New Study on the Problem of Nationalities

Historical Analysis Helps Shed Light on the Kosovo Situation

by Joe Auciello


Editors’ Note: Key questions of Marxist theory in relation to the complex and thorny interconnection between class struggles and national struggles are taken up in this essay-review concerning Michael Löwy’s Fatherland or Mother Earth? Essays on the National Question (Pluto Press, with the International Institute for Research and Education, 1998, 108 pp.; $17.95, paper).

Bombs from the United States and its NATO allies rain down on Yugoslavia, supposedly in defense of Kosovo, and from that metal rain Serbian and Kosovar nationalism flourish and spread. In the world today national conflicts are hardly confined to the Balkans. Russia, Canada, the Spanish state, the United Kingdom, India, and the African continent are all experiencing some degree of nationalist and separatist pressures. In Western Europe, as in the United States, right-wing parties thrive by nationalist appeals against foreigners, immigrants, or poorer sectors of their own nation. Despite recent setbacks, the Kurdish fight for a homeland continues, as does the struggle in Palestine. National antagonisms and even wars loom in the world’s future.

To make sense of these tumultuous events, as national conflict increasingly dominates the world stage, and to develop a liberating internationalist political strategy, a theoretical guide is needed. In this context Michael Löwy’s Fatherland or Mother Earth? is a timely and necessary work.

Löwy’s brief book, a collection of seven essays written between 1974 and 1993, is, at once, an exposition, criticism, and application of Marxist theories of nationalism.

Löwy’s work takes the critical spirit of the young Marx (who wrote, “We do not face the world in doctrinaire fashion with a new principle, declaring, ‘Here is truth, kneel here.’ We develop new principles for the world out of the principles of the world…”) and combines this with the critical acumen of the mature Marx, a thinker unafraid to test theory against the actual course of history.

Löwy shows that Marx left no ready-made doctrine to appropriate and use. He aptly notes, “Marx and Engels formulated an idea, more than an accomplished theory, of the national question.” Of course, even a fully elaborated theory would not constitute the last word. Marxism, as a scientific body of ideas, continually needs to be measured against historical experience and developed anew.


Two Concepts for Serbian Workers — and American Workers — to Think About

“Marx formulated two concepts which would become the basis for Lenin’s theory of self-determination: (1) the nation that oppresses another cannot be free; and (2) the liberation of the oppressed nation is necessary for the liberation of the workers of the dominant nation itself.”


A later generation of Marxists — notably Rosa Luxemburg, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and to a lesser extent, Otto Bauer and Joseph Stalin— defined and applied Marx and Engels’s ideas, in part through debates with each other. Their theoretical work remains, as does Marxist theory in general, unfinished. Löwy, an advocate and critic of the Leninist school, also defines what is most vital in the Marxist tradition in order to apply theory to contemporary world conflicts. Fatherland or Mother Earth? is an outstanding work of both scholarship and political analysis that outlines the essential points of a contemporary Marxist program.

The Marxist legacy, going back to Marx and Engels themselves, is contradictory and ill-defined. The founders of scientific socialism published no major work on nationalism. From the Communist Manifesto, it seems they believed that developing capitalism would erase national distinctions, that the uniformity of proletarian existence would replace the particularities of national cultures. If capitalism meant progress, then the national movements which formed nation states, a framework most congenial for capitalism to develop, would be the most historically justified or “legitimate” ones. Thus, an evolutionist, economic determinist strain resides in Marxism.

Alongside it, though, are significant examples of political analysis — Marx and Engels’s writings on Poland and Ireland, for instance — which form a more sophisticated and useful basis to understand the national question, imperialism, and socialist revolution. Writing in 1870, Marx saw that England’s oppression of Ireland also served to misdirect and hold down the English working class. The economic and ideological oppression of the Irish and English proletariat combined to the detriment of both. “The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he feels himself a member of the ruling nation and so turns himself into a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself…This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And that class is fully aware of it.”

From an examination of these writings, Löwy concludes: “Marx thus formulated two concepts which would become the basis of Lenin’s theory of self-determination: 1. the nation that oppresses another cannot be free… and 2. the liberation of the oppressed nation is a [precondition] for the socialist revolution in the dominant nation itself.”

Decades later, in “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” (1914) Lenin would make a clear distinction between the nationalism of the oppressor nations and the nationalism of the oppressed nations. Self-determination of the oppressed nations was a basic democratic demand and would be supported as part of an anti-imperialist struggle. Lenin argued that unless workers in the imperialist nations supported the national struggle of oppressed people, “there can be no internationalism.” These ideas were later codified as statutes of the Communist International.

Löwy’s overall purpose, on a programmatic level, is to clarify and sharpen Bolshevik doctrines on the national question by a thorough but fraternal criticism. As he explains in his introduction, “Marx and Engels’s incomplete theory of nationalities 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).” Löwy aligns himself, obviously enough, within the latter tradition of Marxism.

Löwy is especially effective in explaining the weaknesses of Stalin’s 1913 work on nationalism, Marxism and the National Question. Since Stalin’s pamphlet was written in Lenin’s lifetime, a full decade before the degeneration of the Bolshevik party, it had (and has) enjoyed considerable authority among Marxists. Both friend and foe of Stalin have declared this essay to be completely consistent with Lenin’s views. Even The ABC of Communism (1919) explains the concept of a nation in terms close to Stalin’s: “A nation or a people is the name given to a group of persons who are united by the use of a common tongue and who inhabit a definite area. There are additional characteristics of nationality, but these two are the most important and the most fundamental.” Löwy, too, concedes that “the main ideas in Stalin’s work were those of the Bolshevik Party and Lenin.”

However, through a careful textual comparison, Löwy shows how “Stalin’s work implicitly and explicitly differs from, and even contradicts, Lenin’s writings.” The most significant of these differences is in Stalin’s attempt to define a nation solely in objective terms (language and territory). “Thanks to Stalin, Löwy says, “this dogma wrought havoc in four continents, transforming theory into a true Procrustean bed, imposed by decree of the Political Bureau…”

Stalin’s theory defined a nation rigidly in terms of quantifiable, objective criteria. But Lenin and Trotsky, despite their praise for Stalin’s pamphlet, additionally emphasized the subjective element in determining a nation, an emphasis confirmed historically and also affirmed by more contemporary Marxist scholars. That is, a people becomes a nationalist movement or a nation not only when, or if, it shares common territory and language, but when it demands its right to be recognized as a nation. The consciousness of the masses is a decisive element for Marxists in defining and politically supporting the nationalism of the oppressed.

Even a brief look at the causes which have led to war in Kosovo shows — by negative example — the importance of the analysis that Lenin developed from Marx’s writings on Poland and Ireland. In the former Yugoslavia proletarian internationalism means recognizing the right of the Kosovars to form an independent nation. The more force that was applied against Kosovo by the Yugoslav state (dominated by a mostly Serbian privileged bureaucratic caste) and the more the Kosovars’ national rights were denied, the stronger grew the demand for secession. Lenin recognized that unless the right of self-determination were granted, voluntary union, or federation, would not be possible in practice. Kosovo bears witness to the accuracy of Lenin’s argument. No stable solution will be achieved in Kosovo until its people are able to exercise the right to determine their own future.

The objective criteria for the war in Kosovo has long been present. The Kosovars, united by common language and religion, are the majority in a common area. In 1961 they were already 67 percent of the population of the region, and the percentage increased to 90 percent in the 1990s. A separate state would be roughly equal in size to Macedonia. These facts would not, by themselves, require the Kosovars to demand their own state. It was the political and economic repression of the Tito and Milosevic governments that fueled Kosovo Albanian national consciousness.

The 1946 Yugoslav constitution only designated Kosovo as an “autonomous region” of the Serbian Republic — a concession weighted heavily toward Serb nationalism. The degree of autonomy was legally defined by Serbia. In reality, Kosovo was a neglected, backward region dominated by the Serbs. It was the least developed area of the country and received the least federal assistance. (It should also be pointed out that Albanian leader Enver Hoxha, siding with Stalin in the Stalin-Tito split in 1948, called upon the Albanian people of Kosovo to rise up and overthrow the “fascist Tito bands” and merge with the Albanian state, thereby inflaming Serb nationalism.)

The granting of limited reforms in the 1960s emboldened the Kosovars to press for even greater degrees of self-government. Some of the newspapers and journals that were being published in Albanian in Kosovo began to advocate the creation of an independent republic for Kosovo. Tito adamantly opposed this demand, while promising even greater reform for Kosovo as an autonomous province. Yet, in the years that followed, Kosovo continued to lag far behind the rest of Yugoslavia in employment, income, and standard of living.

When Milosevic came to power, the policies of discrimination and repression deepened. The proportion of Albanians in Kosovo continued to rise. In 1990 the Milosevic regime stripped Kosovo of its autonomy and its limited self-government. Peaceful resistance, including a 98 percent vote by Kosovars for independence, yielded no results. War in Bosnia and Croatia and the rise of Great Serb nationalism showed there would be no possibility for change, not even the restoration of the limited autonomy previously granted to Kosovars.

Marxists a decade ago demanded the recognition of Kosovar rights, a measure which could have prevented war today. “The status of republic demanded by the Albanians is the only one which can protect them from the colossal regression in rights which is already affecting Macedonia. It would give them the dignity of Yugoslav citizens on a footing of equality with the other nationalities. The vote which has just taken place approving the constitutional amendments that recentralize Serbia are only the beginning of a logic which will lead to dramatic fratricidal confrontations.” (Catherine Verla, “National questions in Yugoslavia — an indication, International Marxist Review, Vol. 4, No. 2, Autumn 1989). Of course, this strategy was ignored and the “logic” of bloody confrontation has followed in its place.

The pursuit of armed struggle by the Kosovo Liberation Army is largely the consequence of political decisions made in Belgrade to remove autonomy from Kosovo. No political means were left to the Kosovo Albanians to resolve their demands within the framework of the Yugoslav state. The struggle for independence became their sole option — their choice was independence or submission. As a result of an effort to suppress all nationalist expression in Kosovo, Milosevic forced the Kosovars to demand full rights as an independent nation and to fight for self-determination by the method of guerrilla war.

A Leninist policy of self-determination or regional autonomy was never applied in Kosovo. The interests of the Kosovo Albanians were subordinated to the needs of the Yugoslav state in general and to Serbian nationalism in particular.

Failure to recognize this principle of self-determination has misled some socialists in the United States to oppose NATO’s war in Yugoslavia by supporting Serb domination of Kosovo. An effective, principled antiwar movement in the imperialist countries cannot be built on those terms. A thorough understanding of Marx and Engels’s ideas on nationalism, developed by Lenin, distinguishing between the nationalism of the oppressor and the nationalism of the oppressed, is essential for understanding the crisis in Yugoslavia and building solidarity for the just struggle of the Kosovar people.

Löwy bluntly asserts this point:

“We cannot consider ourselves Marxists if we do not support the right of self-determination of New Caledonia’s Kanaks in France, of Palestinians in Israel, of Kosovo’s Albanians in Yugo slavia, of Kurds in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey; and last but not least, if we do not struggle in the US against US military intervention in other countries.”

On one significant topic — the assessment of Otto Bauer’s perspective of cultural autonomy for minority groups within a nation — Löwy departs from Lenin’s theories of nationalism which were sharply critical of Bauer. (Bauer’s major work is, unfortunately, not translated into English). The Bolsheviks, as is well known, recognized the demand for self-determination (or regional autonomy) in opposition to national-cultural autonomy. One of the best-known statements of the Bolshevik position is Stalin’s 1913 pamphlet, “Marxism and the National Question,” which faults Bauer for an impractical idealism. Lenin sarcastically dismissed Bauer’s theory as his “pet little point.”

Löwy, instead, frankly acknowledges his difference with both Lenin and Stalin and devotes a short chapter of Fatherland or Mother Earth? to a positive reassessment of Bauer’s work. The qualities of Löwy’s thinking, his way of approaching historical-political and literary-textual problems, can best be seen by a close look at his fresh treatment of a conflict long since considered closed by most Marxists.

Bauer developed his theory of “national-cultural autonomy” in relation to the pre–World War I Austro-Hungarian Empire. For him, such autonomy meant giving each nationality within a multinational state “a certain degree of cultural, administrative and legal authority.” Although the Austro-Hungarian state separated into several smaller states after 1918, Löwy finds a contemporary relevance and methodological importance for Bauer’s theory. Here Löwy’s questioning is based, not on a reverential attitude toward “sacred texts,” but on a sober understanding of the real geographical and political difficulties posed by burgeoning nationalist movements. He asks, “While the democratic right to self-determination is indispensable, how can it be applied to territories where nations are thoroughly intermixed without setting off battles, massacres and “ethnic cleansing”? The problem is most obviously posed by the history of the past decade in Yugoslavia (and the former Soviet Union).

Stalin in 1913 argued, “The only correct solution is regional autonomy… [It] is an essential element in the solution of the national problem.” Stalin’s solution necessarily raised another question. Would the majority respect regional autonomy for the minority? Stalin answered as follows: “It may be feared, therefore, that the minorities will be oppressed by the national majorities. But there will be grounds for fear only if the old order continues to prevail in the country. Give the country complete democracy and all grounds for fear will vanish.” That solution, so easy to write, has proven less easy to achieve.

Löwy’s answer to this question is clearly given, though it marks a change from the traditional, Leninist understanding of the question. He forthrightly states, “territorial self-determination and national/cultural autonomy should be considered complementary rather then mutually exclusive.”

In addition to the reality of recent inter-ethnic conflicts, Löwy also cites historical precedent for this opinion. He suggests that shortly after the October 1917 revolution the Bolshevik government implemented policies, inspired by Bauer, promoting cultural autonomy for the benefit of Jews and other national minorities. On the other hand, it should also be pointed out that Trotsky, writing more than ten years after this period, in The History of the Russian Revolution (Vol. 3, p. 39), was thoroughly dismissive of Bauer’s ideas. “As to the project of a so-called ‘national-cultural autonomy’…,” Trotsky writes, “this reactionary utopia, borrowed by various Jewish groups from the Austrian theoretician, Otto Bauer, melted in those first days of freedom like wax under the sun’s rays.”

Löwy, instead, argues that “a more balanced assessment of Otto Bauer is needed.” For Löwy, the real importance of Bauer’s work lies in his analytical method and “profoundly humanist spirit” which enables Marxists to correct the flaws Löwy criticizes in the young Engels and, especially, Stalin. Bauer’s assertion of a nation as a “common fate,” regardless of shared territory, strongly supports the revolutionary appreciation of Black nationalism in the United States, for instance. Trotsky, in discussion with C.L.R. James, insisted on the same principle, without referring directly to Bauer. It’s a point that deserves to be more widely known. Recognition of the revolutionary potential of Black nationalism is still a contested point within the U.S. left.

How, then, would Bauer’s theories apply to the world today? A consideration of concrete reality leaves the question open. Regional autonomy, for all the virtues which it may hypothetically possess, has proven to be a precarious solution which can indeed render a minority nationality dependent upon the good will or the political farsightedness of the majority. Regional autonomy for the Albanian population of Kosovo, to cite one obvious example (granted in 1963 and expanded by constitutional reform in 1968 and 1974), was revoked in 1989 by the Milosevic regime, with predictable and terrible consequences. Would a system of cultural autonomy, for all the virtues which Löwy identifies, have fared any better or proven any more satisfactory in resolving inter-ethnic hostilities? Lenin’s insight serves today as a warning: “An ‘autonomous’ nation does not enjoy rights equal to those of a ‘sovereign’ nation…” An affirmative answer to the question of national-cultural autonomy, as Löwy well recognizes, is not at all certain.

In short, Löwy may be right to modify Lenin and Trotsky’s conclusions about the sufficiency of the doctrine of self-determination. It is certainly necessary to compare their judgments against the reality of unfolding history as it has developed in the twentieth century. Without such renewal Marxism stagnates and loses its effectiveness as an instrument of revolutionary change. But Löwy’s argument is not yet finished. His critique of Bauer is largely a textual analysis exploring Bauer’s methodology. That is a useful starting point. More theoretical and historical evaluation of Bauer would be needed for Löwy’s arguments to be fully convincing. The reassessment which Löwy has begun remains to be completed.

In The ABC of Communism, the popularized explanation of the Bolshevik party program written by Bukharin and Preobrazhensky, the chapter on nationalism is titled, “Communism and the Problem of Nationality” [emphasis added]. In The History of the Russian Revolution Trotsky’s chapter on nationalism also includes the term “problem” in its title. That word “problem” neatly summarizes the difficulty Marxists have faced in accounting for the rise and stubborn persistence of nationalism and the added difficulty of integrating such an account into the theory of class struggle and revolutionary internationalism. In other words, Marxists must explain why the workers of the world have been far more willing to unite against each other instead of joining in “the international brotherhood of the working classes in the joint struggle against the ruling classes and their governments,” as Marx wrote in “Critique of the Gotha Program.” The sad facts of history compel Marxists to find a clear and correct answer to this dilemma.

Löwy, in his book’s closing essays, examines the causes for the resurgence of right-wing nationalism in world politics and assesses modern oppositional movements and revolts for the defining elements of twenty-first century internationalism. He surveys the role of nationalism in Eastern and Western Europe and the ex–Third World in order to “explain the extraordinary diversity of the phenomena.” His detailed analysis of each region, too complex for a brief summary, demonstrates the superiority of Marxism as a science for understanding conflicting and contradictory social struggles.

Löwy concludes with the assertion that “a new internationalist culture is in the making.” He cites, in addition to socialist traditions, the importance of environmentalist, feminist, anti-racist, and solidarity movements, in addition to the human rights movements that are active in many countries. Whether “the new internationalist culture will unfold as a unified mass movement” is too early to predict, but Löwy does point to a 1996 meeting, the “Intercontinental Conference against Neoliberalism and for Humanity” called by the Zapatista movement, as the most optimistic sign of “a new internationalist alternative of the oppressed and exploited.”

Some minor textual criticisms should be noted. A future edition should update the bibliography to cite works published in English. There are, at least, two significant omissions. Ephraim Nimni’s book, Marxism and Nationalism, to which Löwy devotes a chapter-length critique, was published by Pluto Press in 1991. Roman Rosdolsky’s important study, Engels and the Nonhistoric Peoples: The National Question in the Revolution of 1848, to which Löwy frequently refers, appeared in English in 1986 as a special issue of the socialist journal Critique. Also, Trotsky’s 1915 article, “Nation and Economy” is excerpted in the Pathfinder Press book, “Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International.” A second edition of Fatherland or Mother Earth? would benefit from a more complete bibliography, as well as a selection of Bauer’s work as an appendix.

Whatever doubts or criticisms a reader may have about Löwy’s conclusions, his book repays careful attention and study. No Marxist will be able to write well about nationalism without first absorbing Löwy’s work. Fatherland or Mother Earth? is written in the spirit of genuine Marxism: critical, comprehensive, reflective, and partisan. Löwy is thoroughly familiar with the classic Marxist texts on nationalism (he coedited such a collection in 1974), but his short book is not merely an explication of standard doctrine, however valuable that might be. Instead, Löwy considers Marxist theories of nationalism in the light of historical developments in recent decades of this century. Where the theory is inaccurate or inadequate, he does not hesitate to criticize it in order to obtain a better Marxism. In Löwy’s hands Marxism advances toward what it was intended to be — a theory of understanding the world in order to change it.