s article "Against Neutralism",1 my first inclination was to lay What Next? to one side and forget about the whole matter as quickly as possible. My wish was not to give credence to people who descend to disgusting methods to put their views across.

I find it rather deplorable for Al to stoop to the level of challenging Joe Rassool as to whether or not he should call himself a Marxist – logicians might regard this as a case of reductio ad absurdum. It reminded me of my old days in a Trotskyist sect. "Do you believe what I say or don’t you?" It seems that Al has not lost his sectarian habits of old.

Mike Jones’ contribution is even more lamentable. He will not convince anyone of his arguments by going to the level of insulting someone for having had a university education! He will also scarcely convince anyone of the correctness of his position by passing off as "anti-communist" quotes by Engels that cannot be explained away. It is hard to find a more unintellectual level of argumentation. The correctness of what someone says is not determined by who says it. One has to examine the content.

Even worse is his defence of Engels by maintaining that the "isolated" quotes by Engels look "dubious if taken out of the whole". Firstly, this is factually incorrect. Engels held on to the division of the peoples into "historical" and "non-historical" all his life. Rosdolsky shows this clearly enough in his book Engels and the "Non-Historic" Peoples.2 Secondly, and to be far more polite than his remark deserves, it is amazing that Mike Jones can say that these quotes only look bad "when taken out of the whole". What context could he then imagine that, for instance, could justify Engels’ wish for "taking bloody revenge on the Slavs"?

And now to the issue of Marx and the question of the "peoples without history".

In both Al Richardson’s original article ("Marxism and the Rights of Nations to Self-Determination", What Next? No.3) and his reply to Joe Rassool one can only get the impression that he has not read Rosdolsky’s book. In his criticism of Rassool, he asks: "Does he really believe that Rosdolsky’s book, that sets out national claims for peoples among whom national consciousness had not yet arisen, is based upon historical methods of analysis? Is he really ignorant of the fact that in 1846-8 the Habsburg crown incited the Ruthenian peasants to massacre the Poles who fought for freedom, and turned the Croats under Jelacic upon the Hungarians?"

Ephraim Nimni, in his seminal work Marxism and Nationalism, examines Rosdolsky’s book. He writes: "The first part of Rosdolsky’s work is devoted to a comprehensive presentation of the attitudes of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung and of Marx and Engels towards each of the Eastern European national communities under discussion, presenting an initial tentative explanation of the reasons for their attitude towards these communities. According to Rosdolsky, one factor that must be taken into account is the complexity of the national problem in Austria, and the difficulties faced by anyone attempting to provide a solution to the conflicting claims of the national movements under consideration."3

After quoting Rosdolsky, Nimni continues: "The clear cultural and political domination of the German bourgeoisie over territories inhabited by national communities of Slavic descent and culture, made the acceptance of any form of national emancipation of the latter (meaning national-territorial state sovereignty) by the German bourgeoisie an impossibility. Rosdolsky argues that to ask the German bourgeoisie voluntarily to give up their hegemonic position in these Slavonic countries was tantamount to questioning the ability of the German bourgeoisie to participate in the revolution. So, he continues, Marx and Engels found themselves in an acute dilemma: support for the emerging national communities would alienate the German bourgeoisie, the ‘most advanced class at the time’, the very basis of the 1848 revolutionary fervour. Rosdolsky reasons that Marx and Engels had ‘no other choice’ but to support the ‘progressive bourgeoisie’, even if this meant encouraging harsh national repression of the non-viable national communities. The Czech provinces were, according to Rosdolsky, who quotes Marx in Herr Vogt, ‘in the middle of Germany’, and, in language that is more in tune with a reactionary and nostalgic ‘völkisch’ nationalist rhetoric than the analytical wit of a distinguished Marxist scholar, he argues that if the Slavic national communities were to constitute national states, they would have represented ‘Einen Dorn im Fleische des künftigen grossdeutschen Reiches’ [a thorn in the flesh of the future Great German Reich]. If this were not enough, Rosdolsky identifies a second major problem: the underdevelopment of the Czechs and other Southern Slav national communities vis-à-vis the German bourgeoisie. The Czechs and South Slavs were ’neither mature, nor strong enough’ to establish independent states; had they been formed they could all too easily have become ‘bounty of Czarism’ (‘Beute des Zarismus’) and ‘vanguard positions’ (‘Vorposten’) of the latter in Central Europe."4

I think that it is clear enough that Al Richardson is completely mistaken in his understanding of what Rosdolsky did in fact say.However, Al’s mistaken view is not the point. Whether Rosdolsky’s analysis was "ahistorical" or not, or even whether Rosdolsky really did set out "national claims for people among whom national consciousness had not yet arisen", far more important is what model of development lay behind the division of nations into "historical" and "non-historical" nations.

Rassool quoted from three articles by Engels to show his attitudes to what he considered to be "non-historical" peoples. The last of the quotes was a continuity in his views. Neither Al Richardson nor Mike Jones disputes this. I think I can safely assume that they accept this analysis, even if somewhat grudgingly.

The division of nations into the categories "historical" and "non-historical" has a simple underlying logic. Marxism takes as its starting point the path of development from the lower to the higher stages of development of productive forces. Simply said, the criteria for "historical" nations, for example Germany and Hungary, were their ability to hold together a population large enough to allow for an internal division of labour which characterises a capitalist system with its competing classes and to occupy a cohesive and sufficiently large territorial space to provide for the existence of a viable state.

Those nations unable to fulfill these criteria were deemed by Marxism to be acting against the tide of history and were therefore only able to perform reactionary functions. To make matters worse, such nations – or perhaps, better said, communities – were deemed to be also intrinsically reactionary, and must, according to Engels, remain counter-revolutionary because their continuation "represents a protest against a great historical revolution".5

One can’t even excuse Marx/Engels by saying that their standpoint can be explained by the reactionary role played by the Southern Slavs in the period from 1848 to 1849. Rosdolsky points out that the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, whose leading editor was Engels, was against the national movement of the Southern Slavs even before these could decide whether they were for or against the revolution. The arguments used in the paper were, to paraphrase Rosdolsky, such that they would have sounded more natural from the "German patriots of the Kölner Zeitung".6

In his concluding remarks in the section dealing with the non-historical people and Engels’ false evaluation,7 Rosdolsky points out that the roots of Engels’ historical-philosophical concept originates in Hegel. Rosdolsky then goes on to state that Engels’ concept was untenable and his concept of "national viability" explains nothing and is certainly similar to Molière’s "soporific power of opium".8 With this somewhat cynical yet justified remark, I would like to turn my attention to the question of nationalism in general and to relate that to its applicability with regard to Bosnia in particular.

The problem of nations and nationalities
Reading through Al Richardson’s article and his and Mike Jones’ replies to Rassool, one looks in vain for any attempt to pick up on the question of nations in general – the issue on which Al invited readers’ views (What Next? No.3). Al treats us to a discourse on the "rights of nations to self-determination" without bothering to put the question what a nation really is. Joe Rassool mentioned in a footnote that the only attempt to define a nation came from Stalin, in 1913. It is worth reminding ourselves that Lenin in a letter to Gorki described Stalin as the "marvellous Georgian who sat down to produce an article".9 Lenin believed that the article "was a very good one" and Stalin later became the Commissar for Nationalities in the Soviet government.

Stalin’s definition of a nation was: "A nation is an historically constituted, stable community of people formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life and psychological make up manifested in a common culture."10 I am not so interested here at going into Stalin’s definition in any great detail. Suffice to say that what is interesting in Stalin’s definition is that what he has taken from Otto Bauer, viz, that a nation is formed on the basis of a psychological make up manifested in a common culture.

It is a great pity that Otto Bauer’s book, Die Nationalitätenfrage und die Sozialdemokratie,11 has not been translated into English. The only detailed analysis of it is to be found in Ephraim Nimni’s book, Marxism and Nationalism.

Bauer quotes the English economist and critic, Walter Bagehot (1826-1877), at the beginning of his book: "Bagehot says that the nation is one of many phenomena of which we know what they are so long as we are not asked; that we nevertheless are not able to explain briefly and succinctly."12

Too true! The problem with Stalin’s definition is that it is an enumeration of a set of categories which a nation has to fulfill – otherwise it is not a nation! The most important property, though, is that it is a process. As Bauer states in the 1924 introduction to his work: "In fact, the main focus of my theory of the nation lies not in my definition of a nation, but in the description of the integrative process out of which the modern nation emerged. If my theory can claim any merit, it is that it derived that process of integration for the first time from economic development, from the changes in the social structure and from the articulation of classes in society."13

A little earlier on in the same book Bauer states something which is also very relevant for the question of Bosnia: "For us society is not a mere addition of individuals, but each individual is the product of society. In the same way, for us the nation is not an addition of individuals that enter into a mutual relation through a common language, but the individual him/herself is the product of the nation. His/her individual character did not emerge in any other way than through a continuous interaction (Wechselwirkung) with other individuals, in the same way as the character of those individuals emerged from the continuous interaction with him/her."14

Nimni picks this up and states that consequently the national community exists independently of national consciousness "which is the result of the awareness of the existence of other nations, since the subject becomes conscious of his/her national dimension by comparison with others".15 A little later Nimni quoting Bauer concludes: "Given that the national community manifests itself in the ’individual character’ [of every member of the national community], every attack on my national community is like an attack upon myself and every glory of the national community is like my own."6

This assertion has another very relevant aspect for our understanding of what went on in Bosnia. The national is "alive" in each individual member. The situation in the former Soviet Union illustrates this point well. Despite over 70 years of propaganda by the most mighty propaganda machine humanity has ever seen, and despite all the attempts to create a "Soviet citizen", nationalism reared its ugly head very swiftly after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The same is true of the former Yugoslavia. Direct or indirect economic causes, as one would expect from Marxism, does not help us get to the bottom of the story. Neither can we be helped by the usual "explanation" of many Trotskyists, that the "subjective factor", viz, one only has to follow the people’s self-elected messiahs.

Let me conclude this part by stating Bauer’s definition that a national community is the end result of a systematic process in which different dimensions are brought together through a common historical development in dialogue with the many facets of contemporary experience. As he puts it: "the totality of human beings bound together through a common fate into a community of character."17

We could also use a modern work to reflect on the question of nationalism. In Castells’ book, The Power of Identity, four analytical points are emphasised when examining contemporary nationalism:

  • Contemporary nationalism may or may not be orientated towards the construction of a sovereign nation state, and thus nations are, historically and analytically, entities independent from the state.
  • Nations and nation states are not historically limited to the modern nation-state as constituted in Europe in the two hundred years following the French revolution.
  • Nationalism is not necessarily an elite phenomenon, and, in fact, nationalism nowadays is more often than not a reaction against global elites.
  • Because contemporary nationalism is more reactive than proactive, it tends to be more cultural than political and thus more orientated towards the defence of an already institutionalised culture than towards the construction and defence of a state.18

"Bourgeois feminist prejudices"
It is very difficult to know what Al Richardson is really getting at here. In his original article he states that the accusation that Serbs had indulged in rape was "hate propaganda obviously aimed at [pandering to? D.H] bourgeois feminist prejudices". In his answer to Joe, Al tries to give another meaning to what he originally wrote. He appends a "class qualification" to the issue of feminism. I can’t buy this line of argument either.

Rape is repulsive regardless of a class qualification. Incidentally, who defines what a "class position" is? Objective interests? Defined by whom? Joe was right in picking Al up on this.

The justification given in Al’s reply to Joe is by no means illuminating. The left have apparently paid a "heavy price" for their "neglect of class criteria in the women’s movement". As is the case on the national question, feminism transcends class issues. This should be easy to see. Al’s references to corruption and "hordes of house-trained and well-heeled women intruded as candidates upon local Labour constituencies by Tony Blair in order to override party democracy" have completely different meanings to those attributed by Al.

The Labour Party has not been "overridden". It has accepted, if sometimes somewhat grudgingly, the treatment handed out to it by Blair and Co. This is not particularly surprising. The general move to the right in society since 1989 and the growing lack of political awareness has found its reflection in the Labour Party. Had Blair been faced with a party that was not prepared to tolerate his behaviour, war would have broken out between the party and Blair et al. And, incidentally, the "house-trained and well-heeled women" also have their counterpart in the male MPs. Al is obviously just expressing his prejudices, and nothing more.


1. J. Rassool, "Against Neutralism: A Reply to Al Richardson on Bosnia", What Next? No.5. For letters by Al Richardson ("The Class Basis of Marxism") and Mike Jones ("Marxism, World War I ...") in response to this article, see What Next? No.6.

2. R. Rosdolsky, Zur nationalen Frage, Friedrich Engels und das Problem der "geschichtslosen" Völker, 1979. (Published in an English translation in Critique No.18/19, as Engels and the "Non-Historic" Peoples.)

3. E. Nimni, Marxism and Nationalism, Theoretical Origins of a Political Crisis, 1991, pp.37-8.

4. Ibid, pp.38-9.

5. Quoted in Rosdolsky, p.115. Engels also refers to old "Völkerabfälle", i.e. literally rubbish of peoples who had been left behind by the slowly working historical development. Mike Jones may like to note that Engels also speaks of "Völkerruinen", i.e. the ruins of peoples. Mike can spare us his German lessons in future!

6. Ibid, p.50.

7. Ibid, pp.114-128.

8. Ibid, p.118.

9. Nimni, p.91.

10. Quoted ibid.

11. Otto Bauer, Die Nationalitätenfrage und die Sozialdemokratie, in Marx Studien, Blätter zur Theorie und Politik des wissenschaftlichen Sozialismus, published by Max Adler and Rudolf Hilferding, Vol.2, 1924.

12. Ibid, p.1.

13. Quoted in Nimni, p.146.

14. Ibid, p.164.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid. p.165.

17. Ibid., p.164.

18. M. Castells, The Power of Identity, 1997, pp.30-1.