Academic journal article Capital & Class

Marxism and Nationalism in the Era of Globalization

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Marxism and Nationalism in the Era of Globalization

Article excerpt

Great historical failure

It was Tom Nairn who famously argued, 'The theory of nationalism represents Marxism's great historical failure. It may have others as well, and some have been more debated ... Yet none ... is as important, as fundamental, as the problem of nationalism, either in theory or in political practice' (Nairn, 1981: 329). This dictum has become something of a truism accepted by non-Marxist and Marxist writers alike. It is sometimes argued or implied that nationalism is so primordial that a political ideology, such as Marxism, would find it somehow ungraspable. It is also argued that Marxism failed to understand nationalism because of its inherent reductionism (superstructures determined by the economic base) and its class essentialism, thanks to which only class ideologies were seen. Both these lines of attack are based on certain undeniable features of classical Marxism. However, when considering the interaction of Marx and Engels with the 'national question', it is probably best to start by situating them within the politics of their day. They were men of their times, they were not disembodied; and they were politicians, not sociologists.

In mid-nineteenth-century Europe, 'To support nationalist aspirations for unity, autonomy, or independence was to support popular liberties against empire and absolutism' (Benner, 1995: 9). For a Mazzini or a Herder, nationalist icons of the day, the flourishing of nation states was synonymous with democracy. The negative connotations of nationalism so patent after the conflagration of 1914-18 were articulated only really by the anarchists and a small group of left liberals. Marx and Engels had a politically discriminating attitude towards the various national issues of the day, and displayed a normative approach towards the nationalisms of their day. For them, the guiding light was democracy, and later also internationalism. In a sense, they were not interested in analysing nationalism as a unified or consistent entity because they did not believe it was such. As Erica Benner writes, they could not have grasped the differences between the new forms of national politics and the democratic politics they advocated had they treated nationalism 'as a phenomenon sui generis, rather than analysing national movements as a variety of distinct political programmes based on conflicting social interests' (Benner, 1995: 10). It is this discriminating, deconstructionist approach to nationalism that we now need to outline.

Though Marx and Engels were keen supporters of German unification, they were not German nationalists. For them, national unification was a preliminary task of the German democratic revolution. Marx and Engels were equally sympathetic to the ongoing process of national unification in Italy, writing 'No people, apart from the Poles, has been so shamefully oppressed by the superior power of its neighbours, no people has so often and so courageously tried to throw off the yoke oppressing it' (Marx and Engels, 1977b: 10). Here, we get a hint that support for nationalist demands was not unconditional for the founders of Marxism. Rather, it was tied to the big power politics of the day, and in particular to the dominating role of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires. For Marx and Engels, neither a common language and traditions nor geographical and historical homogeneity were sufficient in themselves to define a nation. Rather, a certain level of economic and social development was required, and priority was given, on the whole, to larger units. The right of nations to self-determination was far from absolute for Marx and Engels, and depended, rather, on the international political conjuncture and the developments of the class struggle--or lack of it--in each national situation. They were, of course, practical politicians, and they were guided on national issues largely by political action considerations rather than theory.

Where Marx and Engels seemed to break with their unfortunate binary opposition between historic and non-historic nations was in regard to Ireland. …

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