On nationalism: An anti-fascist intervention
Platypus Review 23 | May 2010
Uli vom Hagen’s response to my article on the current state of the German Left engages in a remarkable apology for its nationalism, which results from its near complete failure to digest the dangerous policies of the German KPD of the 1920s and 30s. With his focus on the events of 1923 and his excitement for “National Bolshevism,” vom Hagen presents a highly symptomatic position informed by a gross conflation of nationalism and romantic-regressive anti-capitalism, which experienced its peak with the rise of European fascism and National Socialism in Germany.
Anti-Semitic caricature from 1848 showing Jewish "revolutionaries" marching under a banner that reads, "Profit! Equal Rights with Christians!"
To respond to vom Hagen I will have to outline in brief nationalism’s transformation from an emancipatory bourgeois ideology into a civilizational cataclysm. As we will see, this transformation is deeply intertwined with the development of bourgeois society and its regression in the face of the failure of revolutionary politics at the beginning of the 20th century.
Nationalism was originally a liberal project advanced by revolutionaries. A democratic nation-state promised the third estate political empowerment and the legal protection of the individual. The creation of the nation was the project of an oppressed majority and constituted its attempt for political emancipation. The 18th and early 19th century liberal nation-states created the foundation for the advancement of capitalism, the mode of production that started to emerge in the previous centuries and which revolutionized the social forms of all of society. As a result, the abstraction and individuation of people changed the way that individuals encountered each other from then on: as legal subjects.
Created as an expression of freedom, bourgeois subjectivity, however, soon encountered its limitations as capitalism itself progressed. The mechanisms of social domination embedded in the economic system bypassed the individual liberties the revolutionaries had fought for. In the first crises of the early 19th century it became obvious that the rules the economy followed were not controlled by a group of people, although they were put in place and constantly reproduced by human beings themselves. Industrialization and the emergence of the working class rendered bourgeois freedom formal at best. Their grim lives and brutal working conditions revealed the coercive character of this social system and the freedom of which it boasted. From the standpoint of the proletariat, as Georg Lukács pointed out in the twenties, it was possible to grasp the inherent antinomies of bourgeois thought and to formulate a practical answer to the problem of capitalism: revolutionary social transformation. With the proletariat established as a class, bourgeois freedom was to be clarified: In Marx’s formula, “the free development of each (must become) the condition for the free development of all.” This could only mean the proletariat seizing power in order to abolish its own existence as a class and with it the capitalist social order.
The contradictions between the bourgeoisie and the working class surfaced in the revolutionary attempts of 1848 which took place, as Leon Trotsky wrote, in one way “too early and in another too late. That gigantic exertion of strength which is necessary for bourgeois society to settle radically with the lords of the past can only be attained either by the power of a unanimous nation rising against feudal despotism, or by the mighty development of the class struggle within this nation striving to emancipate itself.” The bourgeoisie, at that point, experienced an internal friction: while it needed the workers’ support, it was afraid to lose the privileges it already gained. It gave up on the revolution and turned its back on the struggling workers. The proletariat, however, was not yet fully developed as a class. It lacked the organization and experience necessary to carry out the revolution on its own. The outcome of the failure of the Revolution of 1848 was the disintegration of bourgeois liberalism as an emancipatory ideology—and with it, the nation-state as an emancipatory project. As Marx recognized clearly in Louis Bonaparte’s France, nationalism had become a project of the Right. The year 1871 reveals this disintegration of liberal nationalism in two world historical events. The first is Bismarck’s reactionary unification of Germany under Prussian aristocratic supremacy. The second is the Paris Commune, in which the newly emerged working class was able to organize itself as a political force and attempted to seize political power. Both mark, once and for all, the decay of bourgeois ideology as a vehicle for emancipation. It had degenerated into a counterrevolutionary force that stood in the way of any further advancement of human freedom.
The following decades of classical imperialism are the geopolitical and national counterparts of this ideological regression. The nation-state could no longer serve as the site for the advancement of liberal freedom, but could only be critically assessed as a catalyst for the capitalization of backward countries, a necessary evil for the development of the proletariat that inherits the emancipatory potential.
Rapid industrial development and the expansion of the colonial powers to every corner of the globe went hand in hand with the growth of the proletariat in the cities of Europe and North America. The working class soon began to organize itself in labor unions and political parties. At the turn of the century the SPD in Germany became one of the world’s biggest organization for laborers. Their bitter struggle steadily intensified, be it in the way of pushing through economic demands (“trade-unionism”) or of organizing itself as a revolutionary force informed by Marxism. In any respect the proletariat became a serious threat to capitalist society as it existed, particularly to the rule of the bourgeoisie.
The welfare reforms that Bismarck passed in the 1880s were a strategic attempt to appease the workers and bind them to conservatism. Occasionally he even talked about “state socialism” in a thinly veiled attempt to break their ties to social democracy. This legislation was a deliberate tactic that accompanied the Sozialistengesetz of 1878, which ruled out any socialist or state-hostile agitation and banned several organizations.
Although Bismarck’s politics did fail to break the workers from social democracy, it is still remarkable that the Revisionist Debate came into full swing only a decade later. Its main theoretician, Eduard Bernstein, argued for the replacement of revolutionary Marxism with actual economic demands and political reforms. This reformism can be seen in the light of Bismarck’s reforms as they opened up an entire new dimension for demands on the nation-state. Despite the verbal defeat that Bernstein experienced, his reformist line would become dominant by the eve of World War One. Although the orthodox Marxists had won the Revisionist Debate, in fact they were defeated by the growing, though inarticulate, currents of opportunism within the party. The devastating effect of this transformation was already sensed by left-wing revolutionaries of the Second International who fought vehemently against revisionism. It became disastrous, however, in the collapse of the Left with the beginning of the war: Throughout Europe social democratic organizations aligned with their imperialist governments and opted to support the national war.
Barricade in Breite Strasse: Street Battles in Berlin in 1848.
This collapse is the expression of the grave regression the Left experienced in the time leading up to the war. Reformism gained strength by focusing on economic demands, welfare benefits, and national reforms. It became corrupted, substituting for freedom the improvement of working conditions. On a political level the reforms gained were dependent on the national economy by which they were funded. This meant a nationalization of the struggle, because the workers and the economy of each country compete with every other country on the world market. In a time of growing conflicts between the imperial powers and of increasingly chauvinistic rhetoric in national politics, the Left bound itself to the national struggle and willingly succumbed to it at the beginning of the war. This was only possible by abandoning Marxist dialectics as the political consciousness of the working class. The vulgarization and then purging of Marxism went hand in hand with the nationalization of the struggle in which the potential for emancipation vanished. The SPD became regressive by trying to solve the problems of capitalism by mediating them through the state.
Political opportunism laid the ground for the events in the beginning of the 20th century. The military suppression of the 1918–19 socialist revolution in Germany was ordered by SPD politicians. That sealed the party’s betrayal and realized reformism’s counterrevolutionary potential. In a diluted way it anticipated the catastrophe of the 1930s and 40s. Certainly, it laid the groundwork for it.
Vom Hagen writes that the proletariat’s nationalism was “more than a cultural phenomenon; rather, it had a political dimension that was not opposed to communist internationalism. Indeed, it alone provided the necessary basis for international solidarity between the workers of different nations.” He disguises the reactionary transformation that nationalism as a bourgeois ideology had undergone since the mid-19th century. Vom Hagen falls prey to this nationalism and fails to see how the Communist Party’s Schlageter Line in the 1920s was itself right-wing. It was introduced as a tactical response (and capitulation) to the anti-French riots that erupted especially in the industrial Ruhr area in 1923. It was meant to win over nationalist workers, military personnel, and the petty bourgeoisie. However, it came dangerously close to the emerging fascist movements by granting primacy to nationalism, as in the programmatic statement the KPD passed in August 1930 for “the national and social liberation of the German people.” A few years later “National Bolshevism” found sympathizers in the left wing of Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers Party.
The prerequisites for the 1923 KPD’s Schlageter line were the Ruhr crisis and the nationalist and fascist agitations against “entente capital” that managed capital accumulation under the treaty of Versailles. This opened up the dangerous possibility for cooperation between fascist, nationalist and socialist movements in Germany that the KPD tried to intersect with its tactics. Vom Hagen’s nationalism however does not even take this ‘tactical’ approach. It takes the way of back-to-nature movements and a “unity from a romantic, heroic, communitarian ethos.” The romantic-nationalist idealism he presents is a fascist response to the crisis of the individual that alienation produces under capital. He also entirely leaves out what we can find today under the banner of “National Bolshevism”: the Russian NBP whose banner is a Nazi flag with the swastika replaced by hammer and sickle.
The interwar period saw the German Left enter into a state of acute crisis after its own failed revolutionary attempts and the failure of the Russian Revolution to spark revolution elsewhere in the West. The economic crises of the 1920s and 30s and the post-war suffering bitterly demonstrate capitalism’s instability and the necessity for change. As a direct result of the communist defeats, workers quickly became attracted to a new movement: fascism. The tactical failures of socialist revolution, the mass nationalization during World War One, and a working class movement purged of Marxism cleared the way for this development. Fascism is the political, organizational and ideological failure of the defeats of the Second International. Franco, Mussolini, and Hitler addressed the same problems of theory and practice that Lukács and Korsch did. Tragically the former succeeded where the latter failed.
Lukács raises the problem of reification in his dialectical conception. But here, reification itself opens up the possibility to overcome it:
Reification is, then, the necessary, immediate reality of every person living in capitalist society. It can be overcome only by constant and constantly renewed efforts to disrupt the reified structure of existence by concretely relating to the concretely manifested contradictions of the total development, by becoming conscious of the immanent meanings of these contradictions for the total development.
Proletarian consciousness is the “self-consciousness of the commodity.” As such, it is the highest expression of the antinomies of capital. It emphasizes their opposing character and grasps their inner connection within a dialectical totality. Only by practically overcoming capital can the contradiction between abstraction and concretion be abolished. Here sits the core of fascist ideology: it falsely plays out concretion against abstraction as opposing concepts. The doctrine of glorifying concrete labor, leaderism, family, nature, and nation against circulating capital, alienation, individualism, and internationalism is an immediate, fetishistic attempt to abolish reification without overcoming capitalism. Instead of grasping reality through a class, the proletariat, it takes the nation as the subject of history that falsely mediates the individual with the abstract. Mussolini writes:
The man of Fascism is an individual who is nation and fatherland, which is a moral law, binding together individuals and the generations into a tradition and a mission, suppressing the instinct for a life enclosed within the brief round of pleasure in order to restore within duty a higher life free from the limits of time and space: a life in which the individual, through the denial of himself, through the sacrifice of his own private interests, through death itself, realizes that completely spiritual existence in which his value as a man lies.
The class struggle became a race war in which materialism was replaced by Social Darwinism as the theoretical method to work through the theory and practice problem. As with the Revisionists, fascists seek to address the capital problem by harnessing the nation-state.
“Socialism or barbarism!” was Rosa Luxemburg’s conundrum in 1918 and it remains ours today. We can now read into her statement a tragic anticipation. The proletariat was ideologically integrated by fascist nationalism and it remains unconscious of its own historic role. The reification of consciousness was deeper entrenched and internalized in the course of the 20th century than Lenin, Luxemburg and Lukács could have ever imagined. This is the legacy of the twenties and thirties and it is the actuality of fascism today.
Learning from the history of this time requires a general suspicion of every attempt to mediate capital through culture and nation. This is what happened to the liberation movements in the Third World, including the Zapatistas in Mexico; this is why Chávez aligns with Ahmadinejad; and this is the agenda of Germany’s new left party, Die Linke. |P
. Jerzy Sobotta, “Rosa Luxemburg’s Corpse,” Platypus Review 16 (October 2009).
. In 1918 the revolutionary left wing of the SPD around Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht split from the party. During the following year the SPD became an entirely reformist party while the revolutionary currents were represented by the newly formed Communist Party (KPD).
. Uli vom Hagen, “Rosa Luxemburg’s Legacy: A Reply to Jerzy Sobotta,” Platypus Review 20 (February 2010).
. Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1971), 197.
. Benito Mussolini, “The Doctrine of Fascism,” in The Social and Political Doctrines of Contemporary Europe, ed. Michael Oakeshott (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1950), 164.