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Marxism or Bauerite nationalism?

By Doug Lorimer

Fatherland or Mother Earth? Essays on the National Question is a collection of essays written over the last 24 years by Michael Löwy, director of research in sociology at the National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris. The book was published under the auspices of the Amsterdam-based International Institute for Research and Education, founded by Ernest Mandel and other leaders of the Trotskyist Fourth International.

Billed by his publishers as "one of the most versatile Marxist intellectuals of our time", Löwy states in the book's introduction that the "essays in this volume are of two kinds: first, comments on some important aspects of Marxist theory in relation to the national question; and second, an attempt to analyse, from a Marxist perspective, some contemporary forms of nationalism and internationalism".

With regard to the second aim, the book does provides some interesting comments. However, the book fails completely when it comes to providing an elucidation of "Marxist theory in relation to the national question". This is because Löwy explicitly rejects Marxism's scientific, materialist theory of the nation in favour of the subjectivist (idealist) theory of nations as "imagined communities (Benedict Anderson) or cultural creations (Eric Hobsbawm)", a theory which is widely fashionable among intellectuals.

Löwy centres his criticism of the Marxist theory of nations on Stalin's 1913 article "Marxism and the National Question". While acknowledging that "the main ideas in Stalin's work were those of the Bolshevik Party and Lenin", Löwy claims that this article "implicitly and explicitly differs from, and even contradicts, Lenin's writings" on the national question.

Historical materialist theory

What were the main ideas in Stalin's article? In his 1940 biography of Stalin, the exiled Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky observed that Stalin's article "set out by counterposing the historico-materialistic definition of nation to the abstracto-psychological"1 theory developed by the Austrian Social Democrat Otto Bauer.

"A nation", Stalin wrote, "is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up, manifested in a common culture".2 "A nation is not merely a historical category but a historical category belonging to a definite epoch, the epoch of rising capitalism."3

Thus, in the Bolsheviks' view, a nation is not an "imagined community" but an objective, historically evolved social entity formed on the basis of capitalist economic relations, which gives rise among people living in a definite territory to a common language and a common culture.

Stalin's theory of the nation, Trotsky observed,

compounding the psychological attributes of a nation with the geographic and economic conditions of its development, is not only correct theoretically but also practically fruitful, for then the solution to the problem of each nation's fate must perforce be sought along the lines of changing the material conditions of its existence, beginning with territory.4

Löwy, however, argues that the concept of "common psychological make-up ... is not at all Leninist" and is a "legacy from Bauer, whom Lenin explicitly criticised for his 'psychological theory'" of nations. While claiming to endorse Lenin's views on the national question, Löwy endorses Bauer's theory of the nation as well as Bauer's "practical" solution to the problem of national oppression—"cultural-national autonomy".

What were the issues involved in the dispute between the Bolsheviks and the Austrian Social Democrats on national policy? Trotsky explained in his biography of Stalin:

In the sphere of theory, the Austrian Social-Democracy, in the persons of Otto Bauer and Karl Renner, considered nationality independent of territory, economy and class, transforming it into a species of abstraction limited by so-called "National character". In the field of national policy, as for that matter in all other fields, it did not venture beyond a corrective of the status quo. Fearing the very thought of dismembering the monarchy, the Austrian Social-Democracy strove to adapt its national program to the borders of the patchwork state. The program of so-called "national cultural autonomy" required that the citizens of one and the same nationality, irrespective of their dispersal over the territory of Austria-Hungary and irrespective of the administrative divisions of the state, should be united, on the basis of purely personal attributes, into one community for the solution of their "cultural" tasks (the theater, the church, the school, and the like). That program was artificial and utopian, in so far as it attempted to separate culture from territory and economy in a society torn apart by social contradictions; it was at the same time reactionary, in so far as it led to a forced disunion into various nationalities of the workers of one and the same state, undermining their class strength.5

Lenin's position, Trotsky observed, was the "direct opposite" of Bauer's in both theory and policy:

Regarding nationality as unseverably connected with territory, economy and class structure, he refused at the same time to regard the historical state, the borders of which cut across the living body of the nations, as a sacrosanct and inviolate category. He demanded recognition of the right to secession and independent existence for each national portion of the state. In so far as the various nationalities, voluntarily or through force of necessity, coexist within the borders of one state, their cultural interests must find the highest possible satisfaction within the framework of the broadest regional (and consequently, territorial) autonomy, including statutory guarantees of the rights of each minority. At the same time, Lenin deemed it the incontrovertible duty of all the workers of a given state, irrespective of nationality, to unite in one and the same class organizations.6

Stalin's article was written at Lenin's urging, and under his close intellectual guidance, precisely to expose the incompatibility of Bauer's theory and policy on the national question with that of revolutionary Marxism. Yet Löwy claims that "Marx and Engels's incomplete theory of nationalities" (which he correctly notes was based on the "concept of a nation as a historical formation linked to the rise of the capitalist mode of production") "could be developed in a dogmatic, Eurocentric and evolutionist way (as Stalin did) or in an emancipatory and dialectical way (as Lenin, Bauer and others did)".

According to Löwy, "on a certain number of fairly important points Stalin's work implicitly and explicitly differs from, and even contradicts, Lenin's writings".

He singles out four points. The first is: "The concept of 'national character', of 'common' psychological make-up' or 'psychological particularity' of nations is not at all Leninist. This problematic is a legacy from Bauer, whom Lenin explicitly criticised for his 'psychological theory'." In the essay that follows the one in which he criticises Stalin's 1913 article, however, Löwy praises Bauer's "psychological theory" of the nation, arguing that "Bauer's work remains a monument of critical intelligence and humanist rationalism" because of Bauer's "rejection of fixed criteria and rigid definitions".

Bauer's theory of nations

Löwy notes that Bauer had "no hesitation ... in proposing a 'complete definition' [of the social category of the nation]: 'A nation is a set of human beings linked by a common fate and common character'... A collective memory of persecution, exclusion or massacres creates a national community of fate and thus contributes in a decisive way to forging" its national identity.

Not only does Löwy endorse Bauer's anti-materialist, "psychological theory" of the nation; he argues that it did not give enough weight to psychology:

What may be missing in Bauer's concept of the nation is a clear picture of the role of imagination in forming a community of fate. If nations are to a large extent imagined communities (Bendedict Anderson) or cultural creations (Eric Hobsbawm), then the subjective dimension of national identity, the imaginary reconstruction of the past, the ever-new reinterpretation of history, are constituent elements of a community of fate just as much as "objective" historical events are.

In his 1913 article, Stalin correctly pointed out that Bauer's definition of the nation ("A nation is an aggregate of people bound into a community of character by a common destiny.") divorced "common national character" (common "psychological make-up" manifested in a "common culture") from its material basis, from this community's "common territory, language or economic life":

But what in that case remains of the nation? What common nationality can there be among people who are economically disconnected, inhabit different territories and from generation to generation speak different languages? ...

What, then, distinguishes Bauer's nation from the mystical and self-sufficient "national spirit" of the spiritualists?

Bauer sets up an impassable barrier between the "distinctive feature" of nations (national character) and the "conditions" of their life, divorcing the one from the other. But what is national character if not a reflection of the conditions of life, a coagulation of impressions derived from environment? How can one limit the matter to national character alone, isolating and divorcing it from the soil that gave rise to it?7

Löwy condemns Stalin's (and therefore Lenin's) theory of the nation because it defines a nation as a community of people which, because of its common historical practice (a common economic life conducted on a common territory), gives rise to a common language and a common national character manifested in a distinct, common culture. Why? Because Stalin, adhering to the historical materialist method of Marxism, acknowledged an indisputable fact—that nations have distinctive intellectual cultures (manifested materially in their art, literature etc.), and that these are a reflection of distinctive national characters (common "psychological make-up"). Stalin pointed out that this "national character" is "something intangible for the observer, but in so far as it manifests itself in a distinctive culture common to the nation it is something tangible and cannot be ignored".8

Recognition that a nation has a common national character (manifested in a common culture) is, according to Löwy, a "legacy from Bauer" which "has more in common with a certain superficial and pre-scientific folklore than with a Marxist analysis of the national question". He makes this claim in chapter 3. But in the immediately following chapter, Löwy argues that Bauer's purely psychological theory of the nation is methodologically superior to Stalin's historical materialist theory!

Furthermore, Löwy endorses Bauer's theory according to which the nation is a "community of fate". In English, the word fate means "what is destined to happen". Thus, according to Bauer's definition, a nation is a "set of human beings linked by" a "common character" (psychological make-up) and by a predetermined common future (a thoroughly mystical, pre-scientific conception if ever there was one). Yet Löwy claims that this is the chief merit, from the point of view of Marxism, of Bauer's theory: "Bauer treated nations as open historical realities" (i.e., as historical formations whose future was not pre-determined)!

Necessary but not sufficient characteristics

Löwy's second criticism of Stalin's historical materialist theory of the nation is that by "baldly stating that 'it is only when all these characteristics (common language, territory, economic life and 'psychic formation') are present together that we have a nation', Stalin gave his theory a dogmatic, restrictive and rigid character which one never finds in Lenin".

Lenin, of course, never wrote a work in which he provided a theoretical definition of the nation. This is because this task had been dealt with by the Bolsheviks in Stalin's 1913 article. Not long after Stalin's article was published in the Bolshevik theoretical magazine Proveshcheniye ("Enlightenment"), Lenin pointed out that the "fundamentals of a national programme for [Russian] Social-Democracy have recently been dealt with in Marxist theoretical literature (the most prominent place being taken by Stalin's article)".9

As already noted, Löwy is forced to acknowledge that it "is obvious that the main ideas in Stalin's work were those of the Bolshevik Party and Lenin". The "main ideas" in the article were, as Trotsky observed in 1940, the "counterposing" of "the historico-materialistic definition" of the nation to Bauer's "abstracto-psychological" definition.

What Löwy objects to in Stalin's historical materialist theory is its "four-point definition", which he claims is "too economistic or too abstract and rigid". Stalin's theory, he states elsewhere in the book, analyses the nation as "simply a collection of abstract, external criteria".

A common departure from the Marxist theory of the nation is to transform Stalin's "four features" into an ahistorical checklist. This method makes the common features of a nation identified by Stalin into absolute criteria. Such an approach confuses the necessary conditions for the existence of a nation as a distinct type of human community with sufficient conditions. Those features which a nation necessarily exhibits are not always sufficient to make a nation. For historical materialism, what is sufficient to define a socio-historical entity can only be historical practice itself; characteristics and criteria are merely a highlighted theoretical recognition of historical practice. To assume otherwise is to fall into idealism.

Moreover, to take dismembered abstractions as a complete checklist toward a proof is to be metaphysical, since it removes social categories from social practice and invests them with a life of their own.

Nations are not the only type of human community that exhibit the four characteristic features of common language, common territory, common economic life and common culture. All the distinctive types of human communities that are the unit of a mode of production—tribes (primitive collectivism), village communes ("Asiatic" mode of production), city-states (slave mode of production), fiefs (feudalism)—also share these four features.

What is particular to nations is not the four necessary characteristics taken in isolation from socio-historical practice, but the particular socio-historical practice that produces those features as a unity. That is why Stalin's four necessary features cannot be taken in isolation from the phrase that he prefaces to his identification of these necessary characteristics—"A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people...", i.e., from the historical practice that constitutes this stable community, i.e., the formation of distinct capitalist socioeconomic formations. That is why Stalin emphatically states:

A nation is not merely a historical category but a historical category belonging to a definite epoch, the epoch of rising capitalism. The process of elimination of feudalism [and, we should add, other pre-capitalist relations of production—DL] and development of capitalism is at the same time a process of the constitution of people into nations.10

However, it is sheer idealism to speak of the formation of a nation without all of the features listed by Stalin—without a distinct, cohesive set of capitalist commodity-money (market) relations, without a definite territory upon which that economy operates, without a common language that facilitates generalised commodity production and exchange, or without these material relations giving rise to a common social psychology (manifested in their intellectual culture) among the community of people based on these relations.

Löwy objects to Stalin's theory, not because it has often been vulgarised in an idealist, metaphysical way, but because he subscribes to Bauer's explicitly idealist, metaphysical theory. But instead of openly stating that he rejects the historical materialist theory of the nation in favour of Bauer's idealist theory, Löwy tries to give the impression that Lenin disagreed with Stalin's theory and that Lenin and Bauer—in contrast to Stalin—"developed" Marx and Engels' incomplete theory of nationalities in a common "emancipatory and dialectical way".

Löwy cites as a supposed example of the "dogmatic, restrictive and rigid character" of the historical materialist theory of the nation, Stalin's statement that the Georgians, before the second half of the 19th century, were not a nation because, being divided into economically disconnected principalities, they had no common economic life. Stalin argued:

Georgia came on the scene as a nation only in the latter half of the nineteenth century, when the fall of serfdom and the growth of the economic life of the country, the development of means of communication and the rise of capitalism, introduced division of labour between the various districts of Georgia, completely shattered the economic isolation of the principalities and bound them together into a single whole.

The same must be said of the other nations which have passed through the stage of feudalism and have developed capitalism.11

Löwy rejects this historical materialist view of the origin of nations, i.e., that they were created by rising capitalism. But—perhaps aware that readers will know that this was also Marx and Engels' view—he does not directly say so. Instead, he cites another historical case as a supposed example of how absurd it would be to adhere to the historical materialist theory of the nation: "There is no need to add that on this criterion Germany, prior to the Customs Union, would not have been a nation either".

Stalin describes the historical process of the formation of the Georgians into a nation through the replacement of feudal relations of production with capitalist relations of production, and Löwy seeks to demonstrate how "dogmatic, restrictive and rigid" such an explanation is—by counterposing to it a caricature concocted out of his own complete vulgarisation of Stalin's theory!

As for Löwy's claim that, "Nowhere in Lenin's writings do we find such an ultimatist, rigid and 'arbitrary' definition of a nation" as Stalin gives in his explanation of the formation of Georgia into a nation, here is how Lenin presented the formation of the Russian nation in his 1894 defence of historical materialism against the metaphysical views of the Narodnik ideologist V.V. Mikhailovsky:

Mr. Mikhailovsky, evidently, borrows his ideas on the history of society from the tales taught to school children ... While one might speak of gentile [tribal] life in ancient Rus, there can be no doubt that by the Middle Ages, the era of the Moscovite tsars, these gentile ties no longer existed, that is to say, the state was based on associations that were not gentile at all, but local: the landlords and the monasteries acquired peasants from various localities, and the communities thus formed were purely territorial associations. But one could hardly speak of national ties in the true sense of the term at that time: the state split into separate "lands," sometimes even principalities, which preserved strong traces of the former autonomy, peculiarities of administration, at times their own troops (the local boyars went to war at the head of their own companies), their own tariff frontiers, and so forth. Only the modern period of Russian history (approximately from the seventeenth century) is characterised by the actual amalgamation of all such regions, lands and principalities into one whole. This amalgamation, most esteemed Mr. Mikhailovsky, was brought about not by gentile ties, nor even by their continuation and generalisation: it was brought about by the increasing exchange among regions, the gradually growing circulation of commodities, and the concentration of the small local markets into a single, all-Russian market. Since the leaders and masters of this process were the merchant capitalists, the creation of these national ties was nothing else than the creation of bourgeois ties.12

Note that there is not a word about some mystical "common fate" in Lenin's account of the formation of the Russian nation. Instead, Lenin locates the driving force in the constitution of the Russian nation in the rise of capitalism in Russia. Note also how similar in its method of explanation it is to Stalin's later account of the formation of the Georgian nation. Could this, perhaps, be because Stalin shared the same "ultimatist, rigid and arbitrary 'definition' of a nation" as his mentor, Lenin—which Trotsky, not having the "dialectical" insight of either Bauer or Löwy, mistakenly described in 1940 as the "historico-materialistic definition" of the nation?

'Cultural-national autonomy'

The third point on which Löwy claims "Stalin's work implicitly and explicitly differs from, and even contradicts, Lenin's writings", is:

Stalin explicitly refused to allow the possibility of the unity or association of national groups scattered within a multi-national state: "The question arises: is it possible to unite into a single national union groups that have grown so distinct? ... Is it conceivable, that, for instance, the Germans of the Baltic Provinces and the Germans of Trans-caucasia can be 'united into a single nation'?" The answer given, of course, was that all this was "not conceivable", "not possible" and "utopian". Lenin, by contrast, vigorously defended the "freedom of association, including the association of any communities no matter what their nationality, in any given State", citing as an example precisely the Germans of the Caucasus, the Baltic and the Petrograd area. He added that freedom of association of every kind between members of the nation, scattered in different parts of the country or even the globe, was "indisputable, and can be argued against only from the hidebound, bureaucratic point of view".

In his 1913 article, Stalin did not refuse to allow "the possibility of the unity or association of" people who shared a common language and culture "scattered within a multinational state". He merely argued that it was not possible for such territorially scattered people to constitute themselves as a nation distinct from the other people they lived among. Stalin presented this argument, not in opposition to the right of such scattered groups of people to form any associations they wished, but in opposition to Bauer's program of "cultural-national autonomy", under which the state would compel such scattered groups of people to form "national" associations for the administration of their "cultural activities", above all, the education of their children, thus introducing an ethnically segregrated school system under the guise of "solving" the national question.

Lenin also condemned Bauer's "cultural-national autonomy" program on the same grounds:

"Cultural-national autonomy" implies precisely the most refined and, therefore, the most harmful nationalism, it implies the corruption of the workers by means of the slogan of national culture and the propaganda of the profoundly harmful and even anti-democratic segregating of schools according to nationality. In short, this programme undoubtedly contradicts the internationalism of the proletariat and is in accordance only with the ideals of the nationalist petty bourgeoisie.13

Lenin was opposed to the state either compelling people of different classes to form "nationally united associations" or denying them the right to do so. This is the context in which he made the arguments that Löwy cites regarding the "freedom of association, including the association of any communities no matter what their nationality, in a given state". Lenin never argued that such "associations" would constitute nations. More importantly, Lenin was opposed to Marxists advocating such associations:

Since we have had to touch on the Austrian programme on the national question, we must reassert a truth which is often distorted by the Bundists. At the Brünn Congress [of the Austrian Social Democracy] a pure programme of "cultural-national autonomy" was presented. This was the programme of the South-Slav Social-Democrats, §2 of which reads: "Every nation living in Austria, irrespective of the territory occupied by its members, constitutes an autonomous group which manages all its national (language and culture) affairs quite independently." This programme was ... withdrawn; not a single vote was cast for it. A territorialist programme was adopted, i.e., one that did not create any national groups "irrespective of the territory occupied by the members of the nation".

Clause 3 of the adopted programme reads: "The self-governing regions of one and the same nation shall jointly form a nationally united association, which shall manage its national affairs on an absolutely autonomous basis" ... Clearly, this compromise programme is wrong too. An example will illustrate this. The German colonists' community in Saratov Gubernia, plus the German working-class suburb of Riga or Lodz, the German housing estate near St. Petersburg, etc., would constitute a "nationally united association" of Germans in Russia. Obviously the Social-Democrats cannot demand such a thing or enforce such an association, although of course they do not in the least deny freedom of every kind of association, including associations of any communities of any nationality in a given state. The segregation, by a law of the state, of Germans, etc., in different localities and of different classes in Russia into a single German-national association may be practised by anybody—priests, bourgeois or philistines, but not by Social-Democrats.14

In his 1913 article, Stalin argued (against the Russian Bauerites) that the formation by these scattered groups of German-speaking colonists in Russia into a single German-"national" association would not mean that they constituted their own separate nation. A few months later, Lenin argued (also against the Russian Bauerites) that while Marxists were opposed to the formation of such associations, they defended the right of people to form them.

Löwy takes these two lines of argument, which are complementary and totally consistent with each other, but which deal with different issues, and presents them as though their authors were giving two different answers to the same question. It is only through such methods that Löwy can counterpose Stalin's approach on the national question to Lenin's—and in the process transform Lenin from an avowed opponent, into a supporter, of Bauer's nationalist program of "cultural-national autonomy"!

Oppressed and oppressor nations

The fourth, and final, point upon which Löwy claims there was a contradiction between Stalin's 1913 article and Lenin's writings on the national question is that Stalin allegedly "made no distinction between Great Russian tsarist oppressive nationalism and the nationalism of oppressed nations", whereas Lenin "considered the difference between the nationalism of the oppressor and the oppressed nation to be absolutely decisive".

In an attempt to prove his first claim, Löwy writes:

In a very revealing paragraph in his article, [Stalin] rejected in one breath the "warlike and repressive" nationalism of the tsars "from above" and the "wave of nationalism from below which sometimes turns into crass chauvinism" of the Poles, Jews, Tatars, Georgians, Ukrainians, etc.

The fact that in "one in breath" Stalin expressed Bolshevism's opposition to both Great Russian tsarist oppressive nationalism and the nationalism of the oppressed nations within the Russian empire does not mean that he made no distinction between them.

This is readily apparent from the passage Löwy cites. Stalin describes the nationalism of the oppressed nations as a defensive response to the "warlike and repressive" character of Great Russian tsarist oppressor nationalism: "... the series of repressive measures taken by the 'powers that be' in vengeance on the border regions for their 'love of freedom', evoked an answering wave of nationalism from below, which at times took the form of crude chauvinism". Stalin cited specific examples of the latter—the "spread of Zionism among the Jews", anti-Ukrainian chauvinism among the Poles and the "general swing of the philistine towards anti-Semitism".15

What Löwy appears to hold Stalin guilty of is simply expressing Marxism's ideological opposition to all forms of nationalism.

Despite Löwy's claim that Lenin "considered the difference between the nationalism of the oppressor and the oppressed nations to be absolutely decisive", there are numerous passages in Lenin's writings where he also expressed, "in one breath", opposition to the nationalism of both oppressor and oppressed nations. Here are a few examples:

The liberals approach the language question in the same way as they approach all political questions—like hypocritical hucksters, holding out one hand (openly) to democracy and the other (behind their backs) to the feudalists and police. We are against privileges, shout the liberals, and under cover they haggle with the feudalists for first one, then another, privilege.

Such is the nature of all liberal-bourgeois nationalism—not only Great-Russian (it is the worst of them all because of its violent character and its kinship with the Purishkeviches16), but Polish, Jewish, Ukrainian, Georgian and every other nationalism ...17

It is under the guise of national culture—Great-Russian, Polish, Jewish, Ukrainian, and so forth—that the Black Hundreds and the clericals, and also the bourgeoisie of all nations, are doing their dirty and reactionary work ...18

Marxism cannot be reconciled with nationalism, be it even of the "most just", "purest", most refined and civilised brand. In place of all forms of nationalism Marxism advances internationalism ...19

... the proletariat of Russia is faced with a twofold or, rather, a two-sided task: to combat nationalism of every kind, above all, Great-Russian nationalism; to recognise, not only fully equal rights for all nations in general, but also equality of rights as regards polity, i.e., the right of nations to self-determination, to secession. And at the same time, it is their task, in the interests of a successful struggle against all and every kind of nationalism among all nations, to preserve the unity of the proletarian struggle and the proletarian organisations, amalgamating these organisations into a close-knit international association, despite bourgeois strivings for national exclusiveness.20

The distinction Lenin made between the nationalism of oppressor and oppressed nations was that, whereas the nationalism of oppressor nations justified the national privileges of the oppressor nation, the nationalism of oppressed nations "has a general democratic content that is directed against oppression, and it is this content that we unconditionally support".21 Marxists express this support by championing the concrete demands of the oppressed nation that are directed against that national oppression, and by defending the democratic right of the oppressed nation to self-determination, to free itself politically from the rule of the oppressor nation by creating its own independent nation state. At the same time, Marxists combat the nationalist ideology, illusions and prejudices among the workers of the oppressed nations.

In fact, the defence by the workers of the oppressor nation of the right to self-determination of nations their rulers oppress is the most effective means of breaking down the nationalist illusions and prejudices of the workers of both nations. As Lenin observed, "the right to self-determination and secession, seems to 'concede' the maximum to nationalism" but "in reality, the recognition of the right of all nations to self-determination implies the maximum of democracy and the minimum of nationalism" because it helps promote the internationalist "class solidarity" of the workers of oppressor and oppressed nations.22

It is thus a gross falsification of Lenin's views to claim that he regarded the difference between the nationalism of oppressed and oppressor nations as absolutely decisive, rather than a relative difference. In a later chapter, Löwy admits as much, stating that "it should be stressed that the distinction between the two kinds of nationalism is a relative one and not an absolute one" because, firstly, "yesterday's oppressed very easily become today's oppressors", secondly, "the nationalist ideology (or movement) of oppressed nations has often a double cutting edge: liberating against their oppressors, but oppressive towards their own national minorities", and thirdly, "because one can find in both forms of nationalism elements of chauvinism"—i.e., the nationalism of oppressed nations, as Stalin noted, can "at times" take the "form of crude chauvinism".

Reactionary consequences of the subjectivist theory

In the same essay in which he castigates Stalin for including the concept of national character (common psychological make-up) as one of the necessary attributes of all nations, Löwy argues that the "subjective element, the consciousness of a national identity and a national political movement, is no less important" than the "collection of abstract, external criteria" he alleges constitute the "Stalinist [sic] conception" of the nation.

Continuing this point, Löwy writes:

Obviously these "subjective factors" do not come out of the blue; they are the result of certain historical conditions-persecution, oppression, etc. ... It is not a doctrinaire "expert" armed with a list of "objective criteria" (of the Stalin type) who will determine whether a community constitutes a nation or not, but the community itself.

According to Löwy, then, there is no objective means of determining whether a particular community of people can be identified as a nation other than if this community identifies itself as a nation. What any "community" may think of itself, at least as far as its "national identity" goes, must be accepted as objectively true. Such an approach is not only a complete departure from the historical materialist method, but also opens the way to supporting thoroughly reactionary practical policies.

Before examining the latter aspect of Löwy's subjectivist theory, a few comments are in order on the confusion of the theory itself. Firstly, he argues that "national identity" is "no less important" than, presumably, the "objective criteria" which he has just dismissed as "abstract, external criteria". However, a few pages later, he states:

[Bauer's] concept of the nation as a common fate allows us to take account of the national identity of communities that, because of their lack of a common territory or distinct language, do not fit into abstract definitions and classifications: for example Jews or African-Americans. A collective memory of persecution, exclusion or massacres creates a national community of fate.

Thus, all that is required for a "community" to constitute itself as a nation is that its members have some common identification derived from a "collective memory" of oppression.

From the two examples Löwy has cited, this doesn't have to be a "collective memory" of national oppression; it can be religious persecution (Jews) or racial oppression (African-Americans). Indeed, it couldn't be national, since "collective memory" of national oppression could arise only out of a material condition of national oppression, which in turn could arise only out of the existence of a nation that is subject to national oppression.

As an aside, it is Löwy himself who acts as a "doctrinaire expert" in ascribing a "national identity" to African-Americans. The great majority of African-Americans have never held the view that they were not members of the US nation. In fact, such a view (whose necessary corollary is that white Americans are the only "real" members of the US nation) is part of the racist mythology used to justify the privileges US capitalism has institutionalised for the white racial group and its systematic discrimination against inhabitants of the United States who appear to have any trace of African ancestry.

Löwy's explanation of how non-national communities come to be constituted as nations leaves a rather important question unanswered: how did communities that were never subjected to collective persecution on religious or racial grounds become constituted as nations? How, for example, were the English, French, Russian and Japanese nations constituted?

The reactionary consequences of Löwy's theory readily become apparent in his acceptance of the Zionist idea that the Jews are a nation. Certainly, the Jews in Europe had been persecuted for centuries. But it was not the "collective memory of persecution" as a non-Christian religious group in feudal Europe that led to the acceptance of the Zionist idea by the vast majority of Jews. It was the Nazis' anti-Semitic program—which, in addition to the extermination of millions of European Jews, created an uprooted postwar population of hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees—and US imperialism's need to create a reliable ally in the oil-rich Arab East, that enabled the Zionist movement to win a mass base among Jews.

The thesis that the Jews were or could become a nation had no basis in reality. They obviously did not have a common economic life, since they resided in a score of nations and were economically part of those nations. Jews had no common territory, the Zionists being obliged to assert a claim to land on which some Jewish tribes had lived thousands of years earlier—land which had long since become inhabited by people adhering to other religions. The Jews had no common language: Hebrew, like Latin, had become a dead language tied exclusively to religious rites, while Yiddish was the common language only of European (principally eastern European) Jews.

The Zionist program for Jewish "national liberation" itself confirmed the fact that Jews did not constitute a nation, since its basic thrust was an attempt to bring precisely the four necessary features of a nation into being. Unlike Löwy, the Zionist leaders did not believe a nation could be formed simply on the basis of a "collective memory of persecution"; they recognised that a nation could not be constituted without the creation of a distinct capitalist economy operating on a definite territory, without imposition upon the inhabitants of that territory of a common language and culture. And with the backing of US imperialism, they set out to attempt to create these material conditions through a policy of colonial conquest and "ethnic cleansing" of the existing Arabic-speaking Palestinian nation.

The dispossession, dispersal and national oppression suffered by the Palestinians is an illustration of the reactionary consequences that can flow from identifying a non-national formation as a nation, simply because a group of people have a "collective memory of persecution".

Consistent with his subjectivist theory of the nation, Löwy classifies the Israeli Jews—an oppressor religious caste—rather than the Hebrew-speaking members of the Israeli capitalist socioeconomic formation, regardless of their religion—as a nation. He also regards the Northern Irish Protestants—also an oppressor religious caste—as a nation. Moreover, he argues that both these non-national formations have a right to "national" self-determination, i.e., to a separate state. His subjectivist theory of nations thus leads him to defend the reactionary Jewish chauvinist program of Zionism and the reactionary separatist program of the Irish Loyalists.

However, Löwy wants to be regarded as a Marxist, and therefore defends the right of oppressed nations to self-determination. So, at the same time as he opposes any denial of the right to self-determination of the Israeli Jewish "nation" and the Northern Irish Protestant "nation", he also affirms the "legitimacy of the national movement of Palestinians or of the Catholics of Ulster".

He does not seem to comprehend that these are incompatible positions—that the ending of the national oppression of the Palestinians can be achieved only through the dismantling of the present Jewish state of Israel and its replacement by a secular, bi-national state according equal rights to both Arabic-speaking Palestinians and Hebrew-speaking Israelis. Nor does he seem to understand that the "national movement" of the Northern Ireland Catholics is a movement for the dismantling of the British-created Protestant-dominated statelet of Northern Ireland through the political unification of the Irish nation.

Such inconsistencies, which riddle Löwy's book, stem from his attempt to reconcile theoretically and programmatically incompatible positions: Bauer's idealist theory and his nationalist program with Marxism's historical materialist theory and its anti-nationalist program, which includes the right to self-determination for oppressed nations—nations which are products of the historical practice of real communities of people, rather than the imaginations of doctrinally "versatile" intellectuals.

Fatherland or Mother Earth? Essays on the National Question, By Michael Löwy, Pluto Press, London, 1998.


1. L. Trotsky, Stalin, Panther books, London, 1969, Vol. 1, p. 230.

2. J. Stalin, Works, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1953, Vol. 2, p. 307.

3. ibid., p. 313.

4. Trotsky, p. 230.

5. ibid., p. 227-228.

6. ibid., p. 228.

7. Stalin, p. 309-11.

8. ibid., p. 306.

9. V.I. Lenin, "The National Programme of the R.S.D.L.P.", Collected Works, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1964, Vol. 19, p. 539.

10. Stalin, p. 313.

11. ibid., p. 306.

12. V.I. Lenin, "What the 'Friends of the People' Are and How They Fight the Social-Democrats", CW, Vol. 1, p. 154-55.

13. V.I. Lenin, "The National Programme of the R.S.D.L.P",, CW, Vol. 19, p. 541.

14. V.I. Lenin, "Critical Remarks on the National Question", CW, Vol. 20, pp. 39-40.

15. Stalin, p. 301.

16. A reference to the leaders of the Black Hundreds, monarchist gangs formed by the tsarist police to carry out assassinations of revolutionaries and anti-Jewish pogroms.

17. Lenin, ibid., p. 21.

18. ibid., p. 23.

19. ibid., p. 34.

20. V.I. Lenin, "The Right of Nations to Self-Determination", CW, Vol. 20, pp. 453-54, emphasis added.

21. ibid., p. 412.

22. ibid., p. 434-35.


[Doug Lorimer is a member of the National Executive of the Democratic Socialist Party in Australia]

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