Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


Roman Rosdolsky, Engels and the ‘Nonhistoric’ Peoples: the National Question in the Revolution of 1848, Critique, Glasgow, 1987, pp 220, £8.00

But at the first victorious uprising of the French proletariat ... the Austrian Germans and the Magyars will gain their freedom and take a bloody revenge on the Slav barbarians. The general war which will then break out will scatter the Slav Sonderbund [alliance], and annihilate all these small pigheaded nations even to their very names. The next world war will not only cause reactionary classes and dynasties to disappear from the face of the earth, but also entire reactionary peoples. And that too is an advance.' (F. Engels, The Magyar Struggle, January 1849)

Rosdolsky correctly notes that Engels’ position on the Austrian Slavs has been irrevocably refuted by “the severest critic of all critics – history”. The “reactionary peoples” condemned by Engels are the Czechs and Slovaks that today populate Czechoslovakia, the Serbs and Croats who help make up Yugoslavia, and the Galician Ukrainians who now live in the Western Ukraine. These peoples have recently emerged from the collapsing Stalinist Eastern Bloc only to be thrown once again into the cauldron of insurrection and ethnic conflict. For that reason, the recent publication in English of this 40-year-old study of Engels’ peculiar attitude towards the nationalities of Eastern Europe in 1849 is timely, and to be welcomed.

Engels’ article assessing the lessons of the 1848 revolution in the Habsburg empire was written exactly one year after he had joined Marx in their ringing appeal published in the Communist Manifesto: “Workers of the world, Unite!” But his writings on the Austrian Slavs have thereafter been used to undermine the claim of the fathers of scientific Socialism to be consistent internationalists. Since they never publicly repudiated the 1849 articles, anti-Communist Slavs have repeatedly accused Marx and Engels of anti-Slavic chauvinism. This is despite their untiring efforts to win international support for the liberation of the Slavic Poles from Russia. Others have hinted chat Engels never really abandoned his youthful attachment to German nationalism, ignoring his noted attempt to smuggle a strategic plan to the Communards to cripple Bismarck’s army in occupied France in 1871.

Working at the onset of the Cold War in 1948, isolated among the Ukrainian exile community in Detroit, the veteran Ukrainian Bolshevik Roman Rosdolsky (1898-1967) subjected Engels’ position on the national question to a materialist analysis. Typically, in writing his polemic, Rosdolsky was not interested in placing a tick or a cross against 100-year-old positions, no matter how controversial. He was concerned to answer charges from other Ukrainian exiles that the Soviet Army, in seizing Czechoslovakia that year, was simply carrying out Engels’ call to annihilate those “reactionary peoples”, the former Austrian Slavs.

Rosdolsky makes use of the opportunity provided by his debate with the Ukrainian exiles to try to re-establish the Marxist tradition on the national question. Yet the left recoiled from his effort in horror. In a short preface, the translator John-Paul Himka recounts how Rosdolsky’s attempt to get the Yugoslav authorities to publish the article was sabotaged, and how it was only after he had acquired a reputation in European left circles with his most famous work, The Making of Marx’s Capital, that he was able to find a German publisher for his critique of Engels in 1964, 16 years after it was written. Himka himself alludes to his long battle to find an English publisher. The spirit in which Rosdolsky wrote his inquiry in 1948 is in even more need of revival today:

There are two ways to look at Marx and Engels: as the creators of a brilliant, but in its deepest essence, thoroughly critical, scientific method; or as church fathers of some sort, the bronzed figures of a monument. Those who have the latter vision will not have found this study to their taste. We, however, prefer to see them as they were in reality. (p.185)

In his book, Rosdolsky sets out Engels’ justification for his position at length. Briefly, both Marx and Engels supported the bourgeois revolutions that broke out from February 1848 throughout Europe as the necessary precursors to the Socialist revolution, which they erroneously expected to be imminent. However, the revolutionary fervour of the bourgeoisie soon evaporated, and the forces of reaction rallied, particularly in Metternich’s Austria. In October 1848 the bloody suppression of the Vienna rising marked the turning point of the insurrections, and the revolutionary forces were thrown back everywhere from then onwards. What motivated Engels to write his vituperative articles was the Austrian Slavs’ rejection of their chance to win freedom from the oppressive rule of the Habsburgs, and their enthusiastic participation in Metternich’s counter-revolution.

Rosdolsky divides Engels’ 1849 position into two parts – his realistic, materialist side; and his idealistic, Hegelian side. On the realistic side, Rosdolsky recognises that part of the reason for Engels’ position was due to his enthusiasm for the eastward spread of German industry and culture. He thought that German capitalism would be the vehicle that would destroy the old system, and quickly lay the basis for a revolutionary society where there would be no relations of exploitation.

Marx and Engels’ support for German capitalism was not because they were German nationalists, but was due to the profound weakness of capitalism elsewhere in Eastern Europe. That meant that any other nationalism except German nationalism was a rare phenomenon, and national revolts even rarer. The necessary preconditions for the outbreak of a national revolt – the unity of town and country, the bourgeoisie and the peasantry – barely existed anywhere in Eastern Europe, either because a national bourgeoisie was absent, or because it was German and therefore had little in common with the mainly Slav peasantry. As a result, the endemic struggles that peasants conducted against their landlords usually remained sporadic, local affairs that rarely acquired a national focus. That the mainly peasant Austrian Slavs sided with their landlords against the German revolutionaries suggests that, for all their agrarian conflicts, feudal relations remained largely intact in the region. Engels’ position was ‘realistic’ in that he believed that the only hope for lifting the Austrian Slavs out of their stagnant existence was their rapid assimilation into the German nation (and hence the `annihilation' of themselves as a people separate from Germans).

Rosdolsky subjects Engels’ “false prognosis” – his adoption of the theory of ‘non-historic peoples’ – to a devastating polemic. While he accepts that the Austrian Slavs had to be fought, insofar as they did eventually line up with the Habsburgs and Romanovs, Rosdolsky shows that at no stage were they ever offered freedom by the German revolutionaries of 1848, who, as capitalists, desired to suppress them anew. Rosdolsky believes that Marx and Engels should have led a campaign to back the liberation of the Austrian Slavs, since they could have at least expected to neutralise a number of those who subsequently threw in their lot with Metternich and reaction.

Instead Engels, as an editor of Cologne’s radical Neue Rheinische Zeitung, argued that the Austrian Slavs had betrayed the revolution because they had no history:

Peoples which have never had a history of their own, which come under foreign domination the moment they have achieved the first, crudest level of civilisation ... have no capacity for survival and will never be able to attain any kind of independence. And that has been the fate of the Austrian Slavs. (Democratic Pan-Slavism, February 1849)

Rosdolsky links Engels’ adoption of this conception directly to Hegel’s theory of ‘non-historic people’. In his Philosophy of Mind, the German philosopher held that only those peoples that could – thanks to inherent “natural and spiritual abilities” – establish a state were to be the bearers of historical progress: “A nation with no state formation ... has, strictly speaking, no history – like the nations which existed before the rise of states and others which still exist in a condition of savagery.” As a result, those who were indifferent about possessing their own state would soon stop being a people. The reactionary implications of Hegel’s theory are clear: he thought that some peoples will always be uncivilised, no matter what. For instance, in 1830 Hegel wrote off Africa in his Lectures on the Philosophy of World History: “Anyone who wishes to study the most terrible manifestations of human nature will find them in Africa ... it is an unhistorical continent, with no movement or development of its own.”

Rosdolsky believes Engels adopted Hegel’s theory of ‘non-historic peoples’ to describe the Austrian Slavs in order to justify his reluctance to jeopardise the democratic alliance against the Habsburgs and the Tsar. Though Engels had jointly written The German Ideology with Marx in 1844, in which Hegel’s idealistic understanding of history was overturned, Rosdolsky argues that Engels felt “compelled” by the “practical politics” of the situation to revive Hegel five years later.

Rosdolsky’s criticism of Engels for his use of the theory of ‘historic nations’ is correct, but his assessment of the reasons why Engels resorted to that theory is weak. The implication is that the ‘Austrian Slav’ issue is the sole example of either Marx or Engels compromising on their political method – though, of course, they were not adverse to flexibility in the presentation of their politics. Rosdolsky was aware that in 1848-49 Marx and Engels had just graduated from university and were only embarking on their long political careers. They were both upset – to say the least – at the collapse of the 1848 revolution. They spent much time in the early 1850s in exile in London reassessing and revising the positions they had both adopted during the revolutionary period – though not on the Austrian Slav issue. But these are all mitigating circumstances. There is a more substantial answer.

The reason why Engels adopted the attitude that he did towards the Austrian Slavs can only be discovered by bringing together Rosdolsky’s two separate parts, Engels’ realistic side and his “false prognosis”, and considering them as part of a contradictory whole.

On the one hand, Engels backed the democratic tradition that supported liberation struggles against reaction. For instance, he backed the struggles of both the Irish and the Poles against the twin bastions of European reaction, Britain and Russia. On the other hand, as a strict centralist, he was committed to uniting all nations in a single centralised world economy. As such, he was reluctant to support any struggle conducted against the more advanced countries that did not accelerate the capitalist transformation of the world. This was because, at that time, only capitalism could develop the material basis for a world economy, even though it accomplished this in a barbaric. fashion. Because struggles for national liberation were then the exception rather than the rule, this contradiction necessarily remained unresolved. It was the product of the level of development of capitalism at that time.

The best explanation Marx and Engels could offer was that, with the virtual absence of liberation movements, at least barbaric capitalism created the possibility of transforming society in a progressive direction, whilst pre-capitalist society meant barbarism without end. Nobody could produce any better answer than that, until there had been a further development of capitalist social relations. Given that the Austrian Slavs didn’t develop any national movements until some time after Engels was dead, it is perhaps understandable why he didn’t feel the need to repudiate his 1849 position.

Nevertheless, there is much evidence to suggest that Marx and Engels began to change their position on the national question towards the end of the nineteenth century. Lenin, certainly, studied their Irish work closely in developing his own position. But in the end Lenin was able to solve the problem of the national question where his predecessors had necessarily failed because the development of imperialism itself had by his time provided the answer to the conundrum.

Imperialism’s arrival on the world’s stage announced the fact that capitalism was historically bankrupt, and the economic (though not political) basis for a centrally planned world economy had been laid. At the same tithe, imperialism had carved up the whole world into oppressor and oppressed nations. As a result, from being an issue of merely episodic concern, the national question became the ‘burning question’ of the day for Socialist revolutionaries in the period around the First World War when Lenin developed his position.

Lenin's position on the national question was that the imperialist epoch has made all nationalism reactionary, abstractly speaking, since only an internationally planned economy could bring progress. However, imperialism’s division of the world into oppressor and oppressed nations posed a political problem – the international division of the working class, the only force which could provide the basis for such a fully centralised world economy, The form this political problem took was the struggle between the Great Powers and the colonies over the democratic demand for the right of all nations to self-determination. The Balkans, for example, where many of the Austrian Slavs lived, became the focus of intense inter-imperialist rivalries which fuelled the nationalist aspirations that sparked off the First World War.

Lenin argued that the international working class could never break politically from their own bourgeoisies, imperialist or otherwise, unless they championed the national question. Working class unity could therefore only be achieved internationally when, in the oppressor countries, the labour movement opposed Great Power nationalism and backed all anti-imperialist struggles unconditionally. It also required that, in a nation oppressed by imperialism, its labour movement should back the nationalist struggle insofar as it was directed against imperialism. This is because, in fighting Great Power oppression, small nation nationalism acquires a progressive content that it would not otherwise have in the imperialist epoch. In such conditions, it is by being the most consistent anti-imperialists that revolutionaries assert the separate interests of the working class, which are always independent of the more narrow concerns of the nationalists.

Consequently, although revolutionaries do not aim to create myriads of small nations dotting the globe, if that is what is required to defeat imperialism and to secure a voluntary union of the international working class, then so be it. Such union would consolidate the single world economy, and so lay the basis for the mixing of national cultures, and therefore the eventual withering away of separate nations.

Rosdolsky formally praised Lenin’s approach to the national question in several places in his book, yet he never gave any indication that he understood how imperialism had fundamentally altered the character of the national question. Indeed, he only polemicised against Hegel’s categorisation of some nations as ‘non-historic’. This left open the issue whether all nations should be considered ‘historic’. This is probably why Rosdolsky found that he “cannot help but ‘like’ [the Pan-Slav nationalist] Mikhail Bakunin’s nationality programme better than Engels’”. (p.179)

Moreover, Rosdolsky made no distinction between capitalist nations and the new Stalinist ones. No doubt influenced by his isolation among Detroit’s Ukrainian exile community, Rosdolsky argues in his book that, under the Stalinist regime:

The [Ukrainian] question cannot be solved as long as the Ukrainians have not achieved full – and not merely formal ’ independence with or without federation with the Russians. (p.165)

This hint of pro-nationalist sentiments indicates that, while Rosdolsky formally accepted Lenin’s approach, he retained reservations in practice.

Just as Rosdolsky in 1948 wasn’t motivated by a concern to correct Engels’ 1849 position, so we must draw out the lessons for the national question in Eastern Europe today. Engels’ diatribes against the Austrian Slavic people can now be put into perspective. He called for them to be removed from the stage of history because, by backing reaction, they acted as a barrier to progress in the region. His mistake lay in assuming that this would always be so.

In a time of Stalinist collapse and capitalist decline, however, Engels’ 1849 call has a diametrically opposite result. Today the mainly Slavic working class is the only force for progress in Eastern Europe. Through the deft manipulation of ethnic conflicts, the imperialists, the nationalists and the former Stalinist bureaucrats hope to paralyse them by keeping them divided. Even Rosdolsky’s 1948 call for ‘full’ Ukrainian independence is requiring a reactionary content now that the Stalinist regimes are degenerating. In a situation where there is ethnic conflict but no national oppression, the working class can only achieve social liberation through a struggle against all nationalisms.

Reading Rosdolsky’s Engels and the ‘Nonhistoric’ Peoples is a useful exercise in reinforcing the lesson that there is no general theory of nationalism. On the contrary, every national question has to be located in its own historical and social specificity. That is the Marxist approach to the national question.

Andy Clarkson

Updated by ETOL: 18.7.2003