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Ephrain Nimni, MARXISM AND NATIONALISM: Theoretical Origins of a Political Crisis.

Pluto Press, London, 1994, £13.99, 242 pp.


The failure of Marx and Engels to outline a general theory of nationalism has been  regretted almost as much as their reluctance to tell us how life should be lived in a socialist future. For example, Polish and Hungarian independence movements were supported because they helped to weaken the Hapsburg and Romanov empires, to the embarrassment of those who thought that such positions needed to be justified in terms of an overarching theory. A few sociologists still try to construct a general  model but most students of nationalism see it as too varied and elusive for such a theory to be helpful.


Nimni argues that not only did the masters have a general theory of nationalism, but that it is so rigid that it amounts to a straitjacket. Marx and Engels theory is a reiteration of Hegel’s notion that some peoples are destined for greatness and others to oblivion. The fact that it was not spelled out is no indication that it did not exist. Nimni’s own thesis is illustrated by taking us through the familiar, politically incorrect, quotations from Marx and Engels on the southern Slavs, Basques and Bretons. Hegel, believed,  that for something to exist it was necessary for it to exist. Nimni has reversed this by assuming that, as Marx and Engels needed a general theory, they must have had one.


Only religious dogmatists would claim that specific positions are correct because they were advanced by Marx and Engels. It would be good to see a criticism of their support for the Irish, Poles and Hungarians and opposition to the Czechs, but Nimni’s method rules out such empirical analysis, and resolutely excludes reality. He seems, for example, to believe that there was an independent Poland prior to Word War One [p 53]. The book is extremely hard going, as the author translates the ideas of other writers into academese, so that the direct quotations which illustrate his argument stand out like oases in the desert. For example, here is part of a footnote. “Epiphenomenalism refers to transparent and deterministic relations of causality, while class reductionism only refers to the paradigmatic location of a superstructural phenomenon in the area of influence of a class position” [p 206]. In addition, the phrase “economic reductionism” is repeated like a mantra, sometimes several times on a single page. It seems to mean the suggestion that economic forces or material factors could have an important influence on events.         


The phrase “non historic” peoples used by Marx and Engels is repeated in shocked horror, although it was a commonly accepted term for those groups which did not have their own aristocracy. As the “nation” consisted, originally, of the nobility, and only later of the rising social classes, Germany and France were “historic” nations, while Ruthenia and Slovakia were not. It is anachronistic to read modern racial notions into past history.


Most of the book is an extended preface to the last two chapters, which are devoted to a study of the ideas of Otto Bauer, the best known of the pre 1914 Austro Marxist theorists, who tried to reconcile Marxism with the national forces which threatened to tear the Hapsburg empire apart. He produced an alternative to Lenin’s demand for the right to national self determination, and Luxembourg’s preference for a large State, which would unify the working class. Everyone lucky enough to have a Catholic education knows that Christ had two natures, being both God and man. Similarly, Bauer argued that man has both economic and cultural needs. The economic ones would be satisfied by an economy operating on a large scale, but cultural needs [surely “spiritual” conveys the idea better?] must find expression by other means. For example,  the citizen belonging to a specific national group living in, say, Vienna, would have his cultural needs fulfilled through separate schools, newspapers and other institutions. As cultural nationalism would be apolitical, presumably, the different groups would not quarrel over which jobs went to whom. Each community would control its own cultural affairs and the imperial State would remain intact. AJP Taylor’s remark that nationalism is all about who would get the postmaster’s job is much more realistic.


Lenin, who wanted to overthrow the Russian empire could hardly welcome a formula for preserving the Hapsburg one. Therefore, he commissioned Stalin to write his famous pamphlet on the National Question, refuting Bauer. One of the problems with Stalin’s work is that it shares Bauer’s concern with hair splitting definitions of what constitutes a nation. Bauer differed from most nationalists of his time in not arguing from a racial basis. He thought, like them, that nations were immensely old and that although the Germans had changed a good deal in two thousand years, there was nevertheless,  such a thing as a “national character”. A nation was a “community of fate”. That merely sprayed a little Marxist terminology on to a claim common  to all nationalists. In reality, the belief that “national character” was the result of slowly evolving, ancient processes has little factual basis. Nationalism in the Czech lands, as elsewhere, represented competition for scarce resources. The national problem arose, not as a slow development of the “community of fate” but as a result of changes in the voting system and language policy shortly before Bauer was born. Austrian social democracy was loyal to a multi- national empire not a nation state, yet nationalism was growing so a way to square the circle had to be found.


Bauer’s schema presents several problems, none of which Nimni addresses adequately. One: what constitutes a nation? Bauer argued that language alone is not sufficient, and Stalin agreed. Many thought that Jews qualified as a nation and, within the terms of the argument, surely they were right? Austro Marxism deemed that they did not qualify because they were merely adherents of a religion. If a religion could be the basis for nationality, would not Lutheranism or Catholicism qualify? It seems mean spirited that  the Austrian Social Democrats, notorious for their failure to oppose anti Semitism although most of their theoreticians were Jews, should decide that the Jews lacked sufficient points to qualify as a nation. [For Bauer’s background see Chapter 5 “Otto Bauer” of In Search of the Millenium by his disciple Julius Braunthal, or Jack Jacobs, On Socialists and “The Jewish Question” After Marx]. For his loyalty to the empire, see his plea that military action be taken against Hungarian separatism, in Oscar Jászi, The Dissolution of the Hapsburg Monarchy, pp 181 - 182. Nimni has little interest in the local irritants which produced the Austro Marxist pearls.


How would Bauer’s scheme work in practice? It relied on the terms “economic” and “cultural” not being examined too closely. Kautsky, aware that he was widely respected by all Social Democrats, and reluctant to adopt positions which might hurt anyone’s feelings, did not go along with this nonsense as he saw that the nation state was likely to be the model for the coming period. Bauer’s scheme resembles the millet system of the Ottoman empire, where communities were left to run their internal affairs, leaving the business of the State to the imperial authorities. Once it had been a matter of indifference to most people that the members of a specific community conducted their affairs in their own language, but the rise of nationalism and the complexities of a capitalist market made the Ottoman system unworkable. Culture became a weapon in the economic struggle. 


Nimni wonders that Austro Marxism’s contribution was so soon forgotten, even apparently by its originators. The obvious reason is that, once the Hapsburg empire was gone, there was no need for it. Nimni thinks that the rise of the nation state and the decline of federal concepts is the consequence of an ideological error. There are a number of federal states, but non- territorial federalism is such nonsense that it cannot even be described coherently. Nimni, finally, finds even Bauer too committed to “economic reductionism”. He thinks that historical materialism can be salvaged only if we abandon economism and materialism, but then what would be left?


It is a pity that most of the wealth of material, mainly in German, on the national question is not available in English. Readers would find it much easier to understand than Marxism and Nationalism.