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The Marxist Approach to the National Question: A Critique of Nimni's Interpretation Author(s): Enzo Traverso and Michael Löwy Reviewed work(s):

Source: Science & Society, Vol. 54, No. 2 (Summer, 1990), pp. 132-146 Published by: Guilford Press

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Science& Society, Vol. 54, No. 2, Summer 1990, 132-146

o

The

Marxist Approach to the

Question:

A

Critique

Interpretation

National

of Nimni's

ENZO TRAVERSO and MICHAEL LÖWY

HISTORIANS (MARXIST

OR NOT) emphasize

Engels'

the

incompleteness and

limitationsof Marx'and

writings on thenational question. The critique of Engels'

nations"without history" - formulatedfor the first

beginning of this centuryby

Nationalitätenfrage und die

Otto Bauer in his

Sozialdemokratie (1907)

the

systematic and rigorousway by

theory of

time at the

monumentalDie

and

developed

in a more

UkrainianMarxist historian Roman Rosdolsky afterthe Second

WorldWar -

has became today a solid acquisition ofthe contem-

national question. In general,

porary Marxistliterature on the

Marxisthistorians are inclinedto consider the national problem as

one of the main gaps in the theoreticalelaboration of Marxand

Engels. In particular,they have analyzed the

category of the

"non-historical peoples" (geschichtlosenVölker) as basically con-

tradictory to the premises of Marxism.

Ephraim Nimni,however, in a

dissenting view, thinksthat

"Marxand Engels have a coherentview of thenational question,

evenif there is no

theirtheories in an

singlecorpus ofliterature that directlypresents

explicitway" (Nimni, 1989).

In his

opinion,

thecoherence of this conception is based on threefundamental

"paradigms" ofhistorical materialism: a) a

a visionof

universaland

theory which analyzes

ism" -

-

the forcesof

thatwould represent the

theory of evolution, i.e.

history "as a progressive seriesof changesthrough

hierarchically defined stages";b)

a deterministic

through a formof "economicreduction-

growth of

all social changes as theautomatic result of the

production;c)

at last, a "Eurocentric"world view,

necessary and inevitable consequence of

132

THE NATIONAL QUESTION 133

thetwo previous "theoretical parameters." Afterthis premise, the

reader might wellthink that this study is conceivedas a

critique of

Marxismas a whole; at the end, however, one discoversthat

Ephraim Nimniconsiders himself to be a Marxistand

an historicalmaterialism purged of the

European Marxism" (p. 34).

appeals

to

"misleadingheritage of

We understandNimni's good in-

quite contradictory. If we

tentions, but we thinkhis attitudeis

were convincedthat Marx's theory is founded on a formof

evolutionismand economicdeterminism inevitablyopening on a

Eurocentricworldview, we should certainly be anti-Marxists. In

reality, the premise of

thought and

Nimni's essay is a caricatureof Marx's

wouldbe more appropriate as a characterizationof

 

the

quite

differentmaterialist Weltanschauungen

Kautsky, Plekhanovand Bukharin.Some

 

writings of

Engels,

firstof all the

Communist

Manifesto, undoubtedly present

aspects of an evolutionistor economicdeterminist tendency in

their interpretation

of history. However, itwould be totallywrong

thought to a viewof society and

development of productive

model.

forin-

to reduce the wholeof Marx's

history as theresult of naturallaws of

forces, or as a seriesof

stagesaccording to the European

Some of Nimni'scritical remarks are indeed relevant -

stance, when he observesthat Marx and

Engels

did not un-

derstandthose nationalist movements that were

neither willing

analysis is

some-

nor able to establisha nationalstate. But too oftenhis

extremely unilateral, generalizing fromisolated phrases;

timesit tendsto becomea caricature bearing littleresemblance to

Marx'sideas.

  • 2. Some passages of theCommunist Manifesto can be read as a

thehistorical work of

capitalism in destroying the

true apology of

feudalorder and, in general, all archaicsocial formations. Marx

and

Engels assigned

a

"revolutionary" characterto capitalism

Europe,

in a period in which, withinthe

outsidethe frontiersof

continent, they consideredthe conditions ripe fora socialistrevo-

lution.In India, GreatBritain would have on one hand

destroyed

theancient society and, on theother hand, laiddown the founda-

tionsfor modernsocial

tionof the

developmentthrough the industrializa-

Marxdefined England, the

leading

the "unconsciousinstrument of

133). In the same vein, Engels

country. In 1853

forceof this social change, as

History"(MEW, 1957,

Bd. 9,

  • 134 SCIENCE öf SOCIETY

approved

cause,

the annexation of California

by

the United States be-

according to his explanation,

"the activeYankees would be

better than the indolent Mexicans" in assuring the economic

growth of the region (quoted

even welcomed

-

Algeria

in

in Davis, 1967, 62).

In

1848 Engels

conquest

of

as Nimni stresses - the French

as "a happy eventfor the progress of civilization" (quoted

Obviously,

it is important to criticizeand

and schematic

Engels

often

it would be

wrong Marx and
wrong
Marx and

Gallissot, 1976, 25).

condemn these statements, but

to see

denounced the

culture of their

colonial

conquests

only these passages. In reality,

mystification,deeply

epoch

and in

as

rooted in the Eurocentric

imperialistideology, that presents

saw

capitalism as

"civilizing missions." They

a system that"turns every economic progress into a social calam-

ity"(Marx,

1974, 457-458).

They

were fascinated by the

spread

of

capitalism on a world scale,

the barbaric and violent

plished. In respect

compared

the "human

but at the same time they denounced

way

in which this

process

was accom-

to the British colonization of India, Marx

progress"

to an "horrible

pagan

idol,

which did not wish to drink the nectar but in the skulls of the

killed" (MEW, 1957, Bd. 9, 226). In 1857, in an articleon

writtenfor the

American Encyclopaedia,Engels

brutality" of the

Kabylian

the hate

horrorsand the

the "Arabian and

precious

theirlife"

weal and

(quoted

Algeria

denounced "the

French "barbarouswar" against

independence

is a

tribes, for which

of foreign rule the first imperative of

defined

of the most

history"

in Gallissot,1976, 99). In 1861, Marx

to Mexico as

"one

the European expedition

monstrous enterprises

(MEW, 1957,

Bd.

in the annals of international

15, 366). This statement, and those in favorof

the Chinese in the

typical

"Opium Wars" with England, are not at all

of Eurocentrism.

Similarly, the evolutionistic interpretation of Marx cannot be

because

it schematizesand

impoverishes the complexity

reduces it to a famous

positivistic Marx-

is more de-

image

of its

the

thought. Nimni

dogma

for the

country that

the

accepted,

and the richness of his

passage

in

Capital

thatbecame a

ism of the Second International:"the

veloped industrially shows, to the less developed,

own future"

(Marx, 1974, 19). At the turn

of

Kautskyan"orthodoxy" closed Marx's

this

the century,

theory into the iron

thought

cage of

evolutionistic interpretation. The

of Marx was so

much identified with the social-Darwinistictheories that the

THE NATIONAL QUESTION 135

Gramsciwelcomed the Russianrevolution of 1917 as a

However,

young

"revolution againstCapitar (Gramsci,1967, 80-83).

this singlepassage

does not at all

represent Marx's theory in its

all coun-

primitive

writings on

totality. He neverclaimed to transposemechanically to

tries the

developmentstages

of Western Europe

-

and his

communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism

-

pre-capitalist societiesare hypotheses forfurther research, rather

than unquestionable conclusions.With respect to Russia, in 1881-

  • 1882 Marx consideredthe

the obshchina (the Russian

socialistrevolution in

possibility of a

directtransition from

peasantcommunity) to communism,

capital-

without goingthrough all the"terrible ups and downs"of

ism, ifa

peasant revolutionin Russiashould fuse together witha

Europe.

In a lettersent in 1877 to the

Russian reviewOtchestvenie Zapiski, Marx warned the readers

against the danger of

transforming into a
transforming
into a

his "outlineof the

capitalism in Western Europe"

theory of the general

genesis of

"historical-philosophical

peoples,

in

any

In

19, 111).

march fatally laid to all

situation they findthemselves" (MEW, 1957, Bd.

  • 1881 he reaffirmedthe same concept in a famousletter to Vera

Zasulich, wherehe presented thetraditional rural community as

the

"startingpoint forthe

Bd.

social

regeneration of Russia" (MEW,

The Russian Marxists, led by

1957,

35, 167; cf. Shanin,1984).

Plekhanov, towhom the idea of

"skipping"capitalism appeared as

was foundand

only an example of the

a populistheresy, scrupulously hid thisletter (it

publishedby

Riazanovin

1911).

anti-evolutionist

currents in

It is

Marx's writings.

3. Marxand Engels formulatedan idea, morethan an accom-

national question. This fact

represents a

time pro-

plishedtheory, of the

limitationof theirtheoretical elaboration, but at same

tects against the danger of a

like those

too-rigid and normative definition,

nation as an economic-

proposed by Kautsky(the

linguistic-territorial entity) or Stalin (the nationas an economic,

territorial, linguistical, culturaland psychologicalcommunity)

(see Löwy,

1976, n. 96; Traverso,1984, n. 1). Both German

revolutionarieslived in an epoch stillmarked by theformation of

some nationalstates in

gary),

Europe (Germany,Italy,

Poland, Hun-

and this fact necessarily influencedtheir view. We can

deduce fromtheir writings a concept of thenation as a historical

formation linkedto the riseof the

capitalist mode of production

  • 136 SCIENCE öf SOCIETY

and

crystallized in a political superstructure: the

and

Weill,

national state

(see Rodinson, 1968, 133; Haupt

concept was never developed

1974, n. 2), but this

in a

systematicway. This in-

probably

by

dominated

completeness in their analysis of the national question

linked to their belief that they lived in an

bourgeois cosmopolitanism and by

of a socialism

epoch

is

the advent, in the near future,

transcending national conflicts.In a work such as

the Communist Manifesto,cosmopolitanism and internationalism

tend to fuse. There, the internationalizationof the

capitalist mode

of production and the formationof theworld market are seen as a

process which"has made cosmopolitan[kosmopolitisch] the produc-

tion and

the consumption

dependence

capitalism

of all the

countries,"

upon

establishing a

"universal

of all nations

one another" and

creating a "world

social

life,

literature."In this ceaseless transformationof

would have

subjected "the country

to the

town, the barbarous and semi-barbarousnations to the civilized

ones, the

peasant peoples

to the

bourgeois peoples,

This

the Orient to

the Occident"

(MEW, 1957, Bd. 4, 466).

admiring account of

of

production,

more and

everyday

the revolutionary functionof the capitalist mode

viewed as an economic

more

unify

the world

system

that would

materially and "spiritually" and suppress

the basis for national conflicts, certainly led the authors of the

Manifesto to neglect the importance of the

underestimation, whichdoubtless

national

question.

This

contains some elementsof eco-

nomic reductionismand Eurocentrism, marked in particular the

writings of Marx and Engels

of 1848-1849.

It is true thatthe Communist Manifesto containssome doubtful

formulations; it is, however, inaccurate to write, as Nimni does,

that for Marx and

advancing

of the

tide of

Engels

"the nation will be abolished by the

they wroteis thatthe

supremacy

of "national de-

history." What

proletariat will cause the disappearance

limitations (Absonderungen) and antagonisms between peoples."

Absonderung can

tion or

in our

essay

be translatedas difference,delimitation, separa-

isolation.The most likelyinterpretation of this phrase is,

opinion,

the one

presented by

Roman

Rosdolsky in an

that in a com-

from 1965: when Marx and

Engels hoped

antagonisms

and delimitationswill dis-

existing ethnic

absurd!) but

the 'abolition'of

munist society national

appear,

they meant

"certainly not

and linguistic communities (which would have been

the political delimitationsof peoples. In a society in which (in the

THE NATIONAL QUESTION

137

words of the Manifesto) 'the public power

will lose its

political

character' and thestate as such will wither away, there can be no

"

roomfor separate 'nationalstates'

(Rosdolsky, 1965,335; fora

was

different,"minimalist," interpretation,

see Bloom, 1941, 26).

Engels

This internationalist standpoint of Marx and

basednot on some perverse "unilinearand Eurocentric" ideology,

but on thehumanist hope thatin a socialist world, a worldwithout

frontiers, not only

butalso

appear,

The Irish

proach

and

Their

tioncarried out

not

only

the

wild

force just

to

nationwas not

national antagonisms and conflictswill dis-

political(but not cultural)

the economic, socialand

differencesbetween nations (See

example

Löwy, 1981a, n. 14).

illuminatesa differenttheoretical ap-

to the national phenomenon thatcan be foundin Marx

Engels. The criterionthat brought themto recognize Ireland

essentiallypolitical.

as a historicalnation was not economic, but

startingpoint was the understanding of the Irish people's

wishto becomean independent nation.In Ireland, nationalism

grewstronger in direct proportion to the

by

process of denationaliza-

British imperialism. This process determined

island,

but even a true

economic spoliation of the

linguistic assimilationof the Irish, who abandoned the Gaelic

tongue in orderto speakEnglish. Engels wrote:"After the most

repression, after everyattempt at

extermination, the Irish

took breathand raised themselves again, as if they drew their

fromthe garrison thatwas imposedupon

1975,192). In this case,

themin order

the

concept of

oppress them" (Engels,

defined according to objective criteria (economy,

but ratherwas foundedon a

subjective

language,territory, etc.),

element:the will of the Irishto liberatethemselves from British

rule.This conception, in whichit is difficultto

find anysigns of

"economicreductionism," instead emphasized the importance of

national identity and interiority. In

1939

Trotskyadopted

the

samemethod, in a discussionwith C. L. R. James aboutthe Black

question in

America, arguing that"on thismatter an abstract

criterionis notdecisive, butthe historical consciousness, thefeel-

ings and the impulses of a group are

phenomenon

more important"(Trotsky,

of

the

bothissue

1978,28). In reality, thetwo main Marxist interpretations

national

  • - on one hand, the economicand de-

incompleteness and

terministic theory of Kautsky and Stalin and, on the other, the

historicaland cultural theory of Bauer and

fromthe classicalMarxist approach, whose

-

Trotsky

  • 138 SCIENCE öf SOCIETY

fluidity can be developed in eitheran evolutionisticor a dialectical

way. In his

attempt to prove

thatMarx's viewsare not

fragmentary

and incomplete,

whole,

but a

systematic and coherent "evolutionist"

(and Engels')

"fundamentaltheore-

Nimni argues thathis

tical

assumption"

was that "every national state" is

"indissolubly

linked withthe universalizationof the

capitalist mode of produc-

accord-

right

of

tionand the hegemony of the bourgeoisie." This explains,

ing

to him,

Marx's and

Engels'

"firm

advocacy

of the

self-determinationto the Irish and Poles," and at the same time

the harsh treatmentof the "southern Slavs." Now, far from

supporting Ireland because of "bourgeois hegemony," Marx was

verypleased that the hegemonic

agrarian struggle,

the Fenians,

forcesin the Irish national and

were "characterized by a socialist

tendency(in a negative sense, directed against the appropriation

of the

soil)" (Marx, n.d.,

323). The reasons for

supporting Poland,

and not Serbian or Bohemian nationalism, were not economistic

("the universalizationof the

political:

capitalisteconomy")

anti-

logical

but

exclusively

the Polish national movementwas

tsarist, while the

Tsarism. In

political attitude

outcome of a

others were considered

by Marx as manipulated by

thathis

argue

thatit was the

the case of the South Slavs, one can

was wrong;

one cannot

prove

general

should Poland be more

even less of the "classical

"evolutionist"and "Eurocentric"view

"European"

than,

(by the way, why

and

say, Bohemia?),

epistemology of Marxism."

4. With

respect to the

theory of "non-historical nations," there

argument:

on one side, he

is a basic contradictionin Nimni's

writesthat this theory is "a clear effect"of the "classical Marxist

epistemology" withits "universal

tion"

(308).

But two

pages

of social transforma-

Hegelian

processes

later he observes that this

considersit

conceptualization is "in direct opposition

conception of history"! He even

"idealist

speculations"

to a historicalmaterialist

"strange" to findsuch

echoed "in the works of the founders of

entirelyagree

with this last

historical materialism" (310). We

thesis, but it is

The other

Marx the same viewsas

obviouslyincompatible with the firstone.

problem is

that Nimni insists on

Engels

attributing to

about the "non-historical peoples,"

argu-

offeringvery littleevidence for this. Let us examine his

ment:

THE NATIONAL QUESTION 139

a)

It is "unthinkable"that Marx and

Engels

"would

disagree

over such a fundamental issue." Well, this

There is nothing to show thatMarx

begs the question.

or

disagreed (or

either agreed

theory:

did not care to take a stand) withthis

did notuse it in his

writings. It

the factit is thathe

is therefore arbitrary to impute such

Engels

have been

and scholars on several

views to him. Differencesbetween Marx and

observed

issues -

by

Marxist

philosophers

without necessarlyinvolving any explicitdisagreement.

There is no reason why thisshould be "unthinkable"in relationto

the national

b)

question.

"Marx also

indulged

in a derogatory denunciationof small

national communities." He used

and non-western European

"abusive

language"

minorities."As

examples,

Spaniards,

and was "impatient and intolerantwith ethnic

Nimni

quotes

some remarks about

Mexicans and Chinese. Now, none of those nations is

an "ethnic minority" and none was considered as "non-historic"

by

either Marx or

Engels (they had already a state). And Span-

-

geographically or historically

a "small"

iards are not - either

or "non-Western" nation!

Moreover, the

quotation

about China is taken

completely out

of context by Nimni: far

this article

rope

. . .

maydepend

-

Empire

Celestial

the

from being "derogatory" towards China,

of the

people

of Eu-

projects that "the next uprising

more

probably on whatis now passing in the

-

than

on any

very opposite of Europe

. .

It

other political cause thatnow exists ..

may safely be augured

spark

into the over-

that the Chinese revolutionwill throw the

loaded mine of the present industrial system and cause the explo-

sion of the

long

prepared general crisis,which,

followed

by political

67, 73). Far from

spreading

abroad,

will be closely

(Marx, 1969,

revolutionsin the Continent"

being "Eurocentric," this

as were

pre-

many other wildly op-

surprisingly

diction - alas, enterelywrong,

timistic predictions

of Marx and his followers - is

akin to the most extreme "third-worldism"of the 1960s.

True, Marx often refers to the Chinese nation as "semi-

barbarian"; but writing about the Chinese war against English

imperialism in 1858 he

observes that this nation "stood on the

ethicalmotives" (the

representative of over-

principle of morality" and was "promptedby

refusalto

accept opium trade),

while "the

whelming modern societyfights forthe privilege of buying in the

cheapest and selling

in the

dearest market" (Marx, 1969, 343-4).

  • 140 SCIENCE 6f SOCIETY

There is no doubt thatone can findin both Marx and

Engels

all kindsof "derogatory remarks"in referencesto several nations;

it is also true that their

horrible

expressions,

private correspondence

contains some

like the infamous

"Jewishnigger" formula

a "theory"

"histori-

great

theirshare

for Lassalle. But we do not believe thatone can make

out of all this, particularly if one considersthat the

cal nations" (France,

Germany,England) also receive

of "derogatory remarks."

1840s and 50s a

tions, but this was not

It is also true that there is in some of Marx's

very negative

writings of the

assessmentof the South-Slav na-

"evolu-

It was rather

organically linked to any general

philosophy.

tionist, economicistand Eurocentric"

the ad hoc

product

tion, and of

of his obsessivefear of Tsarist counterrevolu-

Panslavism as a tool of the Tsar. As soon as the

prospects of revolution in Russia began

1870),

this negative assessment disapears

to materialize (after

entirely from his writ-

ings.

5. Engels' approach

to the so-called "non-historical peoples"

vocabulary this term designated

 

the

and in-

wrote:

vitality."Engels

history, who,

fromthe

stage

of

civilization, are

geographical, political

was very

different.In his

nations lacking the "historical,

dustrial premises of independence and

"Nations (Völker), who never had theirown

momentwhen they arriveat the firstraw

already under foreign domination, or whichwere compelled by a

foreignyoke

to enter the

first stage

of civilization, have

form of

no vitality

independ-

(Lebensfähigkeit)

ence"

(MEW,

nationsthat knew

a

foreign

state

and will never achieve any

and that, in his opinion,

1957, Bd. 6, 275). Engels was referring to those

permanently in their history the political rule of

were doomed to be

assimilated by the

tions. Engels

socially and economically more advanced na-

continued:

Thereis no country in Europe whichdoes nothave in somecorner or otherone

or

several fragments of peoples(Völkerruinen), theremnant of a former popula-

suppressed and heldin bondageby

thenation which later became

Entwick-

tionthat was

themain vehicle for historical development(Trägerin der geschichtlichen

lung). These relicsof a nation, mercilesslytrampled underthe course of history,

as

Hegel says theseresidual fragments of peoples(Völkerabfalle)

of counter-revolution

always become

fanaticalstandard-bearers

and remainso untiltheir com-

THE NATIONAL QUESTION

141

pleteextirpation or loss of

Entnationalisierung),

just

against a

theirnational character (gänzlichenVertilgung

general is

itselfa

6, 172.)

oder

as theirwhole existence in

protest

great historicalrevolution. (MEW, 1957, Bd.

This

category included, according to Engels,

According to Engels,

the Gaels of Scot-

land, the Bretons, the Basques, the

Eastern Europe

and, in

Yiddish-speakingJews of

great European nations

exception

particular, the SouthernSlavs.

in 1848 the

wereon theside of revolution, whilethe Slavs (with the

of the Poles) were allied withTsarism on the side of reaction.

Engels did not

playedby

it

try to grasp thesocial causes of the"vendean" role

thesenational movements in 1848, but simply deduced

nature.The fail-

fromtheir supposed"counterrevolutionary"

ure of the 1848 revolutionshad

precise causes,

whichwere not

epoch

in whichthe

problems on

the

agenda:

the

bourgeois

Löwy,

its basic inconsis-

 

the Slavonic

brilliantly

uprisings of 1848 in the light of

Eastern Europe:

at all the "vendean"nature of the SouthernSlavs. Rather, this

defeatwas linkedto a historicalcontext: an

Europeanbourgeoisie had exhaustedits revolutionarypotential

(being

unable to solve the main

nationaland

ready to

agrarianquestions), and the proletariat was not yet

take power. In other words, itwas too late for a

"without history" was

Rosdolsky, who proved

revolutionand too soon for a socialistrevolution (see

1981b,27).

Engels' theory of peoples

criticized by Roman

tency. He explains the reactionary role playedby

nationalmovements during the

the intrinsiccontradictions of the revolutionin

somenations who fought fortheir own liberation, likePoland and

Hungary,oppressed othernationalities and ethnicalminorities in

theirown bosom. The

leading

social forcesof the Polish and

the gentry,opposed

Ruthenians (Ukrainians) of

Magyar movementswere the bourgeoisie and

to the other "peasant nations."The

Galicia, for example,

did not support the demand for Polish

independence, because theyalready defendedthe embryos of

theirown

national identity, a

national identity whicheven ex-

pressed theirclass conflict withthe Polish landowners. Serbs, Croa-

tians,Romanians, Slovaksand all the other "peasant

nations"

of Southeastern Europe took the same attitudetowards the

Germansand the

Magyars. In

reality, theseso-called "non-his-

torical peoples" would have participated in the revolutionif

  • 142 SCIENCE tf SOCIETY

they

had obtained a land reformfrom the

bourgeoisie

and the

gentry, but the chauvinist and conservative

German,

cept

this and

Tsarist counterrevolution.Instead of

leadership of the

Polish and Magyar national movementswould not ac-

pushed

the

peasant

masses into the arms of the

grasping - witha Marxist

method - the social roots of the Pan-Slavistmovement, Engels

drew a

map of Europe

based on two

categories: "revolutionary

firstviewed as histor-

fragments of the past.

next awak-

anti-

nations"and

"peoples without history," the

second

regarded

as dead

ically viable, the

This

ening

position,

of the

whichdenies a

priori the possibility of a

"peoples without history,"

proves,

with a

large

is

completely

dialectical. Rosdolsky

even after

list of

citations, that

1848 Engels

Europe

as a

retained his view of the revolution in

basically

the

Germanrevolution, with the

Polish) and the same enemies

East-Central

same allies (in the

first place

(tsarist Russia and the Pan-Slavist movement) (see Rosdolsky,

1979, 125).

Already

at the end of the 19th

century,facing the birthof the

Kautsky denounced

his

great work

185). In 1907, in

recogniz-

Socialist movementin the Balkan countries,

Engels'

mistake (See Haupt,

question,

on the national

ing

nationalities (i.e.,

ch. 3). In his

explains

national

played

that

rights

a not less

1980,

Otto Bauer criticized Engels,

the social and cultural development of the differentSlavonic

their adaptation

to

modern life)(Bauer, 1975, 1,

he

critique,Rosdolsky introducesanother argument:

during

were

Cromwell's revolution the Irish

-

justly supported by

Marx and

whose

-

Engels

reactionary role than the

AustrianSlavs in 1848.

Nevertheless, they laterbuilt a national anti-imperialist movement

(Rosdolsky, 1979, 116). Through a critique

of the Neue Reinische

Zeitung's attitude, Rosdolsky elaboratesa brilliantMarxist analysis

of the national

again,

as Nimni

question in

the 1848 revolution.Far from

Engels' "paradigmatictrap"

very

falling

of the

clear

thinks, into

"historicaland non-historicalnations," he comes to a

conclusion:

the theory of the geschichtlosen

conception

of

Völkeris nothing but "a

history and

thereforea

residue of the idealistic

foreignbody in the

We can

agree

theoretical system of Marxism" (Ibid., 121).

Engels

withNimni's statementthat the attitudeof

towards the South Slavonic nations reveals some elements of

positivistic evolutionism, economic determinismand Eurocen-

trism. Marx's friend doubtless internalized the cultural preju-

THE NATIONAL QUESTION 143

dicesof

19th-centuryEurope,

butit would be

wrong to generalize

thisattitude: the

concept of "people without history"represents

only an aspect of Engels'approach to the national question.

spread widelyamong

theso-called "non-historical

From the end of the 19th century onwards, Marxistideas

the ethnicextra-territorial

minorities and

nations" of East-Central Europe. The

workers'movement and theSocialist intelligentsia ofthese nations

foundin Marxist theory thebest intellectual instrument to

their oppression, to grasp

explain

the historical process of formationof

project of both

theircultural identity and, at last, to elaboratea

social and nationalliberation. The concept of cultural-national

autonomy was createdfirst of all

by

theMarxist currents of such

oppressed nationalitiesas the Slavs (the SlavonicFederation of

Austrian Social-Democracy), the Jews(the Bund) and theArme-

nians (the "Specifists"). The Socialistsof

Bohemia (Smeral),Bulgaria (Blagoev),

Gherea), Georgia

(Kristan) and

the

Ukraina (Rosdolsky),

(Dobrogeanu-

Romania

(Jordania), as well as the Austrian-Slavonic

Russian-Jewish(Medem, Borokhov) Socialists,

used Marxismto analyze theirdifferent national realities (see

national question

esp. to
esp.
to

Weill,1987). The theory of peoples "without history"appeared

themas totallywrong and useless, butthis was nota

for rejecting the Marxist theory of the

good

reason

as a

whole.In the years betweenthe world wars, the Spanish Marxists

whowere most instrumental in developing thetheoretical analysis

of the national question were Andreu Nin, a Catalan, and

Arenillabrothers, two

the

Basques (See Nin, 1977, esp. 70-72; Are-

national question was

by

thesocialists of

nillas,1978). If the Marxistdebate on the

carriedforward, after Engels' death, aboveall

theethnic minorities and the

oppressed nations, thismeans that

theclassical Marxist writings on thismatter had somelimitations

and did notresolve the problem(that muchis obvious), but also

thatMarxist theory was indispensable in orderto confront nation-

al issues.

6. In conclusion:if

Engels

is

vague

the concept of

and

nationelaborated by Marx

and

incomplete, if Engels' theory of the

pseudo-historicist

metaphysics totally

"non-historical"

peoples is a

foreign to Marxism, what remainsof theirreflections on the

national problem? We shall attempt nowto synthesize theclassical

Marxist approach.

  • 144 SCIENCE öf SOCIETY

In 1867,

when they returnedto the Irish

question,

Marx and

Engels acquired a basic

oppressed nations. They

not only

key

for

theoretical point: the dichotomy dominanti

saw in the colonial dominationof Ireland

people's oppression,

the

but also the

English working class, the

the source of the Irish

explaining the impotence of

most numerous and

organized proletariat of the world in the

feelings of

English workerstowards the Irish were

bourgeoisie,

which

exploited this an-

to oppress

second half of the 19th century. The chauvinismand

national

superiority of the

by

nourished

tagonism

the

the British

in order to maintainits rule in Ireland and

English proletariat. Marx wrote in 1870:

Every industrialand commercialcenter in

England now possesses a working

classdivided into two hostile camps,English proletarians and Irish proletarians.

The

ordinaryEnglish workerhates the

Irish worker as a

competitor wholowers

hisstandard of life.In relationto theIrish worker he feelshimself a memberof

the ruling nationand so turnshimself into a toolof the aristocrats and capitalists

against Ireland, thus strengthening

theirdomination over

himself. . . .

This an-

tagonism is the secret of the impotenceof the

English working class, despite its

organization. It is thesecret by whichthe capitalist classmaintains its power. And

thatclass is

fully awareof it. (Marx-Engels, 1965,236-7.)

Marxthus formulated two concepts whichwould become the basis

of Lenin's theory ofnational self-determination:

oppresses anothercannot be free

fortune"for a

people

(Engels

a) thenation that

consideredit a "mis-

to rule over another);b) the liberationof

premise forthe socialist revolution in the

the oppressed nationis a

dominantnation itself.

Today, this approach stillretains its importance and validity,

absolutelynecessary premise forthe development

methodological

and remainsan

and thetheoretical enrichment of Marxism.This

approach is neithereconomic determinisi nor Eurocentric, but

simplyrepresents an irreplaceablecompass forthose who believe

in internationalism.

We cannotconsider ourselves Marxists if we

do not support the right ofself-determination ofNew Caledonia's

Kanaks in France,

of Palestiniansin Israel, of Armeniansand

Balticnationalities in USSR, of Kosovo'sAlbaneses in

of Kurdsin Iran,

do not

struggle in

Iraq, Syria and Turkey; last, butnot

Yugoslavia,

least, ifwe

theUnited States against theAmerican military

Ephraim Nimni agrees

interventionin Nicaragua and Salvador.If

withus - as we hope he does - on this conclusion, he must

THE NATIONAL QUESTION

145

recognize

approach

that it is

to criticize Marx's and

Engels'

possible

to the national

question without rejecting Marxism.

 

ENZO TRAVERSO

MICHAEL LÖWY

Paris, France

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