For many writers, accounting for nationalism has been Marxism’s great historical failure. This chapter seeks to examine why that might have been the case. It starts, predictably, with the engagements of Marx and Engels with the pressing national questions of their day. This is followed by a cursory account of the communist movement’s interaction with nationalism. These were, after all, competing political movements and the heated debates between Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg on the ‘national question’ were no mere pedantic or esoteric terminological squabbles. Antonio Gramsci, as we saw in relation to Marxist treatments of culture, was also an innovator in terms of nationalism. But our emphasis here lies in the partial, important yet neglected, break in Marxist orthodoxy on the national question effected by the Austrian Marxist Otto Bauer at the turn of the last century. Finally, we turn to certain crucial postmodern questionings of the whole Marxist tradition’s limitations regarding the national. Here we examine the deep Eurocentrism in the Marxist, as well as liberal, views of the national question and we sketch in the necessary engendering of the national question, so long subsumed under an implicit, if not explicit, androcentrism.
Marxist blind spot
It was Tom Nairn who famously argued that ‘The theory of nationalism represents Marxism’s great historical failure. It may have others as well, and some have been more debated … Yet none … is as important, as fundamental, as the problem of nationalism, either in theory or in political practice’. This dictum has become something of a truism accepted by non-Marxist and Marxist writers alike. It is sometimes argued, or implied, that nationalism is so primordial that a political ideology, such as Marxism, would find it somehow ungraspable. It is also argued that Marxism failed to understand nationalism because of its inherent reductionism (superstructures determined by the economic base) and its class essentialism, because of which only class ideologies were seen. Both these lines of attack are based on certain undeniable features of classical Marxism. However, when considering the interaction of Marx and Engels with the ‘national question’ it is probably best to start by situating them within the politics of the day. They were men of their times, they were not disembodied, they were politicians not sociologists.
In mid-nineteenth-century Europe ‘To support nationalist aspirations for unity, autonomy, or independence was to support popular liberties against empire and absolutism’. For a Mazzini or a Herder, nationalist icons of the day, the flourishing of nation-states was synonymous with democracy. The negative connotations of nationalism after 1914 or 1989 were not even a glimmer on the horizon. Indeed, what was unusual in Marx and Engels was their politically discriminating attitude towards the various national issues of the day. Marx and Engels displayed a normative approach towards the nationalisms of their day, with the guiding light for them being democracy and later, also, internationalism. In a sense they were not interested in analysing nationalism as a unified consistent entity because they did not believe it was such. As Erica Benner writes, they could not have grasped the differences between the new forms of national politics and the democratic politics they advocated had they treated nationalism ‘as a phenomenon sui generis, rather than analysing national movements as a variety of distinct political programmes based on conflicting social interests’. It is this discriminating, deconstructionist approach to nationalism which we now need to outline.
Though Marx and Engels were keen supporters of German unification, they were not German nationalists. For them, national unification was a preliminary task of the German democratic revolution. Marx and Engels were equally sympathetic to the ongoing process of national unification in Italy: ‘No people, apart from the Poles, has been so shamefully oppressed by the superior power of its neighbours, no people has so often and so courageously tried to throw off the yoke oppressing it’. Here we get a hint that support for nationalist demands was not unconditional for the founders of Marxism. Rather, it was tied to the big power politics of the day and in particular the dominating role of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires. For Marx and Engels, neither a common language and traditions, nor geographic and historical homogeneity, were sufficient in themselves to define a nation. Rather, a certain level of economic and social development was required, and priority was given, on the whole, to larger units. So, for example, on the question of Germany ceding the Schleswig and Holstein territories to Denmark in 1848, Marx and Engels believed that the German role was revolutionary and progressive and advocated a resolute conduct of war against Denmark from the start.
In the great historic nations, people had gained the right to strong, viable national states through their struggles for unity and independence. These nations would be the standard-bearers of progress and civilization for Marx and Engels. This was, indeed, a form of national social Darwinism. Yet, who entered the charmed circle would depend on political circumstances. Thus, in 1851 Engels could write to Marx that ‘The Poles are une nation foutue’ and in 1864 they could refer to the Poles as ‘a subjugated people which, with its incessant and heroic struggle against its oppressors, has proven its historic right to national autonomy and self-determination’. The reunification of Poland was to become a central working-class aim of the First International which Marx and Engels did so much to promote. The right of nations to self-determination was far from absolute for Marx and Engels and depended, rather, on the international political conjuncture and the developments of the class struggle, or lack of it, in each national situation. They were, of course, practical politicians and they were guided on national issues largely by action considerations rather than theory.
Compared to the great ‘historic nations’ such as Germany, Engels, in particular, developed the Hegelian notion of ‘non-historic’ peoples. For Engels, ‘these relics of a nation mercilessly trampled underfoot in the course of history, as Hegel says, these residual fragments of peoples always become fanatical standard bearers of counter-revolution and remain so until their complete extirpation’. The Southern Slavs – the Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs and Croats – were peoples without a history, were not viable and would never achieve independence. Of course, it was not because they were reactionary ‘by nature’ that this or that national or ethnic grouping might have remained aloof from the 1848 revolutionary wave or might have entered into counter-revolutionary alliances. Thus, the Basques may have entered an alliance with Don Carlos, but only to defend their democratic fueros (autonomy rights) against Spanish absolutism. Furthermore, the concept of ‘national viability’ is inherently metaphysical and hardly accords with democratic criteria. No national group can be condemned to the counter-revolutionary dustbin of history, nor can any democratic politics call for their annihilation ‘by the most determined use of terror’ as Engels infamously did on more than one occasion.
The unfortunate categories of historic and non-historic nations were also to frame the writings of Marx and Engels in the world beyond Europe. After the war by the United States on Mexico in 1845–47 which resulted in the annexation of large areas of Mexico, Engels argued that it was in the interests of ‘civilization’ against the ‘lazy’ and ‘desperate’ Mexicans. The conquest of Algeria by France is an important and fortunate fact for the progress of civilization, especially given that the ‘Bedouins were a nation of robbers’. Later Engels was to display a much more positive attitude towards resistance in Algeria against French colonial rule. In relation to India Marx and Engels’ attitudes were also quite nuanced over the positive and negative aspects of colonialism, at once developing capitalism but also destroying a civilization. The point is probably more general: namely that they tended to view the world outside Europe as mere reflection, its own internal dynamic quite beyond their ken. In relation to Latin America, Marx in his writing on Simón Bolívar, the hero of the independence struggles, seems to share Hegel’s judgement of the continent as arbitrary, absurd and irrational in its nature. Thus he could not ‘see’ a class struggle in Latin America and could only see in Bolívar a pale Third World version of Napoleon III in France.
Where Marx and Engels seem to break with the unfortunate binary opposition between historic and non-historic nations is in regard to Ireland. The ‘Irish turn’ is clearly signalled by Marx in a letter to Engels in 1867: ‘Previously I thought Ireland’s separation from England impossible. Now I think it inevitable’. What Marx now prescribed for Ireland was independence, protective tariffs and an agrarian reform. In a glimmer of what would one day be called ‘dependency theory’, Engels wrote that ‘Every time Ireland was about to develop industrially, she was crushed and reconverted into a purely agricultural land’. Ireland’s domination by British force of arms had converted the country into an agricultural and labour reserve for the Industrial Revolution. Marx and Engels now stood squarely behind the Irish democratic movement for national independence. Their stance was summed up in the single yet eloquent phrase: ‘Any nation that oppresses another forges its own chains’. It seemed that they were recognizing the fundamental political, even class, differences between a nationalism of the oppressed and the aggressive, expansionist nationalism of the oppressor.
Ireland seems to represent a genuine turning point in Marx and Engels’ understanding of the complex relationship between national and class struggles. During a dispute over affiliation of an independent Irish section to the First International, Engels declared unambiguously that ‘In a case like that of the Irish, true Internationalism must necessarily be based upon a distinctly national organisation … The Irish sections’ … most pressing duty, as Irishmen, was to establish their own national independence’. This ringing declaration of support for the democratic right of national independence for Ireland was still, ultimately, couched in terms of its effect on the British and European revolutions rather than in its own right. Overall, I would agree with Georges Haupt’s verdict: ‘Though the Irish problem [sic] leads to a definition of the principled position on the relation between dominant and oppressed nations and allows the national movement to be assigned new functions, the refusal to generalize, to integrate the national dynamic without reservations within the theory of revolution remains manifest’. It seemed that Ireland marked the furthest Marx and Engels could go on the national question and the limits of classical Marxism’s understanding of nationalism, in its democratic and revolutionary variants.
So, what was the legacy of Marx and Engels on the national question? It was probably not the ‘great historical failure’ it has been portrayed as, although it was certainly contradictory. Though living in the age of nationalism, Marx and Engels preached internationalism and probably exaggerated or over-estimated its homogenizing effect on the world. Furthermore, as Paul James notes: ‘ideologies like nationalism were in Marx’s writings often reduced to imaginary or fictitious representations of the really real’. As with religion, famously for Marx the ‘opium of the people’, nationalism was most often seen as a veil over people’s eyes, a false consciousness masking the true class struggle. Nationalism belonged to the realm of subjectivity, whereas the class level was somehow more objective and material. Marx was, however, well capable of analysing national traditions, culture and institutions with a flexible methodology which did not reduce national particularities to their economic base. If there was a negative normative yardstick in the shape of ‘progress’ with which to measure nations, there was also in Marx and Engels a consistent commitment to democracy as the litmus test for an understanding of the political significance of particular nationalist movements.
Communists and nationalism
It is sometimes forgotten that communists and nationalists were political rivals, ‘fishing in the same pond’, as it were. We should thus reject the idea that one was ‘scientific’ and rational whereas the other was ‘primordial’ and irrational. In this regard, we can usefully consider the humorous, but nonetheless pertinent, analysis by Ernest Gellner of ‘The Wrong Address Theory’ of nationalism he believes is favoured by Marxism:
Just as extreme Shi’ite Muslims held that Archangel Gabriel made a mistake, delivering the Message to Mohamed when it was intended for Ali, so Marxists basically like to think that the spirit of history or human consciousness made a terrible boob. The awakening message was intended for classes, but by some terrible postal error was delivered to nations. It is now necessary for revolutionary activists to persuade the wrongful recipient to hand over the message, and the zeal it engenders, to the rightful and intended recipient.
Of course this analysis is not, strictly speaking, accurate but it does capture some of the deep-rooted incomprehension and hostility which most Marxists displayed towards national phenomena. As with the ‘woman question’, communists were often to be found trying to find ways in which their Marxist theories could provide a strategy for action towards a recalcitrant social reality they did not always comprehend.
Lenin, as the Marxist leader of the multi-ethnic Soviet Union, was called upon to develop the Marxist theory of nationalism. His contribution, the so-called ‘right of nations to self-determination’, has been codified in the Marxist-Leninist system. The right of nations to self-determination had become part of the Bolshevik armoury in 1903 as a response to the more ‘nationalist’ position of the Jewish workers’ organization, the Bund. The 1905 Russian Revolution was to bring the national question more fully into the centre of Bolshevik politics. Lenin took his position against both the demands for Jewish (and Ukrainian) national cultural autonomy and, what he saw as, the abstract leftist denial of national oppression by Rosa Luxemburg and those among the Bolsheviks who followed her position. Basically, Lenin advocated the right of self-determination (including secession) by smaller nations where they were oppressed by a dominant larger nation. As with Marx though, he preferred larger economic units as being more conducive to economic development. To a large extent Lenin’s support for nationalist movements was tactical, designed to undermine the tsarist regime in a Russia he recognized to be ‘a prison of peoples’. Once in power the Bolsheviks were loath to put the ‘right’ to self-determination of these peoples into practice.
There is much that could be said about the Leninist ‘principle’ of the right of nations to self-determination. I could start with Tom Nairn’s caustic remarks that what Marxist ‘orthodoxy required was a plausible way of both supporting and not supporting national movements at the same time. It needed an agile and imposing non-position which would keep its options permanently open. That was what Lenin supplied’. Lenin certainly recognized in his political practice the strategic importance of the national question. He even began to transcend the class reductionism of classical Marxism in recognizing the specificity of national oppression. In a remarkable passage, he referred to how ‘By transforming capitalism into socialism the proletariat creates the possibility of abolishing national oppression; the possibility becomes reality “only” – with the establishment of full democracy in all spheres … including complete freedom to secede’. Full democratization of the state and society on the way to socialism would include the democratic rights of national communities. In practice, Russia remained a ‘prison of peoples’, albeit tempered by considerable degrees of national, especially cultural, autonomy.
Rosa Luxemburg, as in all her political positions and practice, sought to refute any opportunism on the national question. For her, the ‘right’ of nations to self-determination made as much sense as the ‘right’ of workers to eat off gold plates. This right seemed to her either an empty, non-committal phrase which meant nothing, or else it was false and misleading if it implied that socialists had an unconditional duty to support all nationalist aspirations. While welcoming the Russian Revolution of 1917, she believed that the Bolshevik policy on national self-determination would lead to the disintegration of Russia and was storing up trouble for the Soviet state. In her critique of the Bolsheviks, Rosa Luxemburg posed the highly pertinent question of who decided a nation’s will to secede: ‘But who is that “nation” and who has the authority and the “right” to speak for the “nation” and express its will?’. In this, Luxemburg was being consistent with her critique of the notion of representation implicit in the Leninist concept of the vanguard party. She was also sensitive to the perspectives of non-European peoples (in her work on imperialism) and also recognized that: ‘The working class is interested in the cultural and democratic content of nationalism, which is to say that workers share interests in such political systems as assure a free development of culture and democracy in national life’.
As Soviet Marxism began to consolidate its grip on the Russian state so its attention turned to spreading the revolution. Orthodox Marxism pointed West to the proletariat in the advanced capitalist countries, such as Germany. However, Lenin severely underestimated ‘the Western proletariat’s deep attachment to national and democratic values. The nation and democracy were, historically, products of capitalism, but they were also conquests won by the working masses’. Frustrated in the West, the young Bolshevik revolution turned its sights to the East, with far-reaching consequences. Nationalism came to the fore at the 1920 First Congress of the Peoples of the East held at Baku. The leaders of the Communist (or Third) International wooed the revolutionary nationalist leaders with a discourse, which could scarcely be called Marxist. Zinoviev proclaimed: ‘Brothers, we summon you to a holy war against British imperialism!’ while the delegates brandished their sabres and revolvers in the air with cries of ‘Jihad’ and ‘Long live the renaissance in the East’. It was indeed a renaissance, as communism was reborn in the East in local colours, and an anti-imperialist movement, with communists in the vanguard, became a crucial factor in world history.
Most Marxists and then communists would have hitherto held the most circumspect views on the prospects of non-European peoples contributing to the world revolution. Events in India or Ireland, for example, were usually only read in terms of their effect in Britain. The national question was still primarily a European question: for example, how to handle the various ethnic groupings in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By 1922, however, the Fourth Congress of the Communist International had adopted a position which prefigured the idea of the anti-imperialist united front: ‘Taking full cognizance of the fact that those who represent the national will to State independence may … be … of the most varied kind, the Communist International supports every national revolutionary movement against imperialism’. With the temporary blip of the ultra-left turn between 1928 and 1934, the international communist movement began its adaptation towards, and accommodation with, Third World nationalist movements. Lenin himself had made the epistemological break to seek a way out of the imperialist blockade of the Soviet Union. Few now remember his words: ‘Marxism cannot be reconciled with nationalism, be it even of the “most just”, “purest”, most refined and civilised brand’.
It was not just the ‘civilized’ brand of nationalism which was being wooed by the communists. For example, following a series of executions of communist leaders in Turkey by Mustafa Kemal, who was receiving Soviet military and financial aid, Karl Radek (who earlier held to Rosa Luxemburg’s position on the national question) could declare coolly: ‘We do not regret for a moment what we said to the Turkish communists: your first duty … will be to support the national liberation movement’. Thus began a long series of ‘betrayals’ of Third World communists in the interests of Soviet state policy. Marxism-Leninism was becoming a promoter of ‘non-capitalist’ national development in the Third World. The lines between Marxism and nationalism were becoming very blurred indeed and in many cases a marriage, whether of conviction or convenience, was consummated. This is not intended as a moral critique (although that would probably be legitimate) but simply to point out how the binary opposite of the one time Marxist distance from, if not hostility towards, nationalism had now emerged. This was to persist until the collapse of state socialism or communism in 1989.
As Soviet communism began its final decline towards collapse, so the national questions in the multi-ethnic state began to come to the fore again. A persistent image is of ‘primordial’ ethnic or national identities emerging when the authoritarian communist lid was lifted. An example, practically at random, would be Michael Ignatieff in his Blood and Belonging, where he argues that liberal civilization now seems to ‘run deeply against the human grain’ . He portrays a frightening picture of the demise of communism – with state structures collapsing, no imperial settlement to manage events, and hundreds of ethnic groups being left at the mercy of each other. As democratic discourse and the politics of conciliation had been notable by their absence under communist rule, so violence and force inevitably came to the fore. For Ignatieff: ‘Nationalist rhetoric swept through these regions like wildfire because it provided warlords and gunmen with a vocabulary of opportunistic self-justification’. According to these images, nationalism is about blood and belonging and it is so strong, primitive and instinctive that it will out, if allowed to do so by a watchful ‘liberal civilization’.
The current demonization of nationalism is understandable, but ‘liberal civilization’ (the United States of America?) is clearly no more of an antidote than ‘proletarian internationalism’ was. If nationalism is seen as a politics and a discursive formation rather than some primeval slime, then post-1989 events are somewhat less cataclysmic or surprising. Imperial collapse was bound to make nationalism an attractive vehicle for articulating a whole series of social and economic grievances. The nationalist form of conflicts does not mean that all is about ‘blood and belonging’ today. As Erica Benner puts it in a persuasive deployment of Marx and Engels to understand post-1989 nationalisms: ‘If extremist nationalism is a powerful force in some formerly communist countries, the rise of blood lusting nationalist dictatorships is hardly a foregone conclusion in most of them’. Nationalist movements do not operate as some simple, unmediated reflection of a transparent national psyche, always waiting to explode malevolently. Their politics depends on particular social and economic circumstances which, if unfavourable, as Marx and Engels observed in their day, will give to nationalism a strongly negative connotation.
In conclusion, the engagement of communists with nationalism has not been that fruitful in theoretical terms. In Lenin, ultimately nationalism was conceived as a transient problem in the inexorable march of history towards socialism. The turn towards the non-European colonial world gave rise to a sturdy hybrid of nationalist communism in which, to a large extent, Marxism was domesticated by nationalism, and Leninism became an ideology for development. Within European Marxism, nationalism continued to be underestimated and misunderstood. Thus, Eric Hobsbawm could write in 1989, in a broad retrospective on nationalism since 1780: ‘Post-1945 world politics have been basically the politics of revolution and counter-revolution, with national issues intervening only to underline or disturb the main theme’. Hobsbawm has always followed Lenin in not wishing to ‘paint nationalism red’ but it is difficult to understand such a blinkered view of world politics. If there has been a ‘great historical failure’, it would probably not be at the theoretical level but at this practical level where an ideology, which is supposed to be a guide to action, can blind one to the overwhelming importance on the world stage of nationalism and ethnicity in all its variants.
Otto Bauer’s break
In most socialist engagements with nationalism, Otto Bauer’s work received little mention, generally only in relation to a few cutting remarks directed at it by Lenin and Stalin. Yet Kolakowski’s encyclopaedic history of Marxism refers to Bauer’s forgotten 1907 classic The Nationalities Question and Social Democracy as ‘the best treatise on nationality problems to be found in Marxist literature and one of the most significant products of Marxist theory in general’. For reasons which will become clear, Bauer’s approach was difficult for orthodox Marxists to digest, but he did accomplish an important, if partial, break with the reductionism so evident in the classics, a break which has only recently been recognized.
The context of Otto Bauer’s writing on nationalism was set by Austrian social democracy, which had to operate within a multinational state. Bauer formed part of the political current known as Austro-Marxism, which describes a number of theorists active in the Austrian socialist movement at the turn of the century. They belonged to a tendency within the social-democratic movement, ‘The Marxist Centre’, led by Kautsky, and after the First World War they sought a third alternative between bankrupt social democracy and the new communist current.
National tensions in the Habsburg Empire posed an obvious threat to the unity of the working-class movement. Until nearly the turn of the century the German-speaking social democrats of Austria had professed what Bauer called a ‘naïve cosmopolitanism’, which simply rejected nationalism as diversionary and preached a humanist message of fraternization. The Czech workers’ movement, on the other hand, was under considerable nationalist influence, not surprisingly given the predominant role of the Germans in the Austrian part of the Habsburg Empire. As one critic points out, ‘what this meant politically was, above all, that the Social Democratic Party lacked any common analysis of national conflicts within the multinational state, and could offer no united guidelines beyond an abstract profession of internationalism’.
Support for nationalism was limited because Austrian social democrats wanted to preserve the empire, rather than see it break up into its national components. The centrifugal tendencies of the national movements were opposed in the name of a reformist political project within the whole state. For this the Austrian social democrats were sometimes referred to as the ‘KUK’ Social Democrats (Kaiserlich und Königlich: ‘imperial and royal’), a reference to the official designation of the Austrian crown. Growing national tensions within the empire had forced the Austrian social democrats to face the national question. This was against the better judgement of their leader, Victor Adler, who considered the question too explosive. Largely inspired by Karl Kautsky, the Brünn programme of 1899 sought to resolve national tensions by allowing each national component of social democracy to present their own cultural demands, while the economic struggle would be waged at the level of the super-national state. Kautsky proposed the democratic transformation of the Austrian state along the lines of a federal structure of six national parties, which the socialist movement had adopted at its 1897 Congress. The Brünn resolution advocated the restructuring of Austria along language divisions, against a minority who called for extra-territorial cultural autonomy. The debate at the Brünn Congress displayed clearly the varying conceptions of nationalism within the social democrat ranks. Seliger introduced the debate by saying it was ironic that those who were accused of being nationally neutral should be resolving the national problem. He stressed that above all, the question of the nationalities should not be seen as a question of power, but as a cultural question. Delegate Daszynski disputed this view, arguing that ‘there is no national question without economic base’. The Ruthenian socialists pledged their support, but reminded the Congress that part of their people lived outside Austria in the Russian-dominated Ukraine: ‘We are convinced that the international power of the proletariat will only be developed when each nation can decide its history. We know that social and political liberation also presuppose national liberation’.
In attempting to resolve the problem posed by the intersection of national and social struggles most delegates to the Congress emphasized that national disputes had to be resolved as a precondition for the advance of the labour movement. A minority argued on the contrary that ‘our activity is taken up too much by the national question’ and they had recruited workers often precisely because they did not raise the national question. The problem was best addressed by the Polish delegation: Polish socialists would act within Austrian workers’ organizations but they would also ‘act incessantly within the whole Polish people to eliminate the grave national injustice exercised against the Polish people’. The struggle of the proletariat could not ignore brutal national oppression and the partition of their country. Mere cultural autonomy could not suffice. Even party leader Victor Adler, who had preferred to ignore the national question, got round the dilemma by saying that internationalists could also be good national patriots. Thus the early abstract stand for internationalism gave way to a limited support for nationalism.
Bauer himself saw the main strength of his work as its description of the derivation of nationalism from the process of economic development, changes in the social structure and the articulation of classes in society (1979: 19). However, much of his work, and the debates to which it gave rise, centred around the definition of ‘nation’ that he advanced. In a nutshell this was that ‘The nation is the totality of human beings bound together through a common destiny into a community of character’. The nation was seen as a ‘community of fate’ whose character resulted from the long history of the conditions under which people laboured to survive, and divided the products of this labour (the social division of labour). Before deriding this conception as a form of idealism, we should note that Bauer repeatedly criticized ‘national spiritualism [which] saw the nation as a mysterious spirit of the people’. He also explicitly rejected psychological theories of the nation. His working definition of the nation was rather a methodological postulate which posed
the task of understanding the phenomenon of the nation, explaining on the basis of the uniqueness of its history all that constitutes the peculiarity, the individuality of each nation, and which differentiates it from other nations, that is, showing the nationality of each individual as the historical with respect to him, and the historical within him.
Bauer concludes that only by pursuing this task of uncovering the national components can we dissolve the false appearance of the substantiality of the nation, to which nationalist conceptions of history always succumb.
For Bauer, above all, the nation is a product of history. This is true in two respects: firstly, ‘in terms of its material content it is a historical phenomenon, since the living national character which operates in every one of its members is the residue of a historical development’ and secondly, ‘from the point of view of its formal structure it is a historical phenomenon, because diverse broad circles are bound together in a nation by different means and in different ways at the various stages of historical development’. In short, the way in which the ‘community of character’ is engendered is historically conditioned. It follows that this ‘community of character’ is not a timeless abstraction, but is modified over time. Bauer refers to national character as something specific to a particular decade and not something that can be traced back to the origins of history. Nor is it seen as an explanation in itself, but as something which needs to be explained. Internationalism cannot simply ignore national characteristics, but must show how they are the result of historical processes.
Bauer also advanced a novel perspective on the future of nations under socialism. For Marx and Engels, ‘national differences and antagonisms between peoples are daily more and more vanishing … The supremacy of the proletariat will cause them to vanish still faster’. For Bauer, however, socialism would lead to ‘a growing differentiation of nations … a sharper relief of their peculiarities, a sharper distinction of their characteristics’. For Bauer, socialism would lead to the genuine autonomy of nations, the masses would be integrated into the national cultural community, and therefore the spiritual differentiation of nations would flourish freely. The cultural history of the nation, hitherto the history of the ruling classes, would henceforth be appropriated by the masses, who could give free rein to national characteristics. This meant that ‘the task of the International can and should be, not the levelling of national particularities, but the engendering of international unity in national multiplicity’ (Bauer, 1979: 21). The workers’ international should not dictate methods of struggle without considering national diversity and the uniqueness of cultural traditions. Whereas Kautsky meekly lamented that the Second International was an instrument for peacetime, Bauer more realistically recognized that even in peacetime it was not an effective instrument for internationalism when the vested interests of the big states were at stake. Bauer certainly sought the international unity of the working class, but he argued that ‘we can only defeat bourgeois nationalism … when we discover the national substance of the international class struggle … We must defeat nationalism on its own ground’.
Though today Bauer’s theory of nationalism suffers from almost total oblivion (an exception is Nimni, 1991), in its day it was a subject of intense polemics. Karl Kautsky was the recognized ‘expert’ on the national question in the Second International, and it was his task to reassert orthodoxy. Kautsky argued firstly that ‘Bauer has not taken sufficiently into account the importance of language both for the nation and the state’. For Kautsky, language was the foremost constant in the historic development of the nation. Bauer responded, quite persuasively, that he fully recognized the nation as a ‘community of culture’ which lay behind the generation, transformation and limits of language. Kautsky went on to argue, more generally, that the main weakness of Bauer’s work was ‘its enormous exaggeration of the national factor’. For Kautsky, it was simply a question of Bauer not understanding that the proletariat was predominantly international in orientation rather than national. Kautsky saw the proletariat aspiring towards an international rather than national culture, especially as international trade was leading to a worldwide language. To these abstractions, Bauer counterposed a more realistic appraisal of the meshing of class and national struggles. As we have seen above, Bauer sought to confront nationalism on its own ground: ‘the art of war teaches us not to avoid the adversary but to take the war to his own country’. This seems a more fruitful strategy than the development of Esperanto as the key to workers’ international solidarity.
Perhaps the most relevant part of Bauer’s work today is his consideration of the relation between class struggle and nationalism. In a striking phrase he wrote that ‘nationalist hatred is a transformed class hatred’. Bauer was referring specifically to the petty bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation affected by shifts in population and other convulsions engendered by capitalist development. But the point is a more general one, and Bauer shows clearly how class and national struggles were intertwined. For example, in the case of the Czech worker: ‘the state which enslaved him [sic] was German; German too were the courts which protected property owners and threw the dispossessed into jail; each death sentence was written in German; and orders in the army sent against each strike of the hungry and defenceless workers were given in German’. The workers of the ‘non-historic’ nations adopted in the first instance a ‘naïve nationalism’ to match the ‘naïve cosmopolitanism’ of the big nation proletariat. Only gradually does a genuinely international policy develop which overcomes both ‘deviations’ and recognizes the particularity of the proletariat of all nations. Although Bauer preached the need for working-class autonomy in the struggle for the socialist form of production as the best means for seizing power, he argued that ‘within capitalist society, national autonomy is, however, the indispensable re-vindication of a working class which is obliged to carry out its class struggle in a state of (different) nationalities’. This was not a ‘state-preserving’ response, he argued, but was a necessary aim for a proletariat which sought to make the whole people into a nation.
In conclusion, we could argue that Bauer’s work represents a major break with economism: politics and ideology are no longer viewed as mere ‘reflections’ of rigid economic processes. The very context in which Austrian social democracy operated made it particularly sensitive to cultural diversity and to the complex social processes of economic development. The economic determinism and basic evolutionism of Second International Marxism was implicitly rejected in Bauer’s treatise on the national question. In terms of its substantial contribution, Bauer advanced a concept of the nation as historical process, in pages of rich and subtle historical analysis. The nation was no longer seen as a natural phenomenon, but a relative and historical one. This allowed Bauer to break decisively with the Marx-Engels position on ‘non-historic’ nations, a category still employed by most contemporary Marxists. As with Gramsci’s much more influential work on the national-popular, we find with Bauer a welcome move beyond most Marxists’ continuous understanding of nation and nationalism as ‘problems’ to one of seeing them as an integral element of the human condition.
Nationalism, like Marxism, is inextricably bound up with modernity, which sets its parameters and determines its limits. In the era of globalization we may refer to a postmodern nationalism, where the old grand narratives are replaced by cultural management. Traditions become thinned out and are self-consciously ‘invented’. Paul James writes of how ‘the new nationalism has a febrile fragility’. There is an immediacy of ‘nationness’ created by the mass media around military or sporting occasions, which cannot overcome the distance from the nation’s past as we move into the era of globalization. It is this postmodern-Marxist understanding of the nation and nationalism which helps move us into new areas of enquiry. People have multiple identities which interpellate them in various, sometimes contradictory, ways. Marxism and nationalism as modem phenomena are also irrevocably Eurocentric. What implications does that have for a theory of nationalism adequate to the post-colonial era? Nationalism is also cut across by the question of gender. Here is a discourse where gender images and gender roles are absolutely central, yet most Marxist theories of nationalism do not intersect with a gendered approach. Here I briefly address the issue of Eurocentrism and androcentrism (or gender-blindness) in Marxist theories of nationalism.
Elie Kedourie is at least forthright in his conservative manifesto on nationalism, when he asserts that ‘Nationalism is a doctrine invented in Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century’. For Kedourie, every element of the doctrine or discourse can be shown to have a European origin. Nationalism in the non-European world is simply a pale imitation and cannot have an autonomous existence. There are various ways to deconstruct this set of statements. Let us begin by examining to what extent, indeed, nationalism is marked by its European origins. In a sense, we need to go no further than the maps of the globe which draw lines across continents and paint each section a different colour. We see Europe in the middle, and its colonies to the ‘South’ stand as eloquent testimony to the era of imperialism – the carve-up of Africa, for example. What appears fixed on these maps is, of course, a social construction. Marxism tended to share the related Eurocentric conception of the world and of nationalism in particular. So, even while the colonized peoples were freeing themselves from the colonial yoke, it was assumed that they were doing so with the conceptual tools of the Enlightenment, whether in its liberal or Marxist variants.
Tom Nairn’s notion of nationalism as Janus-faced (at once looking forward and backwards) is often quoted as an influential, if idiosyncratic Marxist theory. After tracing the origins of nationalism in Europe, Nairn tells us: ‘We all know how it spread from its West-European source, in concentric circles of upheaval and reaction: through Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America, and then across the other continents’. The struggle between imperialism and anti-colonial resistance is translated by Nairn into ‘the battle between scathing cosmopolitan modernists and emotional defenders of the Folk’. Now, Nairn begins with an understanding of the ‘historic’ nation in Europe as entirely unproblematic. These nations are seen as historical subjects with all the attributes of agency, they ‘aspire’ to things, they ‘mobilize’, they even have irrational ‘ids’. In the non-European world, nationalism arrives by diffusion, by osmosis as it were, with little understanding of the real world of imperialism. Nairn’s theory, for all its undeniable engagement and sporadic insights, collapses totally when looking very close to home at Irish nationalism, where he makes a singularly bizarre construction of the Protestant settlers as the real oppressed national group.
Benedict Anderson’s notion of nation as an ‘imagined community’ has achieved considerable diffusion and is a big step forward in terms of its sustained attention to the discursive domain and refusal of reductionism. Anderson goes beyond orthodox Marxist views of nationalism as ideology and false consciousness, addressing its ‘sacred’ role in Weberian terms. Language, literature and the press are seen as crucial in imagining the entity we call ‘nation’. Yet it was the same Enlightenment which created European modernity and nationalism, but also the depredations of colonialism. So, then, as Partha Chatterjee asks Anderson rhetorically: ‘If nationalisms in the rest of the world have to choose their imagined community from certain “modular” forms already made available to them by Europe and the Americas, what do they have left to imagine?’. It seems that we are back with Hegel, for whom European nations were the only true subjects of history, with the rest of the world mere puppets or pale reflections of European themes. A European focus can only see the rest of the world in these terms and would fail to see, for example, how most Third World nationalisms (including Islamism) are based on their radical difference from Europe and not a mimicry of the master’s themes.
That nationalism exists as an international discourse does not mean that it flourished in the non-European world in a simply derivative way, with all the negative connotations that implies. The hybridity of the post-colonial world means also that its nationalisms operated profound displacements, disruptions and subversions of the modernist discourses of nationalism (and Marxism for that matter). Nor can we ever forget the extent to which things have been ‘erased’ or ‘glossed over’ in the official histories of post-colonialism and nationalism, which ‘bear the marks of the people-nation struggling in an inchoate, undirected and wholly unequal battle against forces which have sought to dominate it’. The critique of nationalist discourses should not blind us to the popular struggles it has fostered and animated. A Eurocentric Marxism could only be part of the West in the post-colonial world. The struggles of the subaltern may take many different forms – nationalist, ethnic, regional and religious among others – and a Marxism which seeks to have global influence needs to understand these and not just struggle to ‘demystify’ them and reassert a ‘true’ class struggle.
If nationalism was marked by its Eurocentrism, it was also always profoundly androcentric. For a discourse which often constructed the nation as a woman and national wars as the natural pursuit of the male, the analysts of nationalism have seemed singularly uninterested in the question of gender. Only recently has there been a flourishing of interest in the engendering of nationalism, war and citizenship. The introduction to an interesting collection on Nationalisms and Sexualities points us to ‘the crucial recognition that – like gender – nationality is a relational term whose identity derives from its inherence in a system of differences’. Nations and genders are shaped by what they are not, as much as by what they ‘are’. National and gender identities are constituted through difference and are thus clearly relational terms. The concept of nation is also inherently gendered, such as the stereotypical images of women as symbols of the nation. National narratives and cultural identities are also always gendered. It is not only with fascism, but in most nationalisms that the defence of the nation is a task assigned to men. While stressing the solidarity of men in this task, nationalisms are fervently heterosexist and confine ‘women and children’ to a passive role as victim.
Women are now being written back in to the history of nationalist struggles. Kuman Jayawardena’s account of feminism and nationalism in the Third World carries out a double operation in showing that feminism was no simple import to the post-colonial world and, at the same time, bringing women to the centre of the struggles for independence and national liberation in these countries. A Western feminism, which believed with Virginia Woolf that ‘as a woman I have no country’, would find some of these histories uncomfortable reading. Many women in many Third World countries have participated actively in nationalist struggles, and felt the common identity of nationality, without forsaking their struggles as women within these movements. That this did not conform to some models of sisterhood proclaimed by Euro-feminism did not particularly concern them. Women also had a contradictory relation towards capitalist modernization which at once created the conditions for a move towards greater equality, and also generated a counter-move of reassertion or reconstruction of traditional social mores as a way to counteract imperialist cultural penetration.
There is a cluster of roles where women play a key role in the social reproduction of nationalism. In a pioneering analysis Floya Anthias and Nira Yuval-Davis point towards the specific and crucial role of women in national or ethnic processes, including:
as biological reproducers of ethnic or national collectivities;
as reproducers of the boundaries of these collectivities;
as crucial in the ideological and cultural reproduction of these collectivities;
as signifiers of ethnic/national differences.
While cognizant of the functionalist implications of the term ‘social reproduction’, the first three terms point to a set of interrelated processes where women play a crucial role in regard to nationalism. To me it is the last element which is most potent in explaining the gendered dimension of all national discourses. It is through female figures that most nations represent themselves. Women are often icons of the nation, embodiment of its assumed qualities as imagined community, while simultaneously confined to the margins of the actual political community and disempowered as citizens.
A new way of exploring the complex interrelationship between gender, nation and politics would be through a development of the idea of liminality. The liminal points to difference, a betwixt and between, the knowable and the incomprehensible. From a liminal perspective, identities and allegiances are uncertain at best. We can imagine ethnic, territorial and social liminars. In her analysis of this terrain, Anne Norton refers to ‘the liminal and definitive role played by women in the structures of the state’ For our purposes here it would be most interesting to extend this analysis to the construction of nations and nationalism. Women are liminars in the making of nationalism in that they are peripheral to the nation (denied citizenship, for example) yet they also symbolically personify the nation. Women’s exclusion from state politics is matched by their role as primary symbol of nationality. This ambiguity or ambivalence on the intersection between gender and nation – at once centre and periphery – is crucial to our understanding. Following Anne Norton, we could argue that ‘the political significance of liminality lies in [its] capacity to transform weakness into strength’. Current debates and campaigns around the concept of engendered citizenship point in this direction.
This section has exposed the limits of a ‘materialist’ theory of nationalism which reduces it to mere epiphenomenon of a material (economic) base, just ideology or false consciousness. We are now more likely to understand nationalism as what Michel Foucault called a ‘discursive formation’, namely ‘whenever one can describe, between a number of statements, such as system of dispersion, whenever, between objects, types of statements, concepts, or thematic choices, one can define a regularity (an order, correlations, positions and functionings, transformations)’. From this perspective it is easier to see the limitations of these theories which seek to detect a ‘good’ (perhaps civic) nationalism to counterpose to the ‘bad’ (perhaps racist) nationalism often to the fore. For, as Craig Calhoun argues, ‘Both positive and negative manifestations of national identity and loyalty are shaped by the common discourse of nationalism’. Many social conflicts take a national form and many social grievances are advanced through the rhetoric of nationalism. Understanding nationalism as a discursive formation in all its complexity and contradictory manifestations takes us beyond Marxist reductionism on this question. It is not that nationalism is somehow beyond theory (for example primordial), but it requires a multi-focus approach which would, today, start from the new globalism, and would include, centrally, a gender focus and an awareness of the post-colonial optic among other things.
Finally, we need to consider the prospects for post-nationalism in an era when globalization claims to have produced a ‘smooth world’ notwithstanding the continued, if not deepening, influence of nationalism and tribalism. To some extent it is now accepted that globalization and localization go hand in hand (hence the term ‘glocal’) but there is still a hope that a post-nationalist order would prevent, or at least attenuate, the various international and internal wars going on across the globe. From a poststructuralist perspective, the new global imaginary is very real indeed and, for example, transnational migrants have produced a new transnational form of identity and consciousness. The call for a ‘global civil society’ that could temper the role of national governments is part of this move. More generally, there is a belief, as Arjun Appadurai argues, that ‘transnational social forms may generate not only postnational yearnings but also actually existing postnational movements, organizations and spaces’. But is this prediction of the demise of the nation-state not only premature but perhaps mistaken?
In the first instance I would argue that the very notion of a ‘global civil society’ is irredeemably Eurocentric and also that the post-national project elides the very positive role of nationalism in constructing democracy in the post-colonial world. Furthermore, here following Paul James, we might consider whether ‘in a sense, the advocates of postnationalism repeat the mistake of the theorists of nationalism when the latter make the common moral distinction between ethnic nationalism (bad) and civic nationalism (good)’. Post-nationalism, just like nationalism, can present itself in very different forms and with different effects. As expressed by influential academics and politicians in the North, post-nationalism today is taken to be the United States of America as paradigm of the brave new world where national boundaries do not matter. The melting pot post-nation has become the global policeman and its claims to post-nationalism are suspect to say the least. There are, of course, other forms of international solidarity and boundary-crossing that aim at a, perhaps illusory, global post-national world that many more would support.