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Progressive nationalism discussion

A few highlights of the previous discussion:


I was wondering under what  circumstances Platypi would consider nationalism as progressive, or as having a role to play within the left.

I was reading the "Who is  Responsible?" interview with Fred Halliday, and was struck by his
hostility to Irish Republicanism, which he describes as religious-ethnic hatred dressed up in progressive language. While there have
always been those within the Republican movement whose main concern was settling scores with northern Protestants, for the most part its
history-- starting in the French Revolutionary era, when liberal Protestants called for the unity of all Irishmen to break the
connection with Britain-- has been one of opposing the source of sectarian divisions, rather than attempting to intensify them. I'd be
interested to know what members of the group think in regards to what role progressive nationalism, if there is such a thing, has to play
in the past and present.


For Marx and Engels, the 'progressive' aspect in (bourgeois) nationalism was in its capacity to further the development of the proletariat and the centralization of the state; for example, on occasion they supported German unification.  However the rule was not hard or fast-- in the case of Eastern European nationalism before the 1870s, for example, both Marx and Engels suspected that a national revolution would be coopted by the Russian Tsar and its feudal regime and thereby debilitate the international working class.  A good account of Marx and Engels own politics with respect to the "national question" can be found in both Edmund Wilson's 'To the Finland Station' and Franz Mehring's 'Karl Marx: His Life'.

Lenin and Luxemburg continued Marx's revolutionary tradition, however argued that the bourgeoisie's capacity for 'progressive' nationalism had been exhausted.  Therefore both were intensely critical and suspicious of "nationalist" movements, which were in the case of Europe seen as plots of the bourgeois to deceive the masses and their national proletariat.  The roots of both revolutionaries' radicalism is to be found in their sharp and intellectually stimulating critiques of nationalist populism: Lenin's 'Development of Capitalism in Russia' and Luxemburg's 'Industrial Development of Poland'.  The implicit aim of these works was to show that autarky on the basis of peasant communes was impossible, that capitalist development was a 'progressive' development (albeit problematic), and show how the only progressive solution to the current problems was international proletarian revolution.  This view basically guided both figure's politics ever since.

Another interesting piece of this story is Trotsky, who following the Russian Revolution of 1905 developed his notion of 'permanant revolution' in his pamphlet, 'Results and Prospects'.  Here Trotsky analyzed the strengths and limitations of the revolution, and predicted that future revolutions would require proletarian leadership because the parties of the peasantry and bourgeoisie were incapable of making a 'bourgois'-democratic revolution possible.


from Adorno's lecture given in post-war Germany "The Meaning of Working Through the Past" which I have found helpful:

"Nationalism today is both obsolete and up-to-date. Obsolete, because in the face of the compulsory coalition of nations into great blocs under the supremacy of the most powerful country, which is already dictated by the the development in weapons technology alone, the individual sovereign nations, at least in advanced continental Europe, have forfeited their historical substance. The idea of the nation, in which the common economic interests of free and independent citizens once united against the territorial barriers of feudalism, has itself become a barrier to the obvious potential of society as a totality. But nationalism is up-to-date in so far as the traditional and psychologically supremely invested idea of nation, which still expresses the community of interests within the international economy, alone has sufficient force to mobilize hundreds of millions of people for goals they cannot immediately identify as their own. Nationalism does not completely believe in itself anymore, and yet it is a political necessity because it is the most effective means of motivating people to insist on conditions that are, viewed objectively, obsolete. This is why, as something ill at ease with itself, intentionally self-deluded, it has taken on grotesque features nowadays."

All this is to point out that nationalism as a political form is only potentially "progressive" to the extent that a violent and painful symptom in a patient undergoing psychotherapy can point towards the pathogenic root of their illness, and lead to progress in its coming to self-consciousness, and thus towards its treatment. I believe that this is what a political figure like Lenin would have meant, of course sans the psychology, when he spoke of support for national self-determination. Such nationalist-consciousness was only endorsed as a means to making more acute the need for proletarian internationalist consciousness, in a context in which it was organizationally possible for the latter political consciousness to be fought for. It had to emerge in order to be struggled with. Today however, nationalist-consciousness only serves to suppress forms of consciousness adequate to the tasks of freedom. [...]

Therefore, nationalism as necessity must to confronted with the image of its own oppressiveness.


Then there's the issue of Lenin and Luxemburg on the political relation of proletarian socialism to democratic struggles for self-determination, including "national" ones, and Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution, which seeks to overcome "stage theories" of the struggle for socialism, i.e., that one needs to first subordinate oneself to a "bourgeois-democratic" phase of political struggle before attemptying to struggle for socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat. All three would agree that the proletariat needs to struggle to take the lead of (otherwise "bourgeois," meaning within the historical limits of capital) democratic revolutions, in order to push them further in the direction of the proletarian socialist revolution against capital.

The problem is that "Marxists" of all varieties have tried to extrapolate from their positions to make arguments beyond the specific cases under consideration. The practical politics of Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution does not translate well to cases other than Russia, because Russia was uniquely in the position of being able to spark and be bound up with European-wide (and, as Lenin would point out, Asian) revolution.

What LLT cared about above all was the self-determination of the working class in the struggle for socialism, which meant first and foremost overcoming nationalist separations that prevented this.

Taking the national-spatial frame for one's politics or even analysis has proven the surest route for the opportunist liquidation of Marxism: Trotsky called it "adopting a Stalinist method even while being supposedly against Stalinism."

I don't think that, as Ben B. put it, that nationalism is a necessary symptom to be worked through. For most countries in the world are not "nations" in any historically meaningful sense: they are not unified labor markets that provide a meaningful social-political basis for proletarianization. Only a few such nations have ever existed as anything like actual, effective social-political entities for the mediation of capital, and even they only problematically (e.g., Britain, France, the U.S.). On the other hand, counterrevolution against the possibility of international socialism has taken the form of the politics of the nation-state, in which, e.g., the USSR and China have also taken part. We can skip nationalism and do not need to overcome it immanently, in part because it has become weakened since its mid-20th Century reactionary heyday (for which Adorno had to recognize it as a nearly insurmountable obstacle).

Today, we would struggle against more extreme localisms (e.g., Scottish identity, various indigenist identities) as well as broader regionalisms and ethno-religious identities (e.g., Islamism, which contains a distinct Arab-suprematist racism) and less against nationalism per se.

In this context, the fact of the U.S. as global hegemon and its not being really a "national" state at all, but rather a "nation of nations," in which nearly all other groups in the world have a significant presence, could be a great boon for constituting a cosmopolitan anticapitalist politics of proletarian socialism. North America could be the natural nerve-center for a global Left. Platypus needs to be unabashed in offering a perspective that flows from the possiblity of creating a global "dictatorship of the proletariat" starting in North America.


I think a short answer to the question of "progressive" nationalism is that nationalism ceased to have a "progressive" character after the 1860s. There is no possibility for "progressive" nationalism anymore because there is nowhere in the world where capitalism needs to be advanced against pre-capitalist brakes. "Progressive" nationalism implies a pro-capitalist attitude. A confusion has been engendered by blurring two separate issues: whether nationalism is "progressive" and whether people X have "a right to national self-determination". To the extent that national oppression is seen as an obstacle to social revolution Marxists have defended "self determination" and also as an heir to liberalism , national self determination is seen as a legitimate "right" by Marxists , but this is not an absolute principle but "all other things being equal". "National self determination" is an inherently problematic concept, thus Israeli and Palestinian rights to "self-determination" for example are in fundamental conflict.

To the extent that the anti-colonial struggle of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s took on the character of Third World nationalism this has to be seen as a defeat. Nationalism is historically an ideology of the left (early 19th century) that in the mid-19th century shifted to being an ideology of the right, but this shift has left problematic remnants that have continued to disorient and disrupt the left. Much of the 20th century is the unfortunately successful export of 19th century European ideology to the rest=2 0of the planet.


Whereas nationalism was probably spent as a progressive ideology by the middle 19th century (and for Marx and Engels this meant chiefly German, Italian and potentially Slavic nationalisms, correct?) the question of national liberation remained pertinent into the 20th century, and probably still matters in some areas today, albeit often in a deeply problematic way as in Israel-Palestine. Of course even "national liberation" became something of a fetish for the 20th century left, to say the least. Platypus can hopefully reclaim the notion of national liberation as a historic necessity, while also speaking the (unpleasant for many on the left) truth that today few genuine cases of "national oppression" really remain (most of these are in the most godforsaken backwaters, for example, something like the West Papua situation in Indonesia comes to mind, or a situation like Tibet where the Tibetans certainly identify as an "oppressed nation" but where the character of their movement for self-determination is also wholly reactionary).

One other thought springs to mind, that the belief in national liberation is perhaps one thing that unites both the mainstream left and "decent" left...witness Hitchens's vain enthusiasm for the Kurds (shared by many other leftists historically, mainly just his pro-intervention followers today).

LLT's point was that emancipation of the working class on a national basis is impossible. At the same time, workers are oppressed as members of groups subject to national and other forms of communalist oppression. But their grievances in this regard are "bourgeois-democratic," i.e. don't point beyond capitalism. So how can a Marxian approach address them as such? By taking the lead of such bourgeois-democratic or liberal struggles, in order to tie them into the struggle against capitalism.

So the self--determination of the working class is of paramount importance, and national oppression is important only the degree to which it is an obstacle to this.

Otherwise, one is left searching the world for potential grievances and orienting oneself politically that way, the formula for opportunist adaptation, instead of the opposite, what needs to be done from a Marxian perspective, which is to regard the world from the standpoint of the necessities of emancipation beyond capital, and having one's politics flow from this. The matter of priority is important, because it is fundamentally concerns perspective and orientation, whether one is oriented to grievances as they exist, or towards their potential transformation in an actually emancipatory (anticapitalist) direction.


  • Posted 12 years ago

    I now sort of regret using the example of Ireland, because it is something of an exceptional case– most of the island obtained pseudo-independence in the early 1920s, with the establishment of the (right-wing, Catholic Church-dominated) Irish Free State. However, Connolly’s approach remains of interest to me, not only because he led the Irish Citizens Army (a socialist workers’ militia) into battle alongside the larger nationalist Irish Volunteers, but because of how in 1916 and 1968, Irish nationalism flourished because of the left’s impotence, both internationally and in Ireland.

    I understand your point about national liberation struggles playing a counterrevolutionary role, but it’s also worth considering how the left’s failures have encouraged the same liberation movements to take on nationalistic rather than emancipatory politics. Connolly, for example, was driven to action by the collapse of the Second International, which, being from a small (oppressed) nation, he had placed a great deal of his faith in. The British left’s failure to support Irish workers during the 1913 Dublin lockout, and the left’s support for World War I can be said to have caused him to turn to native bourgeois nationalists for support instead.

    There’s more I’d like to say (and ask) about the discussion so far, but I’m a little short on time. Some very interesting responses though– the asides alone (“see this, and this”) have doubled my reading list.


    by Cam Hardy on January 21, 2009 3:18 pm
  • Posted 12 years ago

    It is an interesting historical discussion, but I guess i’d be more interested in some present day analysis.

    You can have endless arguments about the last season of baseball, in the end you can never determine who the better team or players were, only who won the championship.

    by Richard Kidd on January 21, 2009 5:48 pm
  • Posted 12 years ago

    There’s a only recently translated essay by the German polemicist Wolfgang Pohrt from 1982(“The Radical Left and National Liberation Struggle”) that deals with the discussed topic on a very basic level and shows that there can’t be any “progressive” form of nationalism nowadays – here are some excerpts:

    “The right of national autonomy and state sovereignty is merely another name for the injustice of harassing, deporting, and expelling people on the grounds that they possess the wrong passport or birth certificate. And this injustice is not a corruption of the idea of the nation-state but rather its essence – admittedly rendered milder on occasion by the tolerance of reasonable people.”

    “If, nonetheless, militant leftists today do not see a reason for helplessness or even resignation in the idiotic conflict between two ethnic nationalisms, but rather a welcome opportunity for getting involved, blindly and fanatically taking sides and jumping into the “national liberation struggle” with all force of the imagination, then that has nothing to do with radical leftism, but rather with the evil, secretive desires that slumber in the hearts of German people.”


    by MN on January 22, 2009 9:01 am
  • Posted 12 years ago

    “but rather with the evil, secretive desires that slumber in the hearts of German people.”

    P.S.: Don’t take that too seriously – that’s, of course, not a solid argument but rather a provocation of the German left at that time.

    by MN on January 22, 2009 9:18 am
  • Posted 12 years ago

    I didn’t mean to return to this discussion so late, but the responses left me wanting something more. I’m particularly interested in Chris’s distinction between the right to national liberation and the right to freedom from national oppression. Am I right in saying that the distinction is, for the most part, that the former sees nationalism as an end in itself and the latter points beyond capitalism?

    I’m suspicious of the Marxist debating tactic that sees a quote from Lenin or Marx as being the final word on a subject, but I came across a couple interesting passages relevant to this discussion.

    In an 1866 letter to Engels, Marx said,

    “… It is the direct and absolute interest of the English working class to get rid of their present connection with Ireland… The English working class will never do anything before it has got rid of Ireland. The wedge must be driven in Ireland. That is why the Irish question is of such importance for the Socialist movement generally.”

    And Lenin argued, “A blow delivered against the British imperialist bourgeois rule by a rebellion in Ireland is of a hundred times greater political significance than a blow of equal weight in Asia or Africa.”

    I think it’s worth considering the effect of imperialism not just on the receiver, but how it effects the working class of the imperialist nation. Fred Halliday’s claim that British leftists had an irresponsible approach to Ireland is half true– in reality, though, I’d say most of them, with a few exceptions, subscribed to his view that the conflict was an internal dispute between ethnic/religious groups, which is the truly irresponsible position.

    by Cam Hardy on January 29, 2009 12:22 pm
  • Posted 12 years ago

    I would put it very simply, the Irish (et al.) have not only the right to be Irish (etc.), but the right not to be.

    The question is what is the relationship between the struggle against oppressions of various kinds that are reproduced in the context of capital and therefore play a part in its reproduction, and the struggle to overcome capital.

    For capital both engenders and constrains the possibility for meeting various demands for overcoming forms of social oppression, such as of “national” minorities. The question is whether and how Marxian anticapitalists can and should orient towards such struggles against oppression under capital.

    I think Marx and Lenin thought that proletarian socialists could and ought to take a leading role in such social-political struggles, which also meant struggling against nationalists for leadership of struggles against national oppression.

    Whatever Marx or Lenin might have said in any given instance, this is their overriding concern, above all else.

    I think we judge their positions at particular moments and find them either prescient or opportunistic. Meaning: it’s unclear whether Marx was right to say that Irish independence would have opened some kind of space for the struggle for socialism by the British (and Irish) working class.

    Given the intervening history, I think we should be very wary about such notions of opening a space (“driving a wedge,” etc.), especially since the “logic” of such a political position is what led to the liquidation of Marxism into nationalism in ways that Marx and Lenin would have objected to vociferously and stringently.

    It becomes a means-ends problem: whether and how internationalist (or, really, cosmopolitan) ends can be served by orienting positively towards so-called “national liberation” struggles? I think this is at least an open question, and one for which (all) previous “Marxist” approaches should be subject to ruthless critique, in order precisely to overcome their all-too-evident shortcomings.

    by Chris Cutrone on January 29, 2009 12:49 pm
  • Posted 12 years ago

    History is on Cam’s side. The social struggle in Ireland was, as Marx rightly said, national in form. Real struggle took place, the Irish working class confronted the domination of capital in the form that it took, national oppression. It would have made as little sense for them to organise labour unions to fight British troops on their streets as it would have made sense for industrial workers to organise nationalist guerilla armies. I agree with Chris Cutrone that proletarian socialists would have had to have fought for leadership of the national struggle, but then in the assessment of the British Army of the provisional IRA leadership in the 1970s, they were ‘highly motivated and working class’.

    All of this is perfunctory of course, because today both radical nationalism and socialism are today empty words, that no longer stand for any real social movement. It is hard to understand what danger Chris Cutrone thinks that nationalism poses to socialism (still less Marxism). What Socialist movement is in danger of being led astray by nationalism? What Marxist current is adapting to nationalism? We ought to talk first of re-founding Marxism, which is at the most esoteric remove from working class struggle today, and in no danger of being swept up by any popular movement. (I suppose there is a danger of radicals debasing themselves before Hamas, but that is a different question.)

    Lastly, depressed by the Euro-chauvinist left’s anti-American taunts, I would be happy to embrace Chris Cutrone’s proposal that America be the beacon and organising centre for a re-founded Marxist movement. In the nineteenth century, Socialists in Britain hung the Stars and Stripes at the front of their meeting halls as they did the Bolshevik flag in the twentieth. Still, comrade Cutrone’s proposition that America is ‘not really a national state’ but a transnational one, recalls that special kind of American nationalism that we find in Randolph Bourne (trans-natioanlism) and Ben Wattenberg (‘The First Universal Nation’, 1991). This is just the specific form that American National chauvinism takes, that the US is the universal, and all others merely particulars, E pluribus unum, and all that.

    by James Heartfield on January 29, 2009 3:51 pm
  • Posted 12 years ago

    Courting the danger of American chauvinism, I will venture that the U.S. is perhaps the only state that has not been founded on and has been most enduringly resistant to “blood and soil” principles, and that this must be taken seriously. Despite this trope being abused — including by Obama — this is not covert nationalism, I would argue. Certainly the U.S. is not a national state the way European states are. I think the British workers were in quite good stead hanging the stars and stripes (out of solidarity with the Union struggle in the Civil War?). A traditional Marxist suspicion of “falsely universalizing a particular interest” seems at work in James’s argument. But the real question is: what does “national” struggle have to do with the Left, with emancipation, let alone with anticapitalism? Far from being taken for granted, politics on a national scale needs to be justified. And this is not least because it has proven the most deadly opponent of the Left, throughout history, and is no less dangerous today. When one thinks of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez (let alone Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe), are we not dealing precisely with “anticapitalism” in words, nationalism in deeds? I would venture to say that there is not a country where there is not a history of Leftists having suffered or are currently suffering at the hands of nationalists, or chauvinists of other stripes (e.g., ethno-religious fundamentalists, et al.). Stalinism was the classic example of the liquidation of Marxism to nationalism, but so was the degeneration of 2nd Intl. social democracy, etc. But, to get back to the American question, I think not only the European bad “Left’s” anti-Americanism, but also the American “Left’s” perennial idea that Europe (as some embodiment of social democracy, e.g., Habermas and Derrida’s doleful letter against the Iraq war, and calling for building a new counterposed global power, starting in the “heart of Europe,” with Germany and France!) will save us, is a monstrous evasion and abdication of the task at hand, the transformation of global power, which has its locus for the time being in the U.S. (But it’s not only for reasons of power that so many in the world would choose to live in the U.S. if they could, but to able to escape the authoritarian communitarianism at various scales that otherwise holds so many in its grip. . . . ) — All else is not only irresponsible wishful thinking, but irresponsible at the level of politics, the necessary struggle for power.

    by Chris Cutrone on January 29, 2009 9:23 pm
  • Posted 12 years ago

    Agree with much of last argument; but don’t think the claim about the US being resistant to ‘blood and soil’ nationalism works. Draft riots in New York; populist racism, even the much of the red scares were motivated by ‘Americanism. To claim American exceptionalism here is simply wrong.

    I see no reason why one needs to put chips in with either the US or Europe will be the ‘locus’ of political transformation. They will need to come in both. Maybe the existing structures of social democracy in Western Europe will make it a more fertile groups, but maybe it won’t.

    As an American, I can do much more to change the structure of politics [more specifically, ideological reflection on politics] in the US than in France or Italy. But this doesn’t demand, nor warrant any conviction this or that nation’s superiority.

    by A Slight Quibble on January 30, 2009 9:11 am
  • Posted 12 years ago

    Note: I anticipate that the response to my point will be something like this: “the stress on the importance of American politics is a polemic against euro-centrist, anti-american leftism”

    Makes sense, and I agree that this is a real problem. Many people who call themselves leftists simply don’t like the United States. But the remedy replicates the disease.

    When taunted with nationalism, or regionalism, one simply ought to assert the priority of internationalist politics. There’s no need for any kind of national superiority, polemic or not.

    by Slight Quibble on January 30, 2009 9:17 am
  • Posted 12 years ago

    Why would an argument of exception (to European norms of nation-states) mean superiority? The issue is that an adequate addressing of the relation of culture, ideology and politics in the U.S. has been lacking, replaced instead by an attempt to superimpose a European model.

    The point is not some virtue of lack of nationalism, but rather social-political realities. The American “Left” has accepted, in an unwarranted way, a European view of the U.S., going back to at least to the 2nd Intl. period. In doing so, it has abdicated trying to understand the actual peculiar textures of American society and politics.

    Furthermore, the underlying assumption that the European “Left” has been more advanced/developed than in the U.S. is a fatuous lie — that Americans have also bought into. In fact, the relative strength of nationalism in Europe might indicate the overall backwardness of the European “Left” relative to what is possible in the U.S.

    As an example, I would point out that the ostensibly “Left” social-democratic etc. opposition to the U.S. war in Iraq was in fact from the Right.

    Please see my article on Iraq in the Platypus Review:

    An American Left would have to not catch up with but in fact lead a European Left, out of the swamp in which it is more deeply mired than might be the case for an emergent U.S. Left. The deeper history of the “Left” in Europe is not an asset but a liability, considering its history.

    On the other hand, the transformation of the U.S. into a more European-style nation-state, or the emergence of a politics (on the “Left” or Right) more self-conscious of American nationalism, would be a step backwards not forwards. The emergent issue of “immigrant” workers should warn one clearly of this.

    The social-political conditions of the U.S. and North America more generally are particularly conducive for the emergence of a cosmopolitan Left currently lacking but absolutely necessary for any possibility of overcoming capitalism. This should be recognized and not obscured under dogmatic politics that have not and will not ever work for emancipatory ends.

    by Chris Cutrone on January 30, 2009 10:27 am
  • Posted 12 years ago

    I would like to briefly take issue with something Chris wrote;
    “U.S. is perhaps the only state that has not been founded on and has been most enduringly resistant to “blood and soil” principles”
    I don’t take issue with his assessment of the US, rather with the history of European nationalism.

    In the case of Britain and France the concept of nation long predated the turn toward blood and soil nationalism in the 1870s. Initially the concept of nation was a revolutionary liberal one, expressed most powerfully in the French Revolution of 1789. It had nothing to do with blood and soil, and anyone could be a citizen of France if they partook in the culture of the Enlightenment and Revolution– which was understood to be identical with France. (Admittedly, citizenship of freed slaves or slaves was a matter of great debate, but this had more to do with their position as labor power than with their racial identity.) Even the German Kaiserreich– at least at its inception– was a political as opposed to racial concept. The victory of the “Little Germany” factions over the “Greater Germany” factions in 1867-71 meant a choice of political unification– in a liberal sense– and not racial or cultural unification. The result of the “Little Germany” victory that the German speaking parts of the Austrian empire were not incorporated into the German nation. This situation was the final moment of liberal ascendancy in Germany and a racialized version of the nation soon began to take hold. But, the ultimate point is that the concept of the nation in Europe is not identical to a blood and soil ideology. In fact, one could argue that the blood and soil argument only began to appear in Europe with the rise of an organized working class and the decline of liberalism.

    by P. Everett on January 30, 2009 6:18 pm
  • Posted 12 years ago

    I agree with Parker that Britain and France are partial exceptions, and I agree that the way German nationalism played out in the 19th Century was an abnormal case, as far as ethno-linguistic nationalism is concerned (the matter of religion is something else, however: Austria is Catholic). But this then just begs the question.

    To get back to a point made earlier (by Cam) about Ireland: I think it is extremely problematic, to say the least, to say or even hint in the slightest way that the Protestants in Northern Ireland are not really Irish (I take this from the objection registered against what is characterized as the typical British Left position of treating the Catholic-Protestant conflict as one of “internal” division: what else would it be? — what is anticipated, here, the expulsion of the Protestants?!). This is precsisely the problem of nationalism, that it disqualifies people and creates political divisions and hierarchies that are invidious to the necessary emergence of a global polity that would be needed so that we could even begin to overcome the problem of capitalism (which would require a special political role for wage laborers to play, across “national” and other “divisions,” in the process).

    by Chris Cutrone on January 31, 2009 11:28 am
  • Posted 12 years ago

    Also, in response to James, to say that history is on someone’s side is no argument. History was on the side of Stalinism, social democratic reformism — and has been on the side of capitalism in general!

    History cannot be one’s recourse simply as the basis for emancipatory politics, since emancipation beyond capital would mean emancipation from “history” as it has manifested the logic of capital.

    My argument is motivated by the Platypus imperative to read history “against the grain.” The history of “national struggles” — and the “Left’s” support for these — must certainly be read against the grain of what happened, to investigate specifically what possibilities this history has repressed.

    by Chris Cutrone on January 31, 2009 11:55 am
  • Posted 12 years ago

    Wasn’t the stock position of most Irish republicans that Protestants, North and South, were entirely Irish? Which is why there was Protestant involvement in every stage of the republican movement…

    by Ryan on January 31, 2009 12:26 pm
  • Posted 12 years ago

    Cam wrote, re-opening this thread:

    “I think it’s worth considering the effect of imperialism not just on the receiver, but how it effects the working class of the imperialist nation. Fred Halliday’s claim [in his interview with Danny Postel we read in the Platypus reading group, “Who is Responsible?”] that British leftists had an irresponsible approach to Ireland is half true -– in reality, though, I’d say most of them, with a few exceptions, subscribed to [Halliday’s] view that the conflict was an internal dispute between ethnic/religious groups, which is the truly irresponsible position.”

    This is what I was responding to, as I wrote, above:

    “I think it is extremely problematic, to say the least, to say or even hint in the slightest way that the Protestants in Northern Ireland are not really Irish (I take this from the objection registered against what is characterized as the typical British Left position of treating the Catholic-Protestant conflict as one of “internal” division: what else would it be? — what is anticipated, here, the expulsion of the Protestants?!).”

    Or, is the idea that an Irish “Left” and a British “Left” should have different positions?

    by Chris Cutrone on January 31, 2009 1:12 pm
  • Posted 12 years ago

    I don’t understand how what I said implies that Protestants are not really Irish. I consider the mainstream left’s characterization of the conflict– that it is an ethnic-religious dispute between Protestants and Catholics– to be an apology for the role of the British state in creating and sustaining sectarian divisions. In its worst form, the view I described came to be known as the two nations theory, which was followed by Unionists and, bizarrely, Irish Stalinists. This is far more divisive than anything Republicans proposed.

    What I meant with regards to how imperialism effects the working class of the imperialist nation is that, in Britain, for example, the consensus between left and right on the Irish question helped foster a sense of national unity in the face of “terrorism.” The British left should have challenged the unspoken agreement between Labour and the right that Ireland was a non-partisan issue.

    by Cam Hardy on January 31, 2009 1:46 pm
  • Posted 12 years ago

    I feel that the issue has been clouded. Let’s get back to basics.

    Cam, why were you taking issue with Halliday?

    What is the defense of the Irish “national struggle” about, fundamentally? Why is this an important topic?

    I think that a Marxian approach would in fact condemn the terrorism of the IRA (Provos).

    The overriding issue should be, what historically could have maximized the political and organizational unity of the Irish and British (English, Scottish, Welsh, et al.) working class, and allowed for its maximal political and organizational unity with workers internationally, beyond the British Isles?

    I take issue with quotations from Marx and Lenin being used to say that somehow the Irish question remains some permanent, unaltering phenomenon in which Marx and Lenin’s positions remain to be fulfilled. I think the forest is being lost for the trees, and emphasis is being placed on Marx and Lenin’s favored means while obscuring the ends for which such means were meant to serve.

    Whether or not the British Labour Party played a mendacious role in perpetuating a situation invidious for both the British and Irish workers, in the interest of a status quo in which British capital had a predominant interest, past “Left” oppositions to such Labour policies will not serve well as orienting points for grasping the issue and its trajectory.

    Instead, we may begin by saying that the Irish question is one on which the Left has had a very poor historical record, and that we must begin looking at it, historically, and in the historical legacy bequeathed us by a bad “Left,” entirely anew. Whether the Irish question is so important at present and moving forward, we can at least attempt a thorough-going critique of its history on the “Left,” to clarify for ourselves this one particular story in how the “Left” degenerated and left us in the situation we’re in today. Otherwise, it’s largely a moot point.

    by Chris Cutrone on January 31, 2009 2:48 pm
  • Posted 12 years ago

    Chris, you seem to be very critical of every nationalism but the American! You wouldn’t happen to come from there, would you? I recommend that Leninist principle, ‘the main enemy is at home’. I will attack British chauvinism, and you can attack American chauvinism. I would attack American chauvinism, but in England that would just come across as a radical motif in British chauvinism.

    You say that American nationalism is special, because it is universal. Well of course, every chauvinist thinks that their own nationalism is the special case, and everyone else’s just partisan. America is not unique in basing its national polity on the basis of the rights of man, France does too. And like France, America’s indifference to race is a principle more honoured in the breach than the observance. The role of race turned out to be a central feature of American nationalism, as in the 1924 immigration act, John Foster Dulles’ self-conscious attitude of supplanting Britain as world policeman. You don’t have to swallow every line of David Roediger and Theodore Allen’s monological thesis to see that there had to be some material there for them to work up.

    Halliday and the rest of the New Left Review team were always ultra-loyal British chauvinists when it came to Ireland. Throughout the twenty-five years conflict there, they wrote about every inch of the globe but the war going on on their own doorstep. Imagine if Rolling Stone had never written once about the Vietnam War. But then the journal was funded with Perry Anderson’s inheritance from his father, a product of the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland, who earnt the money as a customs official in the British Empire.

    Of course Marxists in Britain and Ireland had different tasks, and different arguments. The tie that bound the British working class in subordination was its patriotic embrace of the imperial project. When the troubles were at their height, British workers were often swept up in demotic campaigns against the IRA. In those circumstance, British Marxists were right to fight for the right of the Irish people to self determination, and for the right to fight back against the military occupation of their country. British workers had no illusions in the IRA – on the contrary, they shared the British ruling class’s racial hostility towards the Irish, as did the New Left Review.

    Marxist in Ireland (especially in the north) faced a wholly distinctive task. No movement that endorsed the British occupation could earn any respect among those communities fighting back. Marxists ought to have fought for leadership of the revolutionary struggle. Individually, many did, like Tommy McKearney, Seamus Costello, Eamon McCann, Finbar O Docherty and Bernadette McAliskey. At the same time, they had an obligation to challege the political programme of Sinn Fein. And on that score, they did not succeed. The leadership of the IRSP, which was the most developed marxist intervention in the struggle, were wiped out in a series of assassinations, and the IRSP was unfortunately pushed into a sectarian corner by Sinn Fein’s left turn in the 1980s, descending into guerillaism and a poisonous feud.

    The ‘bad left’s history of failure on Ireland is the history of the refusal to challenge Britain’s colonial occupation of the north of Ireland, and the left’s near universal subservience to reformist national chauvinism. Fred Halliday was at the heart of that failure.

    by James Heartfield on January 31, 2009 3:41 pm
  • Posted 12 years ago

    James’s response is a good example of what I’m talking about, the liquidation of a Marxian proletarian socialist anticapitalism in favor of trying to be the most “progressive” in the “national struggle.”

    The idea that Marxists in various countries have different duties within their various national state frames is quite contrary to the history of actual Marxism, from the 1st and 2nd through the early years of the 3rd and the Trotskyist 4th Intls. Especially the 3rd and 4th Intls. explicitly thought of themselves as single parties of world revolution with various national sections. For Lenin and Trotsky, the particular struggles of various “national” working classes were to be strictly politically subordinate to the global struggle for socialism.

    As Trotsky would have put it, “Trotskyism” of various stripes became “ostensibly anti-Stalinist but actually Stalinist in method/perspective,” i.e., adopting of the national frame for one’s politics.

    The point is the struggle for the self-determination of the working class as an international/global force, which means of course the struggle of workers of all countries against national oppression. But this is quite different from the desideratum of “national liberation,” which is in fact a contradiction in terms.

    The hostility to Halliday seems rather personalized, especially when he is made to suffer, in James’s account, from Perry Anderson’s ancestry. I detect in this the kind of mentality, scandalous in itself, of nationalism — blood and soil — to which I pointed earlier. In any case, this kind of explanation for motivation of perspectives one seeks to critique is wholly inadequate to the kind of intellectual work actually required in overcoming things like the New Left Review, which, like it or not, require, if not exactly deserve, better than a sectarian response.

    by Chris Cutrone on January 31, 2009 5:08 pm
  • Posted 12 years ago

    Chris, you are wrong to claim Lenin’s mantle in your view that the “Marxists in various countries have different duties within their various national state frames”.

    Right or wrong, Lenin’s view was crystal clear: “Is the actual condition of the workers in the oppressor and in the oppressed nations the same, from the standpoint of the national question?” he asked rhetorically; “No, it is not the same.”

    Lenin continues: “In real life the International is composed of workers divided into oppressor and oppressed nations. If its action is to be monistic, its propaganda must not be the same for both.” (

    As I hoped I made clear above, that was what Lenin thought, and that was, in my opinion a proper approach to the question of national self determination in the oppressed nations until around 1989, by which time national oppression had ceased to be a defining character of world politics.

    You are right of course that the New Left Review deserve a longer assessment. It is here:

    Can I assume that you have given up on your argument that American nationalism is exceptional?

    by James Heartfield on February 2, 2009 6:51 am
  • Posted 12 years ago

    We could go around in circles endlessly on “claiming [or renouncing] Lenin’s mantle.” (As the pseudo-“Left” always does, and always will, endlessly circling the drain.)

    But it is a matter of interpretation — and what the point of such (re)interpretation might be.

    Platypus does not seek to uphold Lenin, but to investigate what about the history of revolutionary Marxism, including Lenin’s thought and action, can be rendered useful for the possibility of a present and future Marxian Left. In other words, I am only interested in Lenin the degree to which the history of his thought and action casts the present in a critical light and reveals its emancipatory potential.

    I think James’s treatment confounds precisely the distinction between “action and propaganda” that Lenin was at such great pains to make in the argument James cites above. There is such a thing as vulgar “Leninism” (e.g., Stalinism, but also most “Trotskyism”). I think that the basis and self-understanding for Lenin’s positions is being obscured (or misunderstood) by James, in order to oppose “positions.” But I am not making propagandistic, let alone agitational points, but theoretical ones. We’re not (at least I’m not) discussing different “positions,” but rather approaches. (If that can’t be recognized here, then there can be no basis for conversation or dialogue, but only debate or polemic.)

    As I have pointed out in my arguments with Hegemonik, it is relatively easy to see what Lenin means by the workers of “oppressor” nations needing to side unconditionally with the aspirations to escape national oppression of workers of nationally oppressed peoples. It is much more difficult — and therefore much more important and necessary — to try to understand what Lenin meant when he said that workers of oppressed nations had a duty to strive for maximal political and organizational unity with the workers of oppressor nations, and that “so-called ‘cultural-national’ autonomy is reactionary.” As Lenin put it in “Socialism and War” (1915):

    “The Socialists of oppressed nations must, in their turn, unfailingly fight for the complete (including organisational) unity of the workers of the oppressed and oppressing nationalities.”

    On the U.S., I dispute not that “American nationalism is exceptional,” but that it exists at all, in the same way(s) it did in the classical European sense, i.e., that the relation between culture, ideology and politics in the U.S. can be usefully grasped from a Marxian approach to emancipation in, through and beyond capital, according to a model that is specific to the history of European states, especially when “Marxist” approaches to such nationalism in Europe themselves proved to be less than useful to an emancipatory anticapitalism. — I regard Rosa Luxemburg as favorably as I do Lenin, and I think their supposed differences are less important for us to be able to grasp than their agreements and shared purpose, which can be buried under the spurious and sectarian selective appropriations and abuses of these figures.

    But on the U.S. in particular, given the calamitous history of attempting to fit political struggles internationally to such a model of the “national state” (not only in a country like the U.S., but most especially throughout the post-colonial world) I think we cannot avoid at least questioning the model of politics in the national frame. I believe that challenging such historical politics would be smiled upon in the spirit of Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg. What united such figures in the history of revolutionary Marxism is far more important and must be prioritized over the sectarian divisions that have abused their names in the intervening history of the (political degeneration and intellectual evacuation of the) “Left.”

    The onus, rather, is on people like James to prove the relevance of the “orthodox” (really, vulgarized and flattened, and liquidated at the level of Marxism) interpretation of these historical figures. Why should past “Marxist” positions matter at all?

    My work in Platypus, on the other hand, is mandated by the need to reclaim and set back in motion neglected aspects of the complex (and entirely problematic) heritage of revolutionary Marxism (of Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky, et al.), for a completely radical point of departure from and overcoming the dead hand of all strains of bad, fake “Leftism” in the present.

    There is no “mantle” of Lenin et al. we ought to claim because this is the form of historical “transmission” that is precisely so pernicious — conservative or worse. There is only, for us to work through, their ambiguous memory, reminding and tasking us, from which we must make our own history, of the present and its problems, looking forward to the dangers as well as the opportunities of a capitalist future. — The “national struggle” has proven, over the course of the past century, to be a mortal danger to, not an opportunity for, the development of a Marxian Left.

    This is the spirit of my point about the U.S. — about which we should not become subject to “reverse nationalism,” the danger most pressing on and stymieing for the U.S. “Left” today — that we need to get away from all “Marxism” that takes the place of or stands in the way of the necessity of our own thinking.

    On our relation in Platypus to the history of revolutionary Marxism, as I have cited in one of the founding documents of Platypus, “Vicissitudes of historical consciousness and possibilities of emancipatory social-politics today,” published in The Platypus Review issue #1 (November 2007), Friedrich Nietzsche put it quite well, in “The Use and Abuse of History for Life” (1873), that,

    “A person must have the power and from time to time use it to break a past and to dissolve it, in order to be able to live. . . . People or ages serving life in this way, by judging and destroying a past, are always dangerous and in danger. . . . It is an attempt to give oneself, as it were, a past after the fact, out of which we may be descended in opposition to the one from which we are descended.” [Nietzsche translation by Ian Johnston at:

    My article is at:

    As we say in Platypus,

    “The Left is dead! — Long live the Left!”

    by Chris Cutrone on February 2, 2009 8:04 am
  • Posted 12 years ago

    James Heartfield claims Leninist “orthodoxy” on the “national question” etc., but then claims that it has become irrelevant after 1989 (i.e., the collapse of Stalinized nationalist “Marxism”)!

    This is the precise inverse of the Platypus approach, which is to say that historical defeats, such as the destruction of the USSR etc. from the Right, are consuming of history, negatively provoking critical recognition (rather than to be respected positively as simple historical verdicts), and render historical “positions” on the Left problematic and therefore a site of renewed struggle: as Benjamin put it, “even the dead are not safe.”

    So, for us, Lenin has a renewed urgency, rather than historical obsolescence, after 1989 — but only the degree to which his historical thought and action are read “against the grain” of what happened, or where they appeared to lead (“Leninism,” as both Stalinism and Maoism, but also “national liberation” struggles, etc.). (And this also goes as well for Trotsky vs. Trotskyism, etc.)

    What Heartfield perceives as historical obsolescence (of Lenin) we take as potential renewed purchase — the possibility of reappropriation (which can only be done as a critique of past appropriations). Thus Heartfield adapts to the flow of history (regression) but becomes ossified in his approach (e.g., to Lenin), while we are provoked by the sense of regression made available by history to set the past back in motion and thus resist the trend of the present.

    by Chris Cutrone on February 2, 2009 10:58 am
  • Posted 12 years ago

    P.S. To clarify what it means to read history “against the grain” vis. “national liberation” struggles, I am not saying that these were always simply reactionary, politically, but they did play out that way. The question is: what were “national liberation” struggles trying to accomplish but failed to achieve? I think that revolutionary Marxism (of Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky) was more clear about means vs. ends of struggles against national oppression in the context of capitalism than later “Marxists,” who flattened the historical positions of Lenin et al. and mistook their intentions, conflating propaganda rhetoric serving political positions with theoretical self-understandings. I think we need to look more closely at the latter and not get distracted by the former, whose practical context we don’t share. At the same time, however, what past “national liberation” struggles were trying to achieve remains to be accomplished, not least because such goals were betrayed by nationalism — including by bad varieties of pseudo-Marxism that conceded to, and adopted as their own, national frames for their politics, thus becoming essentially nationalists with “Marxist” veneers. I am opposed to such nationalist domestication of Lenin (et al.).

    by Chris Cutrone on February 2, 2009 12:04 pm
  • Posted 12 years ago

    Of course, we could argue about what Lenin said, which no doubt has its own charms, but as I said, it is of less account today, because we do not live in an era where national oppression is to the fore, as Lenin analysed it. It is, of course, no disgrace on Lenin that his political analyses were specific to their age. A timeless political theory would be a redundant one.
    The decisive change between then and now is precisely the demobilisation of mass political movements, which has its impact on ‘Third World’ nationalist movements as it does on first world socialist and labour movements. The growth of the marginal terror groups in the Islamic world has come about because of the defeat of the more secular, and broadly democratic national liberation movements indicates that there is no national sentiment to oppress. We can see a similar process in northern Ireland, where the national democratic revolution has given way leaving more narrowly-based sectaian groupings in its place.

    by James Heartfield on February 3, 2009 4:24 pm
  • Posted 12 years ago

    P.P.S. I hate having to reiterate myself, for it makes me feel that I am wasting my time, but it seems necessary, not so much for James’s benefit, which might be a lost cause, but for any and everyone else who might be reading.

    The quotation from Lenin (from “Socialism and War, 1915, from the last section of Chapter 1, “The Principles of Socialism and the War of 1914-1915,” “The right of nations to self-determination”) that I cited previously and remains on-point, is, including both its crucial parts, as follows:

    “Socialists cannot achieve their great aim [i.e., socialism, not “national liberation!” — C.C.] without fighting against all oppression of nations. Therefore, they must without fail demand that the Social-Democratic parties of oppressing countries (especially of the so-called “great” powers) should recognise and champion the right of oppressed nations to self-determination, precisely in the political sense of the term, i.e., the right to political secession. The Socialist of a ruling or colony-owning nation who fails to champion this right is a chauvinist.

    “The championing of this right, far from encouraging the formation of small states, leads, on the contrary, to the freer, fearless and therefore wider and more widespread formation of very big states and federations of states, which are more beneficial for the masses and more fully in keeping with economic development.

    “The Socialists of oppressed nations must, in their turn, unfailingly fight for the complete (including organisational) unity of the workers of the oppressed and oppressing nationalities. The idea of the juridical separation of one nation from another (so-called “cultural-national autonomy” advocated by Bauer and Renner) is reactionary.”

    The latter part is clearly the punch-line and the actual point. But the combination of the former and latter formulations is, I would say, daunting to consider. (So much so that Robert Tucker, in his standard edited reader The Lenin Anthology, excises this passage!)

    While almost all “Leninists” quote the former part ad nauseam, the latter part, stating that “The Socialists of oppressed nations must, in their turn, unfailingly fight for the complete (including organisational) unity of the workers of the oppressed and oppressing nationalities. . . . so-called “cultural-national autonomy” is reactionary,” seems to run completely counter to those “Leninists'” conception of the relation of the struggle for socialism with the “national struggle” for self-determination.

    But Lenin’s actual point is the achievement of the independent self-determination of the working class in the struggle to overcome capitalism, which can only and so must be done, not merely internationally, but indeed globally. The championing of the “right to self-determination” by the working class is not in the service of the “national struggle,” not the best/most effective means of the “national struggle,” but is indeed pursued only in order to overcome obstacles to the struggle for socialism, to which it is to be strictly subordinated, as a mere means to that more decisive end.

    Any disputes over this within an authentic Marxian framework (e.g., between Luxemburg and Lenin) are over means and not ends. But it is precisely the realm of such ends that was once taken for granted that has been, in the meantime, lost in the vulgarization and liquidation of “Marxism.”

    What is at issue is the relation of the universal to the particular. Classical national liberalism understood itself as part of the project of universal human emancipation: there was no contradiction there. But, in the meantime, the dynamic of capital has pitted workers of various “national” groups in competition against one another, rendering the relation of particular struggles against “national” (etc.) oppression to the universal struggle of human emancipation beyond capital problematic: their relation has become reversed, and the struggle against capital was sacrificed to the “national” struggle. This is a betrayal of what Marx and Lenin et al. were struggling for, to fulfill a liberal demand (for self-determination of various different groups) that capitalism made impossible under capital.

    The desideratum of emancipation, and fulfilling the task of the proper relation of concrete particular struggles in the universal task of human emancipation in, through and beyond capital fell to the struggle of the working class, which, according to Marx, Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky, thus became tasked with taking a leadership role in such particular struggles — but not as, e.g., the “Irish workers” or the “British workers,” etc. in the struggle against national oppression, but as the international proletariat in the struggle for socialism.

    Clearly, in the Lenin passage I have cited above, the latter part, on the need for “complete (including organizational) unity,” is the more radically important, more revealing of the essential self-understanding of Lenin’s politics as a Marxist, and reveals, ideologically, politically, and organizationally, the more difficult but urgent task of the proletarian struggle for socialism in the context of unfulfilled tasks of liberalism the development of capitalism has blocked. This is precisely why it continues to demand our attention, and urgently demands recovery in our understanding of the proper relation of the ends/goals and means of a Marxian Left politics, i.e., internationalism, indeed cosmopolitanism.

    If the particular concrete struggles of workers for self-determination no longer take the form of “national” struggles, they nevertheless demand a proper relation to the long-standing, remaining universal task of human emancipation beyond capital, for which Lenin’s (et al.) historical politics, especially in its original horizon of self-understanding (the struggle against capital in its broadest and deepest sense), can still teach us a great deal.

    But taking the subordinate part (e.g., the class-conscious proletariat’s obligation in taking up the concerns of the struggle against national oppression as part and parcel of its struggle for socialism) as the essence of this politics, as almost all subsequent “Marxists” have done, is to liquidate and forget, especially in actual practice (if not in what becomes entirely platitudinous lip-service verbiage), what was and remains most important and urgent about it, what Platypus is interested in remembering, and with which we seek to challenge ourselves and others.

    — Accuse Fred Halliday, et al. as much as you may want about supposed failure to adequately support the “national struggle,” but at least in Halliday’s interview with Danny Postel we read in Platypus there is registered the crucial internationalist/cosmopolitan dimension that is otherwise neglected and politically trivialized. That is the true betrayal, what we in Platypus refuse to glibly gloss over as so much “Yeah, yeah, we know we’re supposed to be internationalist” lip-service. Indeed, we refuse to tolerate or even countenance such convenient evasion and abdication of responsibility, as Halliday highlights in his article’s critique of the degeneracy of the “Left,” how the “Left” has actually become a new Right, not merely rhetorically (for supposedly failing to genuflect properly to the “national struggle,” etc.), but in fact ideologically and politically, as a factor of (the absence of an adequate) consciousness and organized practical agency:

    “The Left is dead!” — How does Platypus know this? Because we are still capable of reading Lenin in a way that tasks and haunts us, reminding us of a problem not yet worked out in practice or theory.

    by Chris Cutrone on February 5, 2009 12:19 am
  • Posted 12 years ago

    My contribution to this debate has been motivated by a set of concerns that prove counter-intuitive for most if not all on the “Left,” including perhaps my interlocutors.

    While we in Platypus would not want to fall into the trap of “supporting” the U.S. (or British etc.) govt. any more than we would want to “support” the Islamists et al., it is of prime importance for us in Platypus to bring back in the criteria of Left vs. Right and progressive-emancipatory responses to capital vs. conservative-reactionary ones. It becomes a matter of ideology — base-line assumptions.

    In this sense, it is important for us to provocatively claim that the status quo is being challenged by al-Qaeda, Baathists in Iraq, the Islamic Republic of Iran, et al. from the *Right*, in order to try to get people to think about, e.g., what the “opposition” to “imperialism” really means.

    For this purpose, Halliday’s interview with Postel on “Who is responsible?” that we read in Platypus is helpful. As Halliday himself states, it is unclear when he and Tariq Ali parted ways which one went Left and which went Right. I would say that Halliday capitulated to the status quo towards supporting “human rights” interventionism, and Ali went much worse in the direction of reaction. Neither is Left — hence Platypus saying that the “Left is dead!”

    But Halliday’s liberalism is better than Ali’s quasi-fascism, especially for thinking about the actual goals of any purported Left.

    So Halliday’s critique of Ali and the rest of the pseudo-“Left” stands, especially as an educational device. Halliday is more critical, more serving of provoking thinking about political responsibility, than Ali et al.

    But we in Platypus are not interested in the man but the argument. So what Halliday’s positions have been on Ireland etc. are largely irrelevant: he’s not being taken as a model but a corrective (to the more prevailing views on the “Left” of Ali et al.). On the other hand, Halliday”s writings on the Middle East in particular (e.g., the Iranian revolution, the Soviets in Afghanistan, etc.) are also worthwhile, specifically for bucking certain trends and helping to inform a more fine-grained perspective.

    More to the point is Moishe Postone’s essay on “History and Helplessness,” which is closer to our understanding, but also has some problems. — We think Postone is also not really “Left,” but his critique of the “Left” remains important.

    The bottom line is that there is no coherent Left perspective available today, but only fragments and shards of (a) past one(s), which we are trying to recover and re-synthesize for the present and future. This is no mere rhetoric but something we in Platypus actually do with as much careful deliberation of which we are capable.

    So we want people interested in joining our project to remain open to dealing with the liberal “internationalism” of a Halliday in order to challenge themselves to try to grasp what an authentic Marxian Left might begin to look like. Reservations about Halliday, bolstered by a litany of his past sins in an unhelpful focus on the history of the Irish question, gets in the way of such rethinking, in favor of figuring out what the correct “position” was! — A sectarian waste of time, since no historical past positions on the “Left” proved viable!

    Part of the problem is the present absence of the kinds of social-political struggles that could help bring this into greater focus. Hence the recourse to historical examples, e.g. Lenin, which we think however must be read “against the grain” of their supposed adherents, all of which we think have retrogressed from the original and lost sight in crucial ways of the point of a Marxian politics, and have lost the forest for the trees.

    It’s not a matter of right vs. wrong positions, but useful vs. debilitating and regressive approaches and perspectives (those that leave one in a progressively worse disoriented way), and, most importantly, ideological self-understanding. Not means but ends. In my experience, people are least clear about the latter, but are most susceptible in their authoritarianism and intellectual anxiety to the pseudo-“Left’s” fetishization of the former, as if having a correct “line” is what will save us.

    Whereas, what we have to figure out, almost from scratch, is what we should care about and why.

    by Chris Cutrone on February 6, 2009 6:46 am
  • Posted 12 years ago

    An interesting 1976 Spartacist article on Marxism and national question:

    Workers Vanguard No. 931 27 February 2009

    From the Archives of Workers Vanguard:

    The National Question in the Marxist Movement, 1848-1914

    The following article, the text of a presentation given by Spartacist League Central Committee member Joseph Seymour at a 1976 European gathering, was originally printed in two parts in WV Nos. 123 and 125 (3 and 17 September 1976). At the time of the talk, the Lebanese civil war was raging—hence, the references to Lebanese Muslims and Maronite Christians. Additionally, in 1976 we did not advocate independence for Quebec from Canada, while recognizing its right to self-determination. But as comrade Seymour noted in his presentation, “if the national polarization in Canada hardens and the working people of Quebec decisively opt for separatism, we may reverse that policy and come out for independence.” Indeed, since 1995 we have advocated independence for Quebec (see “Independence for Quebec!” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 52, Autumn 1995).

    As you are aware, our views on the national question, particularly concerning the Near East, are one of the most distinctive and controversial aspects of “Spartacism.” Very often this question is the most obvious and sharpest difference when we first encounter tendencies that appear to be close to us.

    This talk is designed as a contribution to understanding the theoretical underpinning of our current positions. In polemics against the Spartacist tendency and within the ostensibly Trotskyist movement, there are often references to the position Marx or Lenin took on this or that aspect of the national question. Without a thorough knowledge of the evolution of the Marxist position, in its historical context, it is impossible to determine whether or not, and how, these references are relevant.

    I believe that an understanding of the evolution of the Marxist position on the national question from 1848 to 1914—i.e., from the origins of Marxism to the collapse of the Second International—bears on the Spartacist position in two significant ways. First, there is no Marxist program for the national question as such. The Marxist position has always had a predominantly strategic character, aimed at creating the conditions for a successful proletarian revolution. In this sense, I think that one can draw a contrast with the Marxist position on the woman question. The position in favor of abolition of the family and for the equality of women is a fundamental element of a communist society, and therefore is not subordinate to changing political conjunctures.

    The Marxist position on the national question has a much more conjunctural character historically, and is much more determined by changing empirical circumstances. Thus, it is not only legitimate, but very often obligatory, to change a specific position on a specific national question in a very short period of time. Today we are opposed to the independence of Quebec, while of course recognizing the right of self-determination. But it is certainly possible that in a couple of years, if the national polarization in Canada hardens and the working people of Quebec decisively opt for separatism, we may reverse that policy and come out for independence. Such determinations have a conjunctural and a strategic character.

    The second reason I believe a knowledge of pre-Leninist Marxism is important in this question is that our position involves opposition to the notion (which is a resurrection of the earliest Marxist position) that there exist progressive nations and reactionary nations within the colonial world. We do not regard the Palestinians or the Lebanese Muslims as inherently progressive, or the Hebrews and Lebanese Maronite Christians as inherently reactionary, as outposts of imperialism. Many of our disputes with various ostensibly Trotskyist tendencies—for example, over the India-Pakistan war in 1972, over Angola and over Lebanon—involve our rejection of the notion of progressive nationalities and progressive bourgeois state-building in this epoch.

    “Progressive Nations” in the Revolutions of 1848

    Marxism as a political tendency begins in early 1846 with the organization of the Communist Corresponding Society in Brussels. What distinguished Marx from other German communists was his belief that it was necessary to have an alliance with the bourgeois democrats, and that the road to socialism in Germany ran through an imminent bourgeois-democratic revolution. As such, he became committed to the program of the unification of Germany as an inherent and important component of that revolution.

    The unification of Germany was organically linked to the radical redrawing of boundaries throughout Eastern Europe. Marx was committed to the restoration of an independent Poland, which would serve as a democratic buffer against tsarist Russia. Russia was the strongest military power in Europe, and was considered by Marx as the bulwark of reaction in which a bourgeois-democratic revolution was not possible—a position he maintained until the late 1870s. One cannot understand the Marxist position on the national question unless one realizes that for a Central European revolutionary in the mid-19th century, Russia was analogous to the United States for a South American revolutionary today. Radical democracy in Central Europe was linked to the liberation of Poland and a revolutionary war against tsarist Russia.

    A more complex aspect of the unification of Germany arose from the fact that part of the German nation was in the Hapsburg or Austro-Hungarian empire. The majority population of that empire consisted of the various Slavic nations, who were mainly peasant peoples. The most important and advanced of these Slavic nations were the Czechs, and Bohemia was about 40 percent German (concentrated among the urban population) and 60 percent Czech, with virtually all of the peasants being Czech.

    Marx and Engels maintained that, with the exception of Poland, the Slavic peoples of the Austro-Hungarian empire were too backward to have a bourgeois-democratic revolution. From that premise, they drew the program of dividing Central and East Europe into three great states—Greater Poland, Greater Germany and Greater Hungary—in which the western and southern Slavs would be expected to assimilate to the higher national cultures.

    When the revolution of 1848 broke out, the Slavs—not unnaturally—did not go along with this program. The Czech liberals, led by Frantiek Palack´y , proposed instead a federated Austro-Hungarian state allied to a democratic Germany. Thus there was a genuine conflict between the national-democratic movement in Germany and Hungary on the one hand, and the Slavs in the Austro-Hungarian empire, who in part looked to Russia to preserve the Austro-Hungarian status quo.

    This situation came to a head in early 1849, when the Russian army crushed the Hungarian national movement of Lajos Kossuth and the Croat national minority maintained a neutral position at best. At that point, Marx and Engels developed a program which amounted to the national, if not physical, genocide of the western and southern Slavs in the interests of the democratic or progressive peoples.

    In “Hungary and Panslavism” (1849) Engels writes:

    “Everywhere the forward-looking class, the carrier of progress, the bourgeoisie, was German or Magyar. The Slavs found it difficult to develop a bourgeoisie, the South Slavs were only very partially able to do so. Along with the bourgeoisie, industrial strength, capital, was in German or Magyar hands. As German education developed, the Slavs also came under the intellectual tutelage of the Germans, even deep in Croatia. The same thing took place, only later and therefore on a smaller scale in Hungary, where the Magyars together with the Germans assumed intellectual and commercial leadership….”

    And in another article, “Democratic Panslavism” (1849), he concluded:

    “We repeat: Except for the Poles, the Russians and at best the Slavs in Turkey, no Slavic people has a future, for the simple reason that all other Slavs lack the most basic historic, geographic, political and industrial prerequisites for independence and vitality.”

    Referring to the Russian-Slav counterrevolutionary movement, he wrote:

    “Then for a moment the Slavic counterrevolution with all its barbarism will engulf the Austrian monarchy and the camarilla will find out what kind of allies it has. But with the first victorious uprising of the French proletariat…the Germans and Magyars in Austria will become free and will take bloody revenge on the Slavic barbarians. The general war which will then break out will explode this Slavic league and these petty, bull-headed nations will be destroyed so that nothing is left of them but their names.

    “The next world war will cause not only reactionary classes and dynasties but also entire reactionary peoples to disappear from the earth. And that too would be progress.”

    There was, in the Revolution of 1848, a prominent leftist who did adhere to the doctrine of national self-determination as a principle. This was Mikhail Bakunin, who wrote in his 1848 “Appeal to the Slavs”:

    “Down with the artificial boundaries which have been forcibly erected by despotic congresses according to so-called historical, geographical, strategic necessities! There should no longer be any other barriers between the nations but those corresponding to nature, to justice and those drawn in a democratic sense which the sovereign will of the people themselves denotes on the basis of their national qualities…. The welfare of the nations is never assured as long as anywhere in Europe one single people is living in oppression.”

    — translated in Horace B. Davis, Nationalism and Socialism

    At the general theoretical level, Marx and Engels denounced Bakunin for utopian egalitarianism applied to nations, which anticipates their later conflict with Bakuninite anarchism where the same principles are applied to individuals. Thus, Engels polemicized against Bakunin in February 1849:

    “There is no mention of the very real obstacles in the way of such universal liberation, of the completely different levels of civilization of the various peoples, of their equally different political needs conditioned by them. The word ‘freedom’ takes the place of everything. There is no mention of reality, or insofar as it is considered at all, it is represented as something entirely reprehensible, something arbitrarily produced by ‘congresses of despots’ and by ‘diplomats’.”

    — “Democratic Panslavism”

    On a more concrete level, Marx and Engels regarded so-called democratic pan-Slavism as utopian, which in practice would only serve tsarist Russian expansionism.

    Marx’s position on the Slav question in 1848 has drawn very considerable criticism, not least from within the later Marxist movement itself. The purpose of this talk is not to second-guess Marx and Engels’ empirical judgments, but rather to focus on their methodology. I will, however, indicate the two criticisms of their position on the Slav question which I consider to be the strongest.

    First, there is a too-close identification of political dominance with cultural development. The Czechs of Bohemia certainly had the economic and cultural level equal, if not greater, to the Hungarians and the Poles. Secondly, there is an overestimation of the attractiveness of pan-Slavism, and therefore the alliance of all Slavic peoples under Russian dominance. Consequently, there was a corresponding underestimation of the nationalism of the particular Slav nations.

    Bourgeois Reaction and Bourgeois Progress

    As a result of the defeat of radical democracy in the revolutions of 1848, Marx substantially modified his program. He blamed the defeat of radical democracy and the proletarian vanguard on objective economic backwardness, not only in Germany and Austria, but also in France. Therefore, classic post-1848 Marxism placed a heavy programmatic emphasis on creating the objective conditions which would enable the proletariat to take power.

    This consisted in furthering economic development, in which the unification of Germany and of Italy was considered extremely important. Only economic development would lay the basis for the organization of the proletariat and the expansion of democratic rights to provide the conditions for proletarian power.

    An important component of the post-1848 program continued to be the advocacy of the destruction of tsarist Russia’s military power…by anybody. Marx supported the British and French in the Crimean War and always supported Turkey against Russia, on the grounds that Russia was the great reactionary power in Europe.

    The next major historical event after 1848 that bears on the national question was the Austro-Italian war of 1859. Here, Marx reaffirmed his fundamental commitment to the unification of Germany as the most progressive national development in continental Europe. He did not support the Italians even though he favored Italian unification because the anti-German Napoleon III of France was an ally of Italy. Marx believed that a victory for the Italian-Napoleonic alliance would threaten the unification of Germany. Believing he had to choose which was more progressive—the unification of Italy or of Germany—he chose that of Germany.

    From 1848 onward, Marx and Engels were often accused by their opponents within the left of being German chauvinists. They denied that, arguing that their position on the unification of Germany was objective, and that it did not reflect subjective nationalist prejudice. A united Germany would give an enormous impetus to the economic development of Europe, and would produce the most advanced workers movement in Europe. They were proved objectively correct in that sense. However, it was only in 1870 that they got a chance to prove demonstrably that they were not German chauvinists.

    In the 1850s and 1860s, Marx and Engels had the following model of what Europe should look like: it was a Europe of multinational states grouped around the great progressive nations—Greater Poland, Greater Hungary, Greater Germany, Greater France and Great Britain (Greater England). The other peoples, which they called the ruins of peoples—die Völkertrümmer—were expected to assimilate. Among these ruined peoples they counted the Scots, the Welsh, the Basques and the Czechs.

    In his 1859 pamphlet on the Austro-Italian war, “Po and Rhine,” Engels spells out this conception:

    “No one will assert that the map of Europe is definitely settled. All changes, however, if they are to be lasting, must be of such a nature as to bring the great and vital nations ever closer to their true natural borders as determined by speech and sympathies, while at the same time the ruins of peoples, which are still to be found here and there, and are no longer capable of leading an independent national existence, must be incorporated into the larger nations, and either dissolve in them or else remain as ethnographic monuments of no political significance.” [emphasis in original]

    Irish Independence and English Proletarian Revolution

    The first major change in this schema occurred in the late 1860s in Britain, where Marx changed his position on the Irish question from the assimilation of the Irish, who were certainly not a great historic people, to independence for Ireland.

    The failure of organized Marxism in England obscures the fact that classical Marxism regarded the English revolution as central. Marx devoted much of his energy to the English workers movement. If in the 1850s Marx considered Germany and Italy under-ripe for proletarian revolution, he considered Britain overripe. All of the things that Marx was fighting for in Germany were realized in Britain — a large, well-organized industrial proletariat, a stable bourgeois legality and freedom from Russian invasion.

    Yet politically, the British working class in this period moved backward; they were less advanced in 1865 than in 1845. So the English question was important for Marx, not only because the English revolution was strategically important, but because the contradiction between the advanced character of English society and the political backwardness of the proletariat put a question mark over Marx’s entire worldview.

    In the late 1860s Marx believed he had found a partial key to this problem in an unresolved national question—namely, the Irish question. In England, Marx ran up against the problem of a divided working class in a multinational state. In 1870, he wrote to two of his American followers:

    “Every industrial and commercial center in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he feels himself a member of the ruling nation and so turns himself into a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists of his country against Ireland…. The Irish man pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker at once the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rule in Ireland.

    “This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling class. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And that class is fully aware of it….

    “England, being the metropolis of capital, the power which has hitherto ruled the world market, is for the present the most important country for the workers’ revolution, and moreover, the only country in which the material conditions for this revolution have developed up to a certain degree of maturity. Therefore to hasten the social revolution in England is the most important object of the International Workingmen’s Association. The sole means of hastening it is to make Ireland independent.” [emphasis in original]

    — Marx to S. Meyer and A. Vogt, 9 April 1870

    It was precisely the advanced nature of English society that caused Marx to anticipate the later problems of the workers movement in a multinational state. I should point out that Marx’s position on the Irish question anticipated, but was not identical with, the orthodox Leninist position. Marx expected that an independent Ireland would draw the Irish out of England—that the economic development of Ireland would lead to the repatriation of the Irish working class from England. He looked for the physical separation of the English and Irish working classes as a precondition to political unity. It was not simply the advocacy of independence that was important, but its realization in fact. As we shall see, it is with Lenin that the advocacy of the right of self-determination becomes key.

    Franco-Prussian War: End of an Epoch

    The next major change which rendered what could be called the 1848 program obsolete was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Marx initially supported the Prussians on the grounds that the war was for the defense of the precarious unity of Germany. When the Prussians defeated Napoleon III and determined to conquer Alsace-Lorraine and crush the Paris proletariat, Marx shifted sides, supporting the French. And in fact, Engels, who was a capable military critic, apparently produced a plan for the French army to defeat the Prussians. Eduard Bernstein, who was Engels’ literary executor, destroyed this plan so that it wouldn’t embarrass the German Social Democracy should it fall into the government’s hands.

    Marx and Engels’ defensism of the French against Bismarck’s expansionism was extremely important in terms of enhancing their moral authority as socialist leaders. After 1870, the accusation that Marx and Engels were really German chauvinists, hiding behind pseudo-scientific doctrines, was obviously untenable. The hegemony which Marxism attained in the international workers movement by the 1890s was a direct product of Marx and Engels’ absolutely indisputable internationalism.

    Engels on the East European Question

    The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 rendered Marx’s Grossdeutsche [Greater Germany] position—the inclusion of German-speaking Austria—obsolete. It was now a fantastical program. Marx didn’t like it but he had to accept that — except for Alsace-Lorraine — Germany had acquired its boundaries. This, of course, reopened the question of what to do with the Austro-Hungarian empire. Marx died before he tried to figure out a solution to that insoluble problem. Engels, who lived longer, was stuck with it.

    By the time he died in 1895, Engels had moved very far away from the 1848 position on what was called the Eastern question—the East European question—but had not entirely abandoned it. By the late 1870s, Marx and Engels had come to expect a radical democratic revolution in tsarist Russia. This made the question of Polish independence much less important strategically. Nonetheless, Engels still regarded Russia as in some sense the gendarme of Europe, even in the 1880s. He was, therefore, very reluctant to accept the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian empire, believing that it would primarily benefit tsarist expansionism. Engels’ movement from the notion of “progressive nations” to advocating the right of self-determination can be seen in a letter written in 1882 and an article written in 1890.

    In the early 1880s, Engels faced “Luxemburgism” on the national question even before Rosa Luxemburg. For well-motivated reasons, some Polish socialists did not want to fight for the independence of Poland, but rather looked forward to participating in the greater Russian revolution. Engels opposed this position, but he opposed it with a new argument. No longer was an independent Poland seen as a kind of democratic bastion against reactionary Russia—that was not the primary argument. Rather an independent Poland was necessary to sharpen the class antagonisms within Polish society. He wrote to Kautsky (7 February 1882):

    “It is historically impossible for a great people even to discuss internal problems of any kind seriously, as long as it lacks national independence. Before 1859 there was no question of socialism in Italy; even the number of Republicans was small…. Only after 1861 the Republicans increased in influence and later transferred their best elements to the Socialists….

    “So long as Poland is partitioned and subjugated, therefore, neither a strong socialist party can develop in the country itself, nor can there arise real international intercourse between the proletarian parties in Germany, etc., with other than emigre Poles….

    “An international movement of the proletariat is possible only among independent nations.” [emphasis in original]

    There is still the empirical qualification of “great nations,” not all nations. In the same letter, Engels still doesn’t think much of independence for the Czechs, Croats, Romanians, etc.:

    “Now you may ask me [this to Kautsky, who, incidentally, was half Czech] whether I have no sympathy whatever for the small Slavic peoples, and remnants of peoples, which have been severed asunder by the three wedges driven in the flesh of Slavdom: the Germans, Magyars and Turks? In fact I have damned little sympathy for them.”

    However, Engels agrees that after the fall of the tsar it would be all right for the small Slavic peoples to have their independence: after, not before. Then he adds, “I am certain that six months of independence will suffice for most Austro-Hungarian Slavs to bring them to a point where they will beg to be readmitted.” So Engels still considered the smaller peoples of East Europe as economically unviable units, and the Austro-Hungarian state as in some sense progressive.

    By 1890 his position had undergone considerable evolution toward the classic Second International position in favor of the right of self-determination. During the 1880s, which was the beginning of the imperialist epoch, the alliances were formed which would result in World War I: tsarist Russia and bourgeois-democratic France against Wilhelmian Germany and Austria-Hungary. Engels foresaw that such a war would have a completely reactionary character. Furthermore, he was aware that changes in military technology meant that the war would be incredibly destructive, and that it would be impossible to predict who would win such a war.

    In the 1880s, one begins to notice in Engels’ writings and in social-democratic propaganda a strong antiwar and anti-militarist thrust which was absent from the pre-1870 period. As a result there is a much more sympathetic attitude toward self-determination in East Europe. Discussing what will happen the day after tsarism is overthrown, Engels writes in 1890:

    “On the same day Austria will lose its single, historical justification for existence—that of a barrier against the Russian drive toward Constantinople…. Magyars, Rumanians, Serbs, Bulgars, Arnauts, Greeks and Turks will then finally be in a position to settle their own mutual disputes without the intervention of foreign powers, to settle among themselves the boundaries of their individual national territories, to manage their affairs according to their own judgments.”

    — “The Foreign Policy of Russian Tsardom”

    Kautsky: Multinational States Are Reactionary

    After Engels’ death, in the period of the Second International, one can distinguish four characteristic poles on the national question: the German social-democratic center, whose theoretical spokesman was Karl Kautsky; the German-dominated Austro-Hungarian social democracy, whose theoretical spokesmen were Karl Renner and Otto Bauer; Rosa Luxemburg’s Polish group; and Lenin’s Bolsheviks.

    The differences and similarities between these tendencies are extremely complex and defy a simple schema. For example, on the question of the right of self-determination one would find Kautsky and Lenin in favor, and Bauer/Renner and Luxemburg against. On the question of whether to have a centralized rather than a nationally federated party one would find Kautsky, Luxemburg and Lenin for, and Bauer/Renner against. However, in certain aspects of methodology, I would argue that Kautsky and Luxemburg tended to emphasize the objective economic factor in determining the configuration of nation-states, although they drew diametrically opposite programmatic conclusions. On the other hand, Bauer/Renner and Lenin tended to emphasize the subjective factor, and the question of how to achieve the unity of the workers movement within a multinational state. Finally, I will argue that Lenin’s position is unique in his heavy emphasis on the question of the right of self-determination, rather than on any particular configuration of nation-states.

    Under Kautsky’s guidance, the Marxist movement finally liquidated the outdated notion that tsarist Russia was somehow more reactionary than Wilhelmian Germany. Consequently, the Second International in its 1896 convention in London was now able to assert the general principle of the right of self-determination.

    Kautsky’s position was that the Russian, Turkish and Austro-Hungarian empires were essentially feudal remnants — that they were cases of arrested development. He maintained that a normal, healthy bourgeois development in East Europe required the breakup of these multinational units into their constituent nations. In other words, Kautsky regarded the national liberation of the smaller Slavic peoples as a task of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in East Europe.

    Because the Austrian social democracy did not agree with this position, Kautsky never fought for it publicly. However, his real position was for the dissolution of the multinational states in East Europe. This comes through clearly in a letter (5 June 1901) from Kautsky to Victor Adler, head of the Austrian party:

    “Most of our people suffer from the delusion that one can find a solution to every problem, if only one is clever enough. But there are insoluble problems, and the establishment of a viable Austria is one of them. National autonomy would not be a remedy either. It is essential for us in our propaganda and organisation, but under the given conditions, and with the present relation of forces, it is not conducive to a solution.

    “In Austria of all places, a gradual approach to some solution or other is unthinkable. The only cure lies in complete collapse. That Austria still exists is to me not proof of its viability, nor yet evidence that we now have the political basis for a slow and peaceful development; all it proves is that bourgeois society is no longer capable of doing away with even the most rotten structures: the Sultan, Tsarism, Austria.”

    — quoted in George Lichtheim, Marxism (1961)

    Bauer/Renner: Saving the Austro-Hungarian State

    The national program of Austrian social democracy, codified at the Brünn (Brno in present-day Czechoslovakia) Congress in 1898 called for a federated, democratic Austro-Hungarian state, and did not call for the right of self-determination. The national program of the Russian social democracy, codified in 1903 before the split, called for a unitary state with local autonomy, and did call for the right of self-determination. This significant difference cannot be explained simply on the basis of left versus right. The Russian Mensheviks also supported the right of self-determination, while even radicals in the Austrian party, like Friedrich Adler, did not advocate it.

    Why was the simple solution of breaking the empire up into its constituent nations unpopular among Austrian social democrats of all shades? The problem—and this is why Kautsky was right to call it insoluble—was that everyone knew the breakup of Austria-Hungary would precipitate a war between Russia and Germany over the spoils. The various nationalities in the Austro-Hungarian empire hated one another, but they feared tsarist Russia and Wilhelmian Germany more. In contrast to all shades of Polish nationalism, the program of mainstream Czech nationalism was not independence. Rather, it was extreme federalism—creating a state within a state—combined with some kind of extraterritorial control over all Czechs in the empire.

    (I have the impression that present-day French Canadian nationalism is rather similar to pre-World War I Czech nationalism. The goal is not outright independence, but rather virtually unlimited autonomy for Quebec plus some kind of union of all French-Canadians throughout Canada.)

    So the Austrian Socialist Party sought to devise a program that would preserve Austria-Hungary in the face of violent national antagonisms. The heart of this program was so-called “cultural-national autonomy,” according to which nations were no longer associated with territories, but were embodied in individuals. In practice this meant that a Czech in Vienna could attend an exclusively Czech school and a German in Prague an exclusively German school. In fact, Karl Renner likened nationality to religion and argued that national organization should be modeled on churches. He writes in 1908:

    “We must draw on the map a double network, the one economical, the other political. We must cut in two the sum of the activities of the state, separating national and political matters. We must organize the population twice; once along the lines of nationality, the second time, in relation to the state, and each time in administrative units of different form.”

    — quoted in Arthur G. Kogan, “The Social Democrats in the Hapsburg Monarchy” in Journal of Modern History (1949)

    From the standpoint of revolutionary Marxism, the worst thing about the Bauer/Renner position was that it regarded nationality as a positive value. They actually presented their scheme to save the ramshackle Austro-Hungarian empire as an anticipation of communist society. Bauer writes in his 1907 opus, The National Question and Social Democracy:

    “The organization of mankind into autonomous national communities enjoying, organizing, and developing their cultural goals is the final national aim of international Social-Democracy.”

    — translated in Robert A. Kann, The Multi-National Empire

    For Bauer, the state may wither away, but national affiliation goes on forever.

    Luxemburg: National Blindness and Revolutionary Optimism

    Now we come to the anti-Bauer, Rosa Luxemburg. It is important to emphasize that Luxemburg’s position on the national question is very much Polish-centered which in a sense is a paradox. There were, however, rather plausible reasons for a Polish revolutionary Marxist to oppose the independence of Poland. Luxemburg inherited that tradition, she didn’t invent it. One must realize that Poland was the most advanced, most industrialized part of the Russian empire with privileged access to a relatively large market. From the 1880s on, Polish nationalism was a petty-bourgeois, not a big-bourgeois, phenomenon. Luxemburg was convinced that the economic integration of Poland with Russia had gone so far that there was no possibility of an independent, viable Poland. So she considered Polish nationalism a form of petty-bourgeois reactionary utopianism analogous to Proudhonism in France or Bakuninite anarchism in Spain.

    Rosa Luxemburg’s position on Polish independence is also closely linked with her revolutionary optimism concerning the possibility of a socialist revolution breaking out in the Russian empire and then spreading west. She more or less accepted Trotsky’s position on the permanent revolution in Russia. In fact, Trotsky’s seminal articles on the subject were first published in Luxemburg’s Polish-language journal. Thus, Luxemburg developed an attitude toward the Russian empire that was analogous to Marx’s attitude toward the German nation on the eve of 1848: for her the Russian empire became progressive as a powerful material basis for the coming proletarian revolution.

    Luxemburg did not recognize what Lenin did: that the antagonisms between the Polish, Ukrainian and Great Russian working classes were an obstacle to a successful revolution in the tsarist empire. Her method of countering nationalist attitudes exclusively through internationalist propaganda was not enough. A positive programmatic opposition to tsarist Russia as “the prison house of nations” was necessary.

    Lenin: Self-Determination and Workers Unity

    The Leninist position on the national question was only developed in its final form during World War I, around 1917, but I believe it is basically relevant to the pre-1914 period.

    Superficially, the Bolshevik position appears to be orthodox Kautskyan. However, I believe that the formal similarities obscure significant differences. Kautsky advocated self-determination because he was really in favor of independence as a means of pushing the bourgeois-democratic revolution in East Europe forward. Insofar as Lenin recognized that national emancipation for Poland, for the Ukraine, for the Czechs was an uncompleted bourgeois-democratic task there was a similarity of position.

    But Lenin’s position was not essentially a two-stage revolution which looked forward to a relatively lengthy period of development of a bourgeois-democratic Polish, Ukrainian or Czech state. Rather, what Lenin emphasized—and he was the first Marxist to do so—was advocacy of the right of self-determination as a necessary means of unifying the working class in a multinational state.

    Lenin maintained that Luxemburg’s abstract propaganda in favor of internationalism was not adequate to convince the Poles and the Ukrainians that the Great Russian socialists were not chauvinist. The workers movement in the oppressor nation must demonstrate in practice and in immediate programmatic form that it supports the right to independence of the oppressed nation. For Lenin, the question of whether independence would be realized or not was not a fundamental question, it was secondary. Before the 1917 Revolution, the Bolsheviks did not take a position for or against independence for Poland, the Ukraine or Finland. The core of Lenin’s position comes through in “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination” (1914):

    “Whether the Ukraine, for example, is destined to form an independent state is a matter that will be determined by a thousand unpredictable factors. Without attempting idle “guesses,” we firmly uphold something that is beyond doubt: the right of the Ukraine to form such a state. We respect this right; we do not uphold the privileges of Great Russians with regard to Ukrainians; we educate the masses in the spirit of recognition of that right, in the spirit of rejecting state privileges for any nation.” [emphasis in original]

    In New Left and “Third World” Stalinist circles, Lenin’s position is systematically misinterpreted so that he appears as a supporter of any demand put forward by an oppressed national minority. The anti-Luxemburgist Lenin wrongly overshadows the anti-nationalist Lenin. Lenin was violently hostile to “cultural-national autonomy” because it directly and immediately furthered nationalist ideology. He was opposed to federalism, and favored limited regional autonomy for minority nations in a unitary state. On this latter point, he was in basic agreement with Luxemburg. Some bourgeois commentators have noted that Lenin seems to have an all-or-nothing position on the national question. This is in contrast to the Austrian social democrats who offered the population an infinite gradation of steps between independence and assimilation. Richard Pipes in his The Formation of the Soviet Union writes:

    “Lenin’s theory of national self-determination, viewed as a solution of the national problem in Russia, was entirely inadequate. By offering the minorities virtually no choice between assimilation and complete independence, it ignored the fact that they desired neither.”

    However, Lenin’s program was not designed to be popular with Russia’s minorities at any given time. It was designed to foster the fighting unity of the working class within the Russian state. If the working masses of the various nations are so hostile to one another that it makes unified class struggle virtually impossible, then separation into independent states is called for. Where national minorities choose to coexist within the same state framework, the task of Leninists is to break down all the barriers separating the working masses of the different nationalities. While championing the equality of languages and related democratic rights, we work for the gradual, organic assimilation of the various nationalities making up the working class.

    by Chris Cutrone on March 7, 2009 4:05 pm

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