Michael Löwy, Fatherland or Mother Earth?: Essays on the National Question [Pluto, 1998]

P.b.£9.99, Hb £30, 120pp


This is the latest publication of the International Institute for Research and Education, inspired by the late Ernest Mandel, which has produced a number of useful, although difficult to obtain, publications over the years. They are now being published by Pluto Press which should ensure wider distribution in bookshops.


Fatherland...consists of seven essays, written over a number of years, most of which have already appeared in various journals. The general theme is familiar: Marx and Engels did not produce a theory on the nation or nationalism, and that they ought to have done so. Fortunately the deficiency has been rectified by a number of writers, especially the Austro-Marxist, Otto Bauer. The first chapter ‘Marx and Engels Cosmopolites’ is the best, having been published in 1981, before liberation theology and ecology dominated political writing.


Löwy is rather defensive on the record of the founding fathers, and adopts an apologetic tone when debating with anti-Marxists. The worst example of this approach is Chapter 2, ‘Marx and Engels Eurocentrists’? written in reply to an article by Ephraim Nimni, which pleads that, although Marx and Engels got a lot of things wrong, they were good guys really. We are told that Nimni also had good intentions although his article, later expanded into a book, presented Marx and Engels as Eurocentric chauvinists, by using the simple formula of ignoring their condemnation of capitalism’s oppression of the non- European world. Löwy drags out the old chestnut of Engels’ alleged  chauvinism in referring to ‘non historic nations’ although the term  is historically accurate. Prior to the rise of capitalism the ‘nation’ consisted of the nobility, not the serfs. So, there had been Polish and French nations, but not a Ruthenian one.


In Chapter 4 Löwy moves to the well trodden ground of Austro Marxism and Otto Bauer, its best known theoretician. Bauer is famous for defining a nation as those sharing a ‘common historical fate’. He accepted that nations evolve and change which, according to Löwy, makes him an acute dialectical thinker. It certainly differentiates him from extreme, biologically based, racism, but not from José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Spanish Falange, who explicitly adopted a Bauerist formula, nor Norman Tebitt, who is quite happy with that concept of the nation. Once people of Indian origin support the English cricket team they will be English. This chapter is the worst in the book as the author believes Bauer was a worthy heir of Marx. The absurdities of the Austro-Marxist formula, where the inhabitants of a city would go to different schools according to their claimed national origin, hardly need restating. Apartheid did not then exist, so it would be absurd to blame Bauer for not anticipating it.


Löwy is weak on the relation of theory to political practice. Where Lenin advocated national self determination, as both a democratic right and a strategy to overthrow the Romanov empire, Austro-Marxism’s nationality policy was a device to keep the Hapsburg empire together. Trotsky’s remark that if revolution was the locomotive of history, Austro Marxism was the brake hit the nail on the head. A party which prided itself on having turned against the monarchy two days before the conservative parties did was hardly subversive.  


The last three chapters of the book deal with nationalism in the modern world, which show the author as a benevolent person who would like the oppressed to get a better deal. There is little connection between the ‘Marxist’ theory of the earlier chapters and his later ecological musings. For example, it may be too much to expect an answer to the problems of the conflicts between intermingled peoples, but it seems odd to ignore them.


It would be a pity if Marxists were to react to Löwy’s concessions to fashion by dismissing non- Marxist writers, or defending everything the founding fathers wrote. Löwy is right to subject Marx to criticism, but he prefers dross to gold. Non-Marxist histories of Eastern Europe have shown  that most nations are recent creations and that Bauer was wrong to accept their claims to ancient pedigrees. Marx was neither a German nor a European chauvinist  but few would now accept his assessment of the Czech national movement: surely, we should be more critical of his observations on the Polish, Hungarian and Irish movements?


Löwy appends a comment to an article written in 1989, acknowledging that he did not foresee the conflicts which were to engulf the former Soviet bloc, as nationalists turned against each other and their own minorities. By that time no one who had met East Europeans, whether as students, workers or tourists, shared Löwy’s expectations of a liberating revolution. One can understand why the staff of the National Centre for Scientific Research should not wish to drag their Director from his office and rub his nose in the sordid realities of daily life, but they should have realised that even eminent scholars ought to get out more.