Factors of Race and Nation in Marxist Theory
(First published in Il Programma Comunista, 1953, nn. 16-20)
INTRODUCTION: The impotence of the tritely “negativist” attitude
1. Race, nation or class ?
2. Opportunism in the national question
PART ONE: Reproduction of the species and the productive economy, two aspects of the material basis of the historical process
3. Work and sex
4. Individual and species
5. Biological heredity and social tradition
6. Natural factors and historical development
7. Prehistory and language
8. Socialised work and speech
9. Economic substructure and superstructure
10. Stalin and linguistics
11. The idealist thesis of national language
12. References and distortions
13. Personal dependence and economic dependence
PART TWO: The relative weight of the national factor in the various historic modes of production. Marxist interpretation of the political struggle
14. From race to nation
15. The emergence of the State
16. States without nation
17. The Hellenic nation and culture
18. Roman nation and force
19. Nationality in decline
20. Organisation of the Germanic barbarians
21. Feudal society as a-national organisation
22. The bases of modern revolution
PART THREE: The modern proletarian movement and struggles for the formation and emancipation of nations
23. Feudal obstacles to the birth of modern nations
24. Feudal localism and universal church
25. Universalism and political centralism
26. The revolutionary demands of national bourgeoisies
27. The iridescent superstructures of the capitalist revolution
28. The proletariat makes its entry onto the stage of history
29. Proletarian struggle and the national arena
30. Proletarian strategy in the Europe of 1848
31. Revolutionary downturn and the workers’ movement
32. Struggles for nationhood after 1848
33. The Polish question
34. The International and the question of nationalities
35. The Slavs and Russia
36. The wars of 1866 and 1870
37. The Commune and the new historic cycle
38. The imperialist epoch and irredentist leftovers
39. A formula for Trieste offered to the “contingentists”
40. European revolution
The text we are publishing here is the written report of a meeting on the same subject that took place on August 29-30, 1953, in Trieste, and which appeared in issues 16-20 of our organ at the time, Il programma comunista.
At that time the destiny of the “Free Territory” was still uncertain, one of the many political and economical monstrosities of the post-war “settlement” in Europe and the world. The Trieste drama was a small event in the world picture, but nevertheless enormous for those who had to endure it. During the war, Istrian Italians had suffered genocide at the hands of Tito’s partisans, but this was kept out of main information channels by the Italian Stalinists, who did not want “communism” to be associated with the persecution of ethnic Italians. In 1953, the Trieste area was militarily occupied by the Allied Forces, and disputed by Italy and Yugoslavia, although inhabited by a majority of Italians. Most of Istria had already gone over to Tito: the remaining territory, with independent administration, would eventually be partitioned in 1954 with the city of Trieste going to Italy and the rest to present-day Slovenia. For many it was a tragedy, since without a hinterland there was no longer work for the port, and most of Trieste’s youth had to migrate; yet thousands of Italians were expelled from what was then Yugoslavia, making the situation in the city even worse.
These sordid contemporary events gave the International Communist Party the opportunity to present fundamental and classical Marxist theses, in a trenchant way, directly antithetical to the deformation operated on them by opportunism; deformations coming either from the Stalinist counter-revolution or from false left groups; all of them unable to appreciate factors such as those of race and nation which, although not belonging to the totality of direct objectives of the communist revolution, are historically present on the path that dialectically leads to it. In this quality, such factors make the revolution closer and at the same time compete against it in an interplay that Marxism has never ignored; in given times and in definite historical areas they have their say within the frame of the proletarian strategy of double revolutions.
This translation makes a powerful Marxist text available for the first time in English. At present the national issue is at the forefront of bourgeois political discussion in the English-speaking world, notably in the United Kingdom, with the rise of an invigorated “anti-European” British chauvinism and strong nationalist movements in Scotland and Wales. Meanwhile the competing nationalisms in Northern Ireland (Unionist and Republican) remain unresolved. “Factors of race and nation in Marxist theory” outlines the proletarian party’s critique of such currents in the broadest possible historical context and therefore stands in the starkest possible contrast to the pseudo-Marxism of various leftist factions in the British Isles, all of which serve only to disorientate and divide the working class.
This powerful party text is within the great Marxist tradition of “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State” and of “Anti-Dühring”, and possesses the same dialectical vigour and sharp sarcasm.
We dedicate it to the young militants of the working class and of the communist movement, for them to use it to sharpen the “weapons of criticism”, and hoping that the moment when these can be turned into “criticism by weapons” won’t be long to come.
The impotence of the tritely “negativist” attitude
1. Race, nation or class ?
1. The approach of the Italian and international communist left has never had anything in common with the false, dogmatic, sectarian extremism which claims to go beyond the forces at work in real historic processes using a lot of verbal negations and hollow literary formulas.
With a recent “On the Thread of Time” (“Racial influence in the peasantry, class influence among coloured people” (Pressione razziale del contadiname, pressione classista dei popoli colorati) which appeared in Il programma comunista, n. 14, 1953) we have undertaken a series of presentations on the national and colonial question, and on the agrarian question, that’s to say on the principal contemporary social questions bringing into play the most important forces other than industrial capital and the waged proletariat. We have demonstrated, with the help of classic citations, that perfectly orthodox and radical revolutionary Marxism recognises the importance of these factors in the current epoch, and therefore the necessity of taking an appropriate class and party approach in their regard. To this end, we have relied not just on citations from Marx, Engels and Lenin, but also on the fundamental texts of the Left Opposition in the International from the years 1920 to 1926 as well as the Communist Party of Italy, which was at the time an integrative part of it.
If you are to believe the groundless insinuations of its adversaries, already committed at the time to the path of opportunism, which had led them to renounce the class basis of Marxism and to sink into counter-revolutionary politics, the Italian Left would have shared the anti-dialectical and metaphysical error, according to which the communist party should never concern itself with anything other than the duel between the pure forces of modern capital and factory workers, the duel that would lead to proletarian revolution; in other words, it should deny and ignore the influence of every other class and every other factor on the social struggle. In our recent work of restoring the fundamental economic points and the revolutionary Marxist programme, we have, on the contrary, largely demonstrated that even today this “pure phase” does not exist anywhere, not even in the most industrialised countries where the political domination of the bourgeoisie is longest established, such as England, France and the United States. Moreover, we have shown that this pure phase will never exist, not in a single country, and that it is not a necessary condition for the revolutionary victory of the proletariat.
It is therefore pure stupidity to say that because Marxism is the theory of the modern class struggle between capitalists and workers, and communism is the movement that directs the struggle of the proletariat, we deny that both the social forces of other classes (the peasantry, for example), and racial and national orientations and pressures have any historical impact whatsoever, and therefore we don’t consider any of these factors when defining our action.
2. In presenting the course of prehistory in a new and original fashion, historical materialism is not blinded to considering, studying or evaluating the processes by which families, groups, tribes, races and peoples are formed up to the formation of nations and political States. It also explains these, showing that they are tied to productive forces and conditioned by their development, and that they therefore illustrate and confirm the theory of economic determinism.
It is true that the family and the horde are forms that one also meets in animal species. But even among the most evolved, those which begin to exhibit examples of collective organisation with a view to self-preservation and common defence, and even the harvesting and storage of foodstuffs, one does not yet encounter the productive activity which distinguishes mankind (even the most primitive) from the animal. That’s why it would be better to say that what distinguishes the human species is not knowledge, or thought, or a particle of divine light, but its capacity to produce not only objects of consumption, but also objects designed for later production, such as the first rudimentary tools for hunting, fishing, harvesting of fruits and, later on, agricultural and artisanal production. This primary need to organise the production of tools imposed itself – and this is what characterises humankind –on the need to discipline and regulate the process of reproduction, substituting the occasional character of sexual relations with more complex forms than those of the animal kingdom. Above all it is in Engels’ classic text on the origin of the family, to which we will largely refer, that light is shed at least on the close connection between the evolution of familial institutions and the evolution of forms of production, if not on their common identity.
Embracing the period preceding the appearance of social classes (the goal of our entire theoretical battle is to show that classes are not eternal, that they have a beginning and they will have an end), the Marxist vision of the course of history thus offers the only possible explanation, resting on material, scientific foundations, of the function of clans, tribes and races, together with their gathering into ever more complex formations in consequence of the prevailing physical conditions, the expansion of productive forces and the technology at their collective disposal.
3. Appearing in various guises throughout history, nations, and their great armed struggles by and for themselves, are the decisive factor in the appearance of the bourgeois and capitalist social form and its extension across the entire globe. In his time Marx devoted as much attention to the struggles and wars that led to the formation of nations as he did to socio-economic processes. Given that the doctrine and the party of the proletariat were both in existence from 1848, Marx did not simply provide a theoretical explanation of these struggles in accordance with economic determinism; rather, he was anxious to establish the limits and the conditions of time and place for supporting uprisings and wars for national independence.
As soon as organised
unities of people and of nations have broadly developed, and once the
hierarchical forms of the State have come to overlay these unities
and their social dynamism, differentiated into castes and classes,
the racial and national factor follows through the historical epochs:
slavery, lordship, feudalism, capitalism. In fact, as we will see in
the second part of this work, and as we have often explained, the
importance of this factor is not the same in these different epochs.
In the modern epoch, which has seen the start and the continuation of
the process whereby the feudal form, characterised by personal
dependence and limited, localised exchange, has given way to the
bourgeois form, characterised by economic servitude and the formation
of great unitary national markets, extending to a global market, the
systematisation of nationalities according to race, language,
traditions and culture constitutes a fundamental force in the dynamic
of history. This is the demand that Lenin summarised in the formula,
nation, one State,
explaining that it was necessary to struggle for this while
underlining that it is not a proletarian or socialist formula, but a
bourgeois one. What Lenin advocated for Eastern Europe before 1917 is
what Marx advocated, as everyone knows, for all of Western Europe
(apart from England) from 1848 to 1871. This remains true today
outside of Europe for immense inhabited parts of the world, even if
this process is stimulated and accelerated by the power of economic
and other exchanges at the global level. The problem of the position
to take vis-à-vis the irresistible orientation of “backward”
people in struggling for national independence is therefore a
2. Opportunism in the national question
4. The dialectic nub of the question is as follows: an alliance of the working class and its party with bourgeois strata in the armed struggle for anti-feudal revolutionary goals should not be considered as a renunciation of the doctrine and the politics of class struggle; however, even in historical situations and geographical areas where such an alliance is both necessary and unavoidable, it is essential to uphold totally, and even raise to the highest degree, the theoretical, political and programmatic critique of the objectives and the ideologies for which bourgeois and petty-bourgeois elements are struggling.
In the third and final part of this text we will show that while fully supporting (for example) the independence of Poland or Ireland, Marx never ceased not only to condemn, but to demolish totally, with devastating sarcasm, the idealist baggage of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois partisans of democratic justice and popular liberty.
Although for us the national market and the centralised capitalist State are no more than an inevitable passage towards an international economy without the State and without markets, for these great priests of democracy, whom Marx ridiculed in the persons of Mazzini, Garibaldi, Kossuth, Sobieski etc, the formation of democratic nations constituted a point of arrival that would put an end to all social struggle. What they wanted was a homogenous national State where the bosses would no longer appear as a foreign body among the exploited workers. In reality, at this historic moment, the front bursts asunder and the working class throws itself into the civil war against the State and its “fatherland”. It is during the revolutionary processes and the bourgeois national wars for the formation of States in Europe (and today in Asia and Africa) that this moment comes closer and that these conditions mature: such is the ceaselessly changing problem that we have to make sense of, in the context of extremely variable developments.
5. Opportunism, treason, renunciation and the counter-revolutionary and pro-capitalist actions of today’s Stalinist pseudo-communists have in this domain, as well as in the more strictly economic and social sphere of “internal” politics, a dual significance. Not only do they put democratic demands and values back in fashion – through open and solid political alliances – even within the advanced capitalist West, where such alliances ceased to have any justification from 1871 onwards; more than this, they also encourage the masses’ religious respect for a popular national-patriotic ideology which is identical in all respects to that of their bourgeois allies, flattering the champions of politics which Marx and Lenin had thrashed without pity, thereby dutifully performing the hard task of destroying any class consciousness among workers who have the misfortune of following them.
Recognising that Marxist methodology has agreed to – in a specific historical and geographical context totally different from 20th Century Europe – the participation of workers in national revolutionary alliances, does not in any way diminish the infamy of parties which, under the usurped name of communist and socialist parties, today lay claim to representing workers. In the [Second World] war that set the developed western countries of France, England, America, Italy, Germany and Austria against one another, when we saw the Russian State and all the parties of the former Third Communist International successively ally themselves with all the bourgeois States in the struggle, the Napoleon IIIs and Nicolas IIs had long since disappeared from the scene. Making such alliances meant renouncing Marxist principles, pure and simple. Principles such as were expressed on the one hand in the “Address” by the First International to the Paris Commune in 1871, on the other hand in Lenin’s theses on the war of 1914 and for the foundation of the Third International. In the first case, Marx declared a period of history closed and condemned for ever and a day every alliance with national armies, “Class rule is no longer able to disguise itself in a national uniform; the national Governments are as one against the proletariat!”. In the second, Lenin established that once the phase of general imperialist wars had started, the politics of national States no longer had anything to do with democratic demands and national independence, and he roundly condemned all social-traitors on both sides of the Rhine and the Vistula.
Every revision that would seek to extend the cut-off dates of 1871 and 1917 to the years 1939 and 1953 – not to mention a prolongation ad infinitum – would be a concession to capitalism, which would come back to deny, purely and simply, the Marxist method for understanding history in its entirety, wiping away the watershed moments in history that it had brought to light: 1848 for Europe, 1905 for Russia. What’s more, this revisionism collides with Marxist social and economic analysis in its entirety, because it attempts to assimilate the recent fascist totalitarianisms (and not just fascist, at the time of the division of Poland!) within the relics of feudalism in the current epoch.
But, above all, the treason is complete with the second aspect of the renunciations, the total abandonment of the critique of the “values” particular to bourgeois thought, which exalt a world without classes and composed of popular autonomous entities, free nations, independent and pacific countries, as the final stage of the anguished path of humanity. Indeed, at the very moment when they were once again being coerced into forming alliances with the defenders of this corrupt programme, Marx and Lenin struggled doggedly to liberate the working class from the cult of the fatherland, the nation, democracy, these fetishes celebrated by the high priests of bourgeois radicalism; at the decisive moment, they knew how to break with them on the facts, and when the balance of forces permitted it they blocked their progress without mercy. Today’s renegades are the new priests of this cult and these myths: it’s not a historic pact that they would simply like to break later than originally intended; rather it is total enslavement to the demands of the capitalist bourgeoisie, for the greater good of the regime which confers it privilege and power.
This confirms what we have already demonstrated in the economic sphere, for example in our “Dialogue with Stalin”: Russia today is a State based on an accomplished capitalist revolution, whose patriotic flag flutters over its social merchandise and represents the most extreme militarism.
6. It would be a very grave error to fail to see or to deny that ethnic and national factors still have a very important impact on today’s world. Among the tasks currently at hand is the study of the historical and geographic limits within which rebellions for national independence tied to a social revolution against pre-capitalist forms (Asiatic, slave States, feudal) as well as the foundation of modern types of national State still represent a necessary condition for the progression to socialism (for example in India, China, Egypt, Iran etc.)
The precise evaluation of different situations is rendered difficult, on the one hand by the xenophobia engendered in these countries by the brutal nature of capitalist colonialism, on the other hand by the large diffusion around the world of productive resources and products which reach the most remote markets; but at the global level the burning question of 1920 (which was even posed in the former Russian empire), the question of political and armed support for the independence movements of oriental peoples, remains.
He who says, for example, that the relationship between industrial capital and the working class is the same in Belgium as it is in Siam [Thailand] and that in the one case as in the other one can lead the struggle without taking account of factors of race and nation, is not demonstrating his revolutionary extremism. He is simply proving that he has understood nothing that Marxism has to teach.
Cutting Marxism off from the breadth, depth and complexity of its analysis is not the way to win the right to denounce and one day defeat the miserable scum who have renounced it.
Reproduction of the species and the productive economy,
two aspects of the material basis of the historical process
3. Work and sex
1. Historical materialism loses all sense if you regard sexual appetite as entirely unrelated to the social economy, on the basis that it is individual in character and that it takes on forms of expression arising outside of economic relations, ultimately spiritual and evanescent in nature.
If we wanted to direct our polemic on this subject against the open and direct opponents of Marxism we would need to appeal to a much vaster scientific body of work, while regarding today’s venal and decadent official science with the customary suspicion. But as is usually the case, we are more concerned about those currents of thought – counter-revolutionary currents – which proclaim their adherence to certain aspects of Marxism but which, as soon as they are confronted with fundamental questions for the human community, claim that these are outside the scope of Marxism.
It is obvious that by setting up a hierarchy of values in their explanation of nature, the believers and idealists would like to put issues of sex and love on a pedestal and in a sphere far above that of the economy, which must be understood in the vulgar sense of the satisfaction of alimentary needs and suchlike. If the element that raises homo sapiens above, and distinguishes it from, other animal species is not the physical effect of a long evolution in a complex environment of material factors, but rather the result of an immaterial particle of cosmic spirit, then clearly the reproduction of one being from another, the reproduction of a thinking brain to another, must surely occur on a nobler plane than filling your stomach. Without going so far as to present this spirit-person as immaterial, if we however concede that a virtue or a power is present in the dynamic of human thought which pre-dates matter or exists outside of matter, the mechanism for the generation of individuals is thus transferred to some mysterious realm in which everyone has, like their procreators, immutable faculties, presumed to exist long before any contact with physical nature and any cognition.
But dialectical materialism itself has no excuse if it believes that the economic infrastructure, in whose forces and laws we look for an explanation of the political history of humanity, only covers production and consumption of the more or less vast range of goods necessary for individual subsistence; if it believes that the domain of the economic infrastructure is limited to material relations between individuals, the standards, rules and laws of social life being determined by the interplay of forces between these innumerable isolated molecules, while a complete set of life’s satisfactions are excluded. For many dilettantes, these include satisfactions arising from sex appeal or aesthetic and intellectual pleasures. Such a view of Marxism is radically wrong and represents, in fact, the very worst anti-Marxist notions currently circulating. It implicitly and inexorably falls back not just into bourgeois idealism but even, in the crassest way, into individualism, a no less essential facet of reactionary thought, and in so doing it advances the biological or rather the psychic individual as the basic unit.
Material factors do not “create” the legal, political or philosophical superstructure via a process taking place at the level of each individual, nor even across generations of individuals, remaining then to create “norms” for the economic substructure and for its cultural crowning (the superstructure). The material base is a system of tangible physical factors which embraces everybody, and influences them right down to their individual behaviour, a system which only exists to the extent that these individuals constitute a social species; the superstructure is the product of these basic conditions, a product that can be determined and evaluated through the analysis of these conditions, independently of the thousand and one particular developments and minor differences that can exist between one person and another.
This error, to limit Marxism’s field of application, is thus a fundamental error of principle. If, in order to examine the causes of historic processes, you resort on the one hand to ideal factors that are alien to physical nature, and on the other hand to the pre-eminence of the derisory individual citizen, you exclude dialectical materialism from every domain, and you make it impossible to draw any conclusions, even at the level of the butcher’s or baker’s book-keeping.
2. Those who renounce the authority of Marxism in the domains of sexuality and reproduction, with all their multiple consequences, ignore the fundamental opposition between bourgeois and communist views of the economy, and thereby abandon in the same breath the mighty theoretical edifice that Marx built on the ruins of capitalist schools of thought. For the latter, the economy is a set of relationships based on the exchange of goods between two individuals for their mutual benefit, including labour power; they conclude from this that there has never been and never could be an economy without exchange, without commodities and without property. For us, on the contrary, the economy comprises all the vast complex of human activities, with all its influence on the natural environment; economic determinism does not pertain only to the era of private property, but rather to the entire history of the species.
All Marxists consider the following theses to be given: private property is not eternal; it was unknown to the era of primitive communism and we are moving towards the era of social communism; the family and above all the monogamous family is not eternal, it appeared late in human history, and it will have to disappear at a higher level of development; the State is not eternal, but rather appeared at a very advanced stage of “civilisation” and it will disappear along with class-divided society, that is to say, with classes themselves.
Every vision of historical praxis based on the dynamic of individuals and which makes concessions, even if limited, to their autonomy, their initiative, liberty, conscience, free will or other such hokum, is obviously incompatible with these truths. But these truths can only be proved by accepting that the determining factor is the laborious process whereby human communities organise themselves to adapt to the difficult obstacles imposed upon on them in the time and space in which they live, something that does not resolve itself through the billions of cases of individual adaptation, but rather through the resolution of a problem which more and more appears in a singular fashion, that of the continued adaptation of the species, in its entirety, to prevailing external conditions. All of this inexorably leads to the numerical growth of the species and the dissolution of the barriers that separate its members, the astounding expansion of the technical means at its disposal, the impossibility of employing these means without the organisation of innumerable individuals into communities, etc.
For a primitive people, you can view sociology as simply the challenges of food supply, since even this minimum requirement is no longer within reach of individual effort, as is the case for animals. But then sociology embraces public health, reproduction, eugenics (and tomorrow, the annual planning of births).
4. Individual and species
3. The maintenance of the individual, this individual who is presumed to be the primary mover behind events, is nothing but a derived and secondary manifestation of the maintenance and development of the species; contrary to traditional opinions, it owes nothing to a natural or supernatural providence or to the effect of instinct or reason. This is all the more so when we consider a social species and an advanced, complex society.
It may seem like stating the obvious to say that if the individual was immortal, everything would revert to the maintenance of the individual, as the fundament and cause of every phenomenon. But being immortal means being immutable, never ageing. A living organism, on the other hand – and an animal organism in the first instance – is host to a substantial sequence of movements, circulations and metabolic reactions which bring about inexorable change. It mutates down to the minutest cell. In actual fact it is absurd to imagine a living entirety that continually replaces the elements that it loses yet stays the same; as if this could be a crystal you plunged into a solution of its own chemically pure solid substance, which would grow or diminish under the effect of a cyclical variation of temperature or exterior pressures. But if some have spoken about the life of crystals (and today, the atom), it is precisely because they can be born, grow, diminish, disappear and even double and multiply.
This may seem banal but it is useful to demonstrate that the fetishistic belief of many (also alleged Marxists) in the primacy of individual biology is but a throw-back to the first coarse beliefs in the immortality of the soul. This bourgeois egoism has flagrantly grafted itself on religions, becoming even more fiercely contemptuous of the life of the species and charity for the species, putting the subjective person in this fantastic form at the centre of things, at the expense of others, by asserting the immortality of the soul.
It certainly brings no pleasure to think that our poor carcases won’t be around for long on this earth; those who don’t believe in life beyond the grave thus seek an alternative solace in intellectualist illusions – today existentialist illusions – that each individual has (or believes he has) a unique and indelible brand-identity, even if expressing this only means attaching yourself passively to the latest fad in a sheep-like fashion, ever happy to ape all the other dupes and schlemiels. And so it is that the ineffable heights of emotion, sensual delight, artistic exaltation and cerebral ecstasy gush forth, all sensations that you can only hope to experience in the privacy of your individual cell – when in fact, the truth is the exact opposite.
Returning to the actual material facts as they appear before our noses, it is clear that every adult individual who is of sound mind and body can produce, when he is in full possession of his faculties, what he needs for daily subsistence (let us return to the situation in a completely primitive economy). But the very insecurity of “every man for himself” would very soon bring about the end of the individual (and of the species, if it consisted of a series of individuals crushed up against one another in close proximity) if it were not for the ebb and flow of reproduction. In an organic totality, individuals who subsist on their own are few and far between: the old cannot produce much and the young must be fed so that they can produce in the future. Every economic cycle is unimaginable, and every economic equation impossible, if you don’t introduce these essential facts into the calculus: age, effectiveness, health.
If we wanted to be completely pedestrian, we could write the economic formula for a parthenogenetic, unisex humanity. But we are not in a position to confirm its existence. Therefore, we have no choice but to introduce the sex factor, because reproduction is assured only by two distinct sexes, and also to consider the pauses between gestation and lactation …
It is only after we have integrated these factors that we can claim to have taken into account all of the conditions which form the economic “base”, the economic “substructure” of society. Abandoning forever the individual, this cipher who has never worked out how to make himself immortal, nor even to reproduce on his own, and who will become less and less capable as humanity continues its mighty progress, we shall grasp the infinite range of expressions made possible by the species, including the most elevated expressions of thought.
A very recent article (by Yourgrau, of Johannesburg) expounded the theory of the General Theory of Karl Ludwig von Bertalanffy, who sought to bring the two opposing principles of vitalism and mechanism into synthesis. Recognising through gritted teeth that materialism is gaining ground in biology, he remembers this paradox that is not so easy to rebut: one rabbit is not a rabbit; only two rabbits can be a rabbit. Blessed individual, you have now been expelled from your last line of defence, that of Onan! It is thus absurd to understand the economy without taking account of the reproduction of the species. We know this already from our classic texts. From the very first lines of the preface to The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels expresses one of the cornerstones of Marxism in these terms:
“According to the materialistic conception, the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life. This, again, is of a twofold character. On the one side, the production of the means of existence, of articles of food and clothing, dwellings, and of the tools necessary for that production; on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. The social organisation under which the people of a particular historical epoch and a particular country live is determined by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labour on the one hand and of the family on the other”.
Ever since the theory was first put forward, the materialist interpretation of history has embraced, not only the degrees of development of technology and productive labour, but also the “production of the producers”, in other words, sexuality, and has accorded both the same level of importance. Marx says that the working class is the primary productive force. It is therefore every bit as important to understand how the working class reproduces itself as it is to understand the production and reproduction of commodities, wealth and capital. In Rome, the wage labourer of antiquity, he who owned nothing, was officially defined not as a worker but as a proletarian, one who has no wealth other than his children (proles). His distinguishing function was not to give to society and the ruling classes the product of his manual labour, but rather to produce tomorrow’s labourers, without controls or limits, in his shabby alcove.
Today’s petty-bourgeois – in his empty-headedness – imagines that this second function must be as sweet as the first is bitter. The petty-bourgeois is as much a philistine pig as the grand bourgeois; but he has no means to oppose the power of the latter except by variously giving vent to his own impotence.
4. In the same way that the first communities organised themselves for productive labour with a rudimentary technology, so too they organised themselves with a view to mating and procreating, as well as raising and protecting children. The family is therefore, in its various guises, a relationship of production, adapting according to different environments and the available productive forces.
We cannot recount in this presentation each and every stage of savagery and barbarism that humanity has travelled, each characterised by familial resources and aggregates; on this point we refer back to Engels’ brilliant study on the matter.
Having lived in the trees and fed on fruit, man first discovered fishing and fire and learned to walk the coasts and rivers, so well that the different branches of the species started to meet. Then came hunting with the deployment of the first weapons and during the age of barbarism there first appeared the domestication of animals, then agriculture, which marked the passage from a nomadic to a settled life. The corresponding sexual forms were not yet monogamy nor even polygamy; these were preceded by matriarchy, in which the mother had moral and social prominence, and in which the males and females of the same kinsfolk (gens) coupled with each other for reproductive purposes in various ways – as Lewis H. Morgan confirmed was the case for the Indians of America (even though, when they were discovered by the whites, they had become monogamous; while distinguishing between the mother and aunts they continued to refer to fathers as their paternal uncles). These groups of siblings, where there was no constituted authority, did not divide property and land.
It is possible to say that one of the characteristics of higher species of animals is to have an embryonic organisation for the purpose of raising and defending the newly born, a characteristic that is born of instinct. But the rational animal, man organised himself around economic technology, with instinct continuing to rule in the sphere of sexual and familial affection. If this were true intelligence, which one usually regards as replacing instinct and making it redundant, would have an equal share alongside instinct. But in fact this is pure metaphysics. You can find a nice definition of instinct in a book by Maurice Thomas written in 1952 (if we refer to recent specialised studies, it is only to demonstrate that the impressions provided by Engels or Morgan, revolutionaries who were much maligned by bourgeois pedantry, have not been “invalidated” or rendered “out of date” by recent scientific literature): instinct is the hereditary knowledge of a plan of life of the species. In the course of evolution and natural selection, which we can acknowledge in the animal world results from a collision of individuals as individuals against the environment, it is only the physical and physiological that determines a common behaviour for all members of a species, in particular in the reproductive domain. All agree that such behaviour is automatic, “non-conscious” and “non-rational”. It is understandable that this behaviour is transmitted via hereditary means, like all of the morphological and structural characteristics of the organism, and that the transmission mechanism is fixed (this point is still somewhat unclear in science) at the level of genes (and not geniuses, gentlemen individualists!) and other reproductive and germinative cells and liquids.
This mechanism, which is present in each individual, only provides the minimum of elementary norms for a rudimentary life plan to deal with the difficulties presented by the environment.
In the social species, collaborative work, even primitive, goes much further. It passes on many other habits and disciplines which serve as social norms. For the bourgeois and the idealist, what distinguishes the human from animal species is reason and conscience, which are the foundation for freedom of action. From this arises the free will of the believer, the personal liberty of the rationalist and lots more besides. For us, by contrast, it is not a question of lending the individual a supplementary power, thought and spirit, which overturns all of the facts, such as the purported principle of life as opposed to mechanical physics. On the other hand we do add a supplementary power, born exclusively from the necessity for social production which imposes the most complex norms and disciplines; this necessity, which drives the instinct for guiding individuals out of the technical sphere, likewise drives it out of the sexual sphere. It is not the individual who has developed and ennobled the species, it is the life of the species that has developed the individual and pushed him towards new dynamics and towards more elevated spheres.
That which is primal and bestial is to be found in the individual. That which is developed, complex and orderly derives not from an automatic plan of life, but rather from one that is organised and organisable, from collective life, and it is first born outside of the brains of individuals before arriving there, via complex routes, it is something that must be earned. When we talk – outside of all idealism – of thought, of knowledge, of science, we understand by this the products of social life: individuals, without exception, are not the donors but the beneficiaries, and in our contemporary society, they remain parasites.
At the outset, and from the outset, economic organisation and sexual organisation were closely tied together in the life lived by humans in association, though you read about this under the veil of all the religious myths which, for Marxism, are not gratuitous fantasies and empty nonsense that should be rejected (as by the bourgeois freethinker) but rather the first elaborations of collective knowledge to be passed down the generations, which we need to interpret.
In Genesis (Book II, Verses 19 and 20) even before the creation of Eve and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden (where Adam and Eve could live alone, eternal even in their physical condition, to gather effortlessly the fruits of nourishment, but not those of science), God creates all species of animals from the soil and presents them to Adam, who learns to call them by their names. The text explains this procedure: Adoe vero non inveniebatur adjutor similis ejus. This means, Adam has no helper (adjutor) of the same species at this point. Eve is given to him, but not to work or to procreate. Apparently they could make the animals their servants. But after they make their serious error, starting with the cunning serpent, God changes the destiny of humanity. It is only outside of Eden that Eve “knows” her companion. She bears him sons whom she brings forth under sufferance and he earns his living by the sweat of his brow. Thus, even in these age-old mythical teachings, production and reproduction are born together. Adam domesticates the animals but only with hard work; however he gets adjutores, workers of the same species as he, similes ejus.
Voilà the immutable, timeless individual immediately fallen into nothingness; deprived of the bitter and sublime bread of knowledge he is a brute and a runt devoted to idleness, damned to a life without work, love and science, yet this is the man whom today’s idiotic pseudo-materialists would like to celebrate once again.
In his place is born a species of being who thinks because he works, alongside his adjutores, his neighbours, his brothers.
5. Biological heredity and social tradition
5. From the earliest human societies the behaviour of group members became uniform across the collective practices and functions necessary to both production and sexual reproduction; they took the form of ceremonies, festivals and rites of a religious nature. This first mechanism of collective life followed unwritten rules that were neither imposed nor transgressed; what made this possible was not innate or instilled ideas about sociability or a morality particular to the animal-human, but rather the deterministic effect of the evolution of techniques for work.
The history of the first customs and traditions, before written constitutions and prescriptive law, which has been confirmed by the life of savage tribes at the time of their first contacts with the white man, can only be understood based on similar criteria. The seasonality of their festivals is clearly tied to the seasonality of their labour, such as ploughing, sowing and harvest. In the beginning, the time for love and conception was, for the human species, also seasonal. Later evolution would make it, contrary to what happens in the animal kingdom, an ongoing requirement. Novelists who adopted the white culture have described festivals of a sexual character among the people of Africa. Each year, pubescent adolescents are released from the bondage applied to their genitals shortly after birth, and a sexual orgy follows this cruel operation conducted by the priests, in the heady atmosphere of noise and drink. But it is evident that these rites were designed to preserve the race’s fecundity in difficult conditions which, in the absence of any control, would lead to degeneration and impotence; and perhaps there are more disgusting things in the Kinsey Report into the behaviour of the two sexes in the age of capital.
Marxism has long-since affirmed that procreation and production go together, as is demonstrated, for example, by the lovely passage in which Engels recalls that Charlemagne wanted to improve agriculture, which was then in a completely decadent state, founding not kolkhozes but imperial farms. Managed by the monasteries, these farms, like all other initiatives of this sort in the Middle Ages, were to fail: a unisexual and non-procreating estate cannot meet the needs of active production. Thus, for example, the Rule of Saint Benedict reads like a communist statute: work is severely imposed and personal appropriation of any kind of good or product is forbidden, even any consumption way from the communal table. But such an organisation, incapable of reproducing its constituent membership because of its chastity and sterility, remained outside of life and of history. A comparative study of the early regulations of monks and nuns orders might shed light on the problem of the feeble level of production compared to consumption in the Middle Ages; it would explain certain daring and admirable ideas of Saint Francis and Saint Clare of Assisi, who did not seek mortification to save the soul, but a social reform to better nourish the scrawny bodies of the disinherited classes.
6. The transfer of the norms of productive technology from generation to generation, becoming richer and more complex over time, in the various domains of fishing, hunting, livestock and arable farming, norms which are adapted to the behaviour of healthy adults, the young, the old, expectant and child-rearing mothers and couples joined for procreation, proceeds via a dual path, on the one hand organic and on the other social. On the first path hereditary aptitudes and physical adjustments are transferred from the procreator to the procreated, overcoming personal variations of secondary importance. On the second path, whose importance continues to grow, the group’s resources are transferred down the generations; this extra-physiological route is no less material than the first; it is the same for everyone and consists of all types of “equipment” and “tools” that the community has managed to provide for itself.
We have demonstrated in some of our “Thread of Time” texts that before the discovery of more convenient media such as writing, monuments, then print etc. it was necessary to exploit individual memory as much as possible, memories formed by the common exercises of the entire community. Starting with the first maternal rebukes and continuing through to collective recitations, members of the group took part in conversations on the obligatory topics of the moment, the old folk repeating them to the point of boredom. Singing and music aid the memory; at first, knowledge is transferred in verse, not in prose. If we carried on in the same manner today, a good part of modern capitalist civilisation’s “science” could only circulate as a horrible cacophony!
The continuation of this impersonal and collective legacy passed on by groups of humans from age to age would require a more systematic form of presentation. But it was already becoming clear that the more this mechanism was enhanced, the less it reposed in the head of an individual; all members of the group tended towards a common level. The great man, who is nearly always a figure of legend, became increasingly worthless, because he became more and more incapable of wielding a larger weapon or performing a faster multiplication (and therefore a robot will soon be the most intelligent citizen of this stupid bourgeois world and, according to some, will become the ruling dictator of immense countries).
Anyway, social power gains more and more on organic power, which is in every instance the basis for the power of the individual spirit. In this context, we can cite a recent and interesting summary by H. Wallon, Collège de France, 1953: L’organique et le social chez l’homme. Criticising mechanical materialism (of the bourgeois age, that’s to say through the agency of the individual) the author describes the systems of communication between humans in society and cites Marx, as we will see later in this section with regard to language. In his study he registers, in judicial terms, the failure of idealism, in particular in its current form, existentialism: “Idealism has not been content to confine reality [or “the real”] within the limits of representation (in our minds). It has also circumscribed the image of what it considers reality [or “the real”]”. Then, having reviewed various modern concepts, he goes on to draw this wise conclusion:
“Solidarity and opposition co-exist simultaneously in the conscience between organic impressions and intellectual reflections. Between the two, mutual actions and reactions never cease to pursue one another, which demonstrates the uselessness of the kind of distinctions made by different philosophical systems between matter and thought, existence and intelligence, body and spirit”.
Studies like this show very well that the Marxist method has so far provided the opportunity to donate a good 100 years of work to unlabelled science, with neither a price tag nor a contraband label.
6. Natural factors and historical development
7. The living conditions of the first human gentes, the communist communities, evolved very slowly, and because of the diversity of natural conditions (the type of soil and geological phenomena, the geographical situation, altitude, water flows, proximity or not to the sea, climatic conditions, flora, fauna etc.) the rhythm of development was not the same everywhere. Depending on variable cycles, they progressed from the nomadic life of wandering hordes to settlement, reducing the number of unoccupied lands, meeting and contacting tribes from other parts (sometimes even engaging in conflict), leading to invasions and finally the enslavement of one group by another, which was one of the original reasons for the division of ancient egalitarian societies into different social classes.
Engels recalls that the first gentes allowed neither enslavement nor exogamy; the victory of one gens against another brought with it the pitiless and complete destruction of the conquered group. It was necessary to avoid admitting too many workers within a restricted area and disrupting sexual and reproductive discipline, two aspects that were constantly bound together in social development. Later, the relationships between groups became more complex, cross-breeding and fusions more frequent, especially in the fertile and temperate countries where the first great settlements established themselves. But in this first part of the presentation, we’ll stick to the prehistoric period. Engels underlines the progress in the development of production that takes place with the use of animals not just as food for humans, but also as labour power, emphasising the importance of the natural environment in the largest sense of the term. Although every type of animal capable of domestication was available in Eurasia, in America there was practically just one, a large type of ovine, the lama (all the other species have been introduced and acclimatised there at various historical epochs). As a result, the people of this continent experienced an arrest in their social development compared to those in the ancient continent. The faithful explain this by saying, shortly after Christopher Columbus’s discovery, that redemption had not been extended to this part of the planet and that the breath of eternal spirit had not descended upon the heads of the inhabitants. Evidently, the explanation is a little different if one interprets things not by the absence of the Supreme Being, but rather by the absence of a few species of very humble beasts.
However, the explanation suited the pious Christian colonists who exterminated the aboriginal Indians as wild animals and replaced them with black Africans, whom they had reduced to slavery, thereby achieving an ethnic revolution whose implications would first be understood much later.
7. Prehistory and language
8. One can say, in a very general respect, that the transition from the racial to the national factor corresponds with the transition from prehistory to history. By nation we mean a complex in which ethnicity is only one aspect, and an aspect that is moreover rarely dominant. Before analysing the historical significance of the national factor, we therefore have to examine the other aspects that complement the racial factor, and first and foremost, language. You cannot explain the origin of languages and speech unless you start with the material characteristics pertaining to the environment and the organisation of production. The language of a human group is itself one of the means of production.
We have seen on the one hand that there is a close relationship between the ties of blood-brotherhood in the first tribes and the start of a social production using a certain set of tools, and on the other hand that the relationship between the human grouping and the natural environment predominates over individual initiatives and tendencies. This is the very basis of historical materialism, as is proved by two texts written at an interval of a half century. Marx indeed wrote in his Theses on Feuerbach (1845): “But the human essence is not an abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of social relations”. By social relations, we Marxists understand race, the physical environment, tools and the organisation of the given group.
In a letter of 1894 to W. Borgius, which we have often already referred to in order to combat those prejudiced with regard to the role of individual “great men” in history, Engels replied to the following question: what part does the race factor (see Point 3), and what part does that of historic individuals play in Marx and Engels’ materialist view of history ? Engels, having dealt with his correspondent’s first point (Borgius was clearly thinking above all of Napoleon) by knocking the individual from his pedestal without the slightest hesitation, needed just a single blow of the chisel to deal with the point on race: “race is itself an economic factor”.
The pipsqueaks of bourgeois pseudo-culture snigger when you retrace the immense arc that proceeds from first principles to final result, as when, for example the powerful and tenacious Catholic school explains the prestigious course proceeding from primordial chaos to the eternal beatitude of nature’s creatures.
The first groups were strictly blood-brothers and simultaneously formed family groups and work groups. Their “economy” is a reaction by all against the natural environments, and all the relations are identical: there is no personal property, there are no social classes, no political power, and no State.
Being neither metaphysicians nor mystics, we accept, without sackcloth and ashes and without believing that humanity must wash away the stains on its character, that the mixing of blood, the division of labour, the division of society into classes, the State and civil war all arise in a thousand ways. But what lies at the end of the cycle, with a mix of races that has become general and inextricable, with a productive technology capable of acting in a powerful and complex way on the environment to the point of regulating affairs on a planetary level, is the end of all racial and social discrimination: it is a renewed communist economy; it is the end, on a global level, of individual property that has engendered transitory cults with its monstrous fetishes: the individual person, the family, the fatherland.
But at the start, what characterises a people is its economy and the degree of development of its productive technology, alongside its ethnicity.
The most recent research regarding prehistory has led the science of human origins to acknowledge several points of departure in the appearance of human beings on earth and the evolution of other species. One can no longer speak about a “genealogical tree” of all humanity, nor even of different branches on this “tree”. A study by Etienne Patte (Faculty of Science, Poitiers, 1953) has very effectively underlined the inadequacy of this traditional image. In a tree, the separation between two branches, large or small, is definitive, so to speak, since in general they never join together again into a single branch. By contrast, the human species is an inextricable network whose different branches are constantly intertwining. In three generations, that’s to say a century, each of us has had, if not interbreeding by our parents, eight great-grand parents; but over a thousand years that would make a billion ancestors, and for a duration of 600,000 years, corresponding to the likely age of the species, the number would attain astronomical figures with thousands of zeroes. This is, therefore, a network and not a tree. And indeed, in the population statistics of modern people, the representatives of pure ethnic types are very few in number. From which the neat definition of humanity as sungameion, Greek for an ensemble in which cross-fertilisation takes place in every sense, the word gameo embracing both the sexual act and the nuptial rite. We therefore return to a somewhat simplistic formula: the cross-fertilisation of species is sterile, that of races fecund.
The Pope’s position on this point is understandable. Rejecting every idea of racial minorities – which is a progressive position from a historical point of view – he affirms that you can speak about races of animals but not of men. Despite his wish to take recent scientific findings on board, findings which otherwise often converge rather nicely with Catholic dogma, he cannot abandon the genealogical tree of the Bible starting with Adam (even if this is, in the philosophical scheme of things, more Hebrew than Catholic).
Nevertheless other authors with a distinctly anti-materialist viewpoint can only reject the old distinction between the anthropological and historiographical approaches, according to which the first would have to establish the facts whereas the second finds them ready to hand and above all ordered chronologically. Nobody can doubt that Caesar lived before Napoleon, but it is a little more difficult to establish the evidence as to which appeared first, Neanderthal man or the anthropomorphic ape, proconsul.
By contrast, the power of the materialist method applied to facts proven through research easily establishes the synthesis between these two approaches, even if race was effectively a more decisive economic factor among the prehistoric gentes, and the nation, a much more sophisticated entity, in the contemporary world.
It is only by following this method that you can accord language its true place and function. In the beginning, only small groups of blood-brothers shared the same language, for collaboration among themselves and without any connection to other groups, except in the case of armed conflicts: today, entire populations occupying immense territories speak the same language.
In the beginning, groups that had the same phonetic expression also had common rules for reproduction, technology, and the capacity to produce the necessities for material life.
Safe to say that the use of sounds for communication between individuals can already be observed among animal species. But there is a huge difference between the modulations such as are emitted by the vocal organs of animals of the same species (organs whose structure and functioning transmit in a purely physiological manner) and the formation of a language embracing a complete complex ensemble of words. The word did not appear to indicate the person speaking or spoken to, an individual of the opposite sex or a part of the body, or the light, darkness, the earth, water, food or danger. Language articulated in words was born alongside work with tools, the production of objects for consumption, which required men to work collaboratively.
8. Socialised work and speech
9. Every collective human activity towards productive ends, in the broadest meaning of the term, calls for a system of communication between the workers for successful collaboration. Starting from the simple effort required to catch prey or to defend oneself, which needs instinctive incitements, a strongly motivated animal scream will suffice; when the choice of moment, of place and means of action (primitive tool, weapon etc.) becomes indispensable, speech is born, over a very long series of failed attempts and corrections. The process is exactly the opposite of what the idealists imagine: for them, an innovator would research in his brain a new technology, without ever having seen it, would then explain it verbally and would then direct its fulfilment. For them, the order is thus: thought, speech, action. For us it is the exact opposite.
A real testament to the natural process of the intervention of language can be found in the biblical myth, the famous tower of Babel. In this, we are already in the presence of a real state of immense power with formidable armies and large numbers of prisoners and forced labourers. It undertakes colossal works, particularly in its capital (the technological power of the Babylonians, not just in construction, but in that of river hydraulics and other domains, is attested by history). According to the story, this great power wants to build a tower of such height that it could touch the sky (this is the typical classical myth about human presumption knocked down by divinity, as in the myths of Prometheus stealing fire or the flight of Daedalus, etc.) The countless workers, foremen and architects, being of very different and distant origins, do not speak the same language and cannot understand one another. The implementation of projects and provisions is chaotic and contradictory, and the construction, having attained a certain height, collapses as a result of errors due to the confusion of languages, so the builders are either crushed or dispersed, victims of punishment by the Gods.
The hidden meaning of this story is that you cannot build without a common language; the stones, arms, hammers and picks are not enough if you don’t have another tool of production: a common language, a lexicon, an ensemble of common formulas known to everyone. The same legend can be found among the savages of central Africa: in this case the tower was made of wood and was intended to reach the moon. Now that we all speak “American” it is child’s play to raise skyscrapers, though they seem rather ridiculous when compared to the ingenious towers of the barbarians and savages.
Tithe Marxist definition of language is therefore that it is one of the means of production. There is no doubt about this. In his above-cited recent study on principal doctrines, Wallon cannot help but refer to the one that we follow: “According to Marx, language is tied to man’s production of tools and objects with defined properties”. The author chooses two authoritative quotes from Marx; the first comes from The German Ideology: “[men] begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence”. The second is from Engels, in The Dialectics of Nature: “First labour, then with it speech – these were the two most essential stimuli under the influence of which the brain of the ape gradually changed into that of man”. When Engels was writing, he was unaware of the findings that even entirely idealist authors refer to, despite themselves. (Cf. Karl Saller, Leitfaden der Anthropologie, University of Munich, 1930).
Today the human brain has a volume of 1,400 cm³ (both for geniuses and for simpletons like us). A long time ago, in the age of Peking Man (Sinanthropus pekinensis) and Java Man (Pithecanthropus erectus) the brain was 1,000 cm³ and it appears that our ancestor already had elementary notions about magic, had his way of burying the dead (even though he was quite frequently cannibalistic), used fire considerably earlier and made use of various utensils: cups for drinking, made from the skulls of animals, stone weapons etc. But discoveries made in southern Africa in particular go much further: 600,000 years ago (this figure is cited by Wallon) another of our ancestors, who had a brain of just 500 cm³, but had already used fire, hunted and ate the cooked flesh of animals, walked upright like us and, as a single correction to the facts cited by Engels (in 1884), it appears that he was no longer living in trees like his close relation Australopithecus but rather fought courageously against ferocious animals on the ground.
It is interesting that the
author of the study that we have just cited, confounded by facts that
batter his stronghold with the fundamental points of materialist
theory, searches in psychology for a remedy to anthropology, finally
weeping over the remains of the individual, elevated by a mysterious
extra-organic inspiration and who, in our modern epoch of excess
population and mechanisation, has lost himself in the mass, ceasing
to be a man. But who is the more human of the two ? The
with his brain of 500 cm³ (not to be confused with the small
utilitarian Italian car of the
same capacity, a mass-produced
vehicle!) or the scientist with 1.400 cm³ who chases butterflies under
the Arch of Titus to establish the
pitiful equation, official science + idealism = despair ?
9. Economic substructure and superstructure
10. The concept of the “economic substructure” in a given human society thus extends significantly beyond the limits that the superficial interpretation assigns to it, according to which this base exclusively comprises the remuneration of work and the exchange of commodities. It embraces the entire range of forms of reproduction of the species – that’s to say familial institutions, but also technological resources, equipment, tools of every kind, without forgetting, if you don’t want to limit the component technology to a simple inventory of tangible materials, all the mechanisms that society uses to transfer its “technical know-how” from generation to generation. In this sense, it comprises the following general networks of communications: spoken language, writing, singing, music, graphical arts, printing. All of them have been created as ways to transfer knowledge about productive technology. For Marxism, literature, poetry and science are themselves superior and differentiated forms of the instruments of production and they arise in order to respond to the same exigencies, immediate and mediated, of social life.
In this respect, some questions of interpretation of historic materialism present themselves to the proletarian movement: which, in particular, are the social phenomena that specifically constitute the “productive base”, or to put it another way, the economic conditions that call for an explanation of the ideological and political superstructures characteristic of a given historic society ?
It is well known that for Marxism, society does not evolve in a slow and gradual fashion but passes suddenly from one period to the next, each characterised by different forms of production and social relations. These mutations modify both the productive base and the superstructure. To explain this idea, we frequently return to classic texts, both to put different formulas and concepts in their proper context, and to specify what changes so brusquely when a revolutionary crisis occurs.
In the aforementioned letters clarifying things for young scholars of Marxism, Engels insists on the reciprocal relationships between the base and the superstructure: for example, the political State of a given class is a superstructure par excellence, but it in turn makes interventions on the economic substructure such as protective duties, taxes, etc.
Later, at the time of Lenin, it was particularly important to clarify the process of class revolution. The State, political power, is the superstructure which exquisitely collapses in the most exquisitely quasi-instantaneous manner to give way to an analogue but opposed structure. But the relationships that govern the productive economy are not transformed with the same rapidity, even though it is precisely the contradiction between productive relations and the development of new productive forces that drive the revolution in the first place. Wage labour, mercantilism, etc. do not disappear overnight. As for the other aspects of the superstructure, some are more robust and will survive the economic substructure (for example, capitalism) which gave birth to them: these are the traditional ideologies that are left behind, even at the heart of the victorious revolutionary class, following the long period of subjugation that went before. For example the law will be rapidly transformed both in its written form and in its application, whereas a superstructure such as religious beliefs will disappear much more slowly.
Reference has often been made to the pithy preface to Marx’s Critique of Political Economy, 1859. It will not hurt stop here before continuing on the issue of language.
The material productive forces of society are, at different stages of development, the physical labour power of man, the tools and instruments he makes use of in order to apply it, the fertility of cultivated land, the machines that add mechanical and physical energy to the physical power of man, in brief, all the methods at a society’s disposition that allow it to apply manual and mechanical forces to land and materials.
The relations of production are, in any given society, those necessary to men “in the social production of their existence” whereby “men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will”. What distinguishes these relations of production is, in a general sense, the freedom to, or prohibition from, occupying land to cultivate it, using tools, machines or manufactured goods, or to have the products of labour for consumption, transportation or distribution. We can cite here particular forms of the relations of production: slavery, serfdom, wage labour, commerce, landlordism, industrial enterprise. If we put the accent on the legal aspect rather than the economic, we can equally say that the relations of production are property relations or again, according to some texts, the forms of property as they apply to land, slavery, the product of the serf’s labour, commodities, factories and machines etc. This collection of relationships constitutes the economic substructure or structure of society.
The essential dynamic idea here is the contrast between the forces of production, which have attained a certain level of evolution and development, and the relations of production or property, in brief social relations (all these formulae are equivalent).
The superstructure i.e. what follows, that which superimposes itself on the underlying economic structure, is for Marx fundamentally the legal or political system specific to a given society, that’s to say the constitutional texts, laws, the magistracy, the armed forces, the centre of power. This superstructure always has a material, concrete aspect. But Marx makes a careful distinction between the material transformation in the relations of production, in the juridical and proprietary relations and in the end power, and the transition in the “conscience” of the time and of the victorious class. This, up to now, is a derivative of the derivative, a superstructure of the superstructure, which constitutes the changing domain of popular opinion, ideology, philosophy, art and to a certain degree (insofar as it is not a normative practice) religion.
Modes of production (it is better to reserve the term forms of production for the more restricted concept of forms of property) – Produktionsweisen – are the “consecutive epochs marking progress in the economic development of society”, which Marx refers to with a broad brush such as Asiatic, antique, feudal, bourgeois.
We will take an example, that of the bourgeois revolution in France. Productive forces: agriculture with the serfs, the artisans and their workshops in the cities, the expanding manufactories and factories and their workforces. Traditional relations of production (or forms of property): serfdom of the peasants attached to the glebe, feudal lord of the manor and those who cultivate the land; corporate bondage for the artisan trades. Legal and political superstructure: the power of the nobility and the Church, absolute monarchy. Ideological superstructure: authority by divine right, Catholicism, etc. Mode of production: feudalism.
The revolutionary transformation presents itself immediately, as the transition of power from the nobles and the priests to the bourgeoisie. Elective parliamentary democracy is the new legal and political superstructure. Relations of production that are abolished: serfdom and the artisanal corporations; the new relations that take over are industrial wage labour (alongside the autonomous artisan tradesmen and the smallholding peasants, who subsist) and freedom of commerce within the national market, including land.
The productive force of the factory workers grows enormously through absorption of the former serfs and artisans. The power of the machine-tools and engines grows in the same proportion. The ideological superstructure undergoes a slow evolution which started before the revolution and carries on afterwards: religious faith and legitimism give way to freedom of thought, “Enlightenment”, rationalism.
The new mode of production extending within France and beyond in place of feudalism is capitalism, in which, contrary to the “conscience that this revolution has of itself”, political power belongs not to “the people” but to the industrial capitalist class and the bourgeois landlords.
To distinguish between the two “layers” of the superstructure, we could adopt the terms superstructure of force (positive law, State) and the superstructure of conscience (ideology, philosophy, religion etc.).
Marx says that material force, violence, is in its turn an economic instrument. In the texts that we have cited and in his Feuerbach Engels says the same thing: the State (which is force) acts upon and influences the economic substructure.
The State pertaining to a new class thus provides a powerful impetus for modifying the relations of production. In France after 1789, the feudal relations of production were swept away quickly because of the very advanced developments of modern productive forces, which were exerting their pressure for a long time previously. Although it gave power back to the landed aristocracy and re-established the legitimist monarchy, the restoration of 1815 did not succeed in overturning the new relations of production and the new forms of property. It did not bring about a regression in manufacturing industry and did not revive the great seigniorial estates. Historically, changes in power and the transformation of the forms of production can very well go in different directions to one another, albeit for a limited period.
What of Russia in October 1917 ? Political power, that’s to say the superstructure of force, which in February passed from the feudal to the bourgeois class, passed in its turn to the workers supported in struggle by poor peasants. The statutory and legal State took proletarian forms (dictatorship and break-up of the democratic assembly). The ideological superstructures received a powerful impulse across broad strata in the direction of the proletariat’s own ideological superstructure, amid desperate resistance from those of the old society, the bourgeoisie and semi-bourgeois. The anti-feudal productive forces gained momentum for industry and free agriculture. Can we say that in the years that followed October, the relations of production became socialist ? Certainly not, because in all cases, this would require a period measured in more than months. Can we therefore say that they simply became capitalist ? It would not be exact to say that they became completely and utterly capitalist, because as we know, pre-capitalist forms have survived there for a long time. However, it would be insufficient to say that the relations simply received an impulse for their transformation into capitalist relations.
In fact, since power is an economic agent of primary importance, the transformation of relations of production in a democratic bourgeois State is one thing, and the transformation of the relations of production under the dictatorship of the proletariat quite another (we are not referring here to the first measures of communism, of civil war and war on profiteering: shelter, bread, transport).
The mode of production is defined as the entire complex of relations of production and forms, political and legal. If the entire Russian cycle that has unwound until today has resulted in a fully capitalist mode of production, and there are no socialist relations of production, this is because after the revolution of October 1917 in Russia, the proletarian revolution in the West did not take place; such a revolution would not only have shored up the power of the Russian proletariat, more importantly it would also have made productive forces that the West had in abundance available to the Russian economy, which would have driven forward the relations of production in the direction of socialism.
New relations of production do not occur instantly after political revolution takes place.
In order to achieve such a development, political power in Russia was the other condition of equal importance (Lenin); the formulation which says that the only historic task of the Bolshevik party in Russia after the October revolution was to ensure the transition from feudal social relations to bourgeois is inexact. Until the revolutionary wave following the war of 1914 had exhausted itself, that’s to say until roughly 1923, the task of the October power was to work for the transition from the feudal mode of production and social relations to the proletarian. This journey was taken on the only historical path available, i.e. the high road. It is only later that we can say that Russia is neither actually, nor potentially, socialist. The relations of production subsequent to October are thus partly pre-capitalist, partly capitalist, and, to a quantitatively negligible degree, post-capitalist; but the historic form, or rather the historic mode of production cannot be said to be capitalist, rather, it is potentially proletarian and socialist. This is what matters!
It’s in this way that we address the dead-end formulation, “bourgeois economic substructure, proletarian and socialist superstructure” – and not by denying the second half of the formulation, which remained true for at least six years after the conquest of the dictatorship.
10. Stalin and linguistics
[The digression that follows was not out of place in this arrangement of the material used for the report, since we had to confront Stalin’s doctrine on linguistics, which was entirely based on inappropriate distinctions between base and superstructure]
11. Stalin’s thesis, according to which language is not a superstructure in relation to the economic substructure, is a false position for resolving the issue, since Stalin wants a different outcome. Every transition from one historic mode of production to the next implies a change, as much in the superstructure as in the economic base, a change in the power of the different classes and their respective positions at the heart of society. But Stalin claims that the national language neither follows the rise of the substructure, nor of the superstructure, because it does not belong to one class but rather to the entire people of a given country. Thus, to rescue language and linguistics from the effects of the social revolution (and, softly-softly, to rescue national culture and the cult of the country), it is pulled to the banks of the churning river of history, beyond the battlefield of the productive substructure and safely out of the reach of politics and ideology.
According to Stalin (Marxism and Problems of Linguistics, 1950) in the course of the past few years in Russia, “the old capitalist base has been liquidated and a new base has been built, a socialist base. In parallel, the superstructure of the capitalist base has been liquidated, and a new superstructure has been created (…) Despite this the Russian language has remained fundamentally what it was before the October Revolution”.
These gentlemen’s only merit (we don’t know if the text was written by Stalin himself, or in his name by secretary X or bureau Y) is that they have mastered the art of dressing up their lies in clear, accessible language, the way you would write after a century’s immersion in bourgeois culture, and above all in a “casually concrete” manner. Everything seems easy to grasp, and yet it is all just a scam, relapsing entirely into the most rancid bourgeois mode of thought.
The entire transition took place “in parallel”. It’s that easy! To which we mustn’t simply reply that such a nice transition has not taken place, but also that if it had (or if it will) things would have happened quite differently. Stalin’s formula is that of a country snake-oil merchant. Nothing is left of dialectical materialism. Doesn’t the base influence the superstructure, doesn’t it act on the latter ? And in what sense does this derived superstructure, which is not simply malleable and passive, react in its turn ? According to which cycles, in what order, at what speed does this historic transformation take place ? Oh, all that is byzantine distinctions. Just roll up your shirtsleeves, first the right then the left! Destruction! Creation! For God’s sake! Out with the creator, out with the destroyer. Such materialism cannot function without a demiurge, an autonomous creative force: then everything becomes conscious and voluntary, nothing is necessary or determined.
Whatever. We can confront Stalin’s reasoning with reality. The economic base and the superstructure, which were feudal under the Tsar, have become, through the course of complex events, fully capitalist by the end of Stalin’s life. Since the Russian language has remained fundamentally the same, language is not part of the superstructure, nor of the base.
It appears that this whole controversy has been directed against a school of linguistics that has been suddenly disavowed in high places, and whose leader is the university professor, Nicolai Yakolevitch Marr, whose texts are unknown to us. Marr apparently said that the language is part of the superstructure. Given who is condemning him, we could consider Professor Marr to be a good Marxist. In fact, Stalin wrote, “Once N.Y. Marr noted that his formula ‘language is a superstructure with respect to the base’ encountered objections, he decided to ‘readjust’ his theory and announced that ‘language is an instrument of production. Was N.Y. Marr right to classify language as one of the instruments of production ? No, he was certainly wrong”.
Why ? According to Stalin, there is a certain analogy between language and the means of production, which can also, to some extent, be independent of class relations. What Stalin means is that, for example, the plough or the hoe can be equally used in a feudal society as in a bourgeois or socialist society. But the reason why Marr is wrong (and Marx and Engels too, because for them, work and the production of the means of production occurs in combination with language) is that these means of production produce material goods, whereas language doesn’t. To which we reply: but the means of production also do not produce material goods! It is man who produces them, using these instruments! Tools are the means which humans use to produce. When a child first picks up the hoe by the blade, his father shouts at him: no, pick it up by the handle! This cry – which becomes a regular instruction – is, like the hoe, used for production.
Stalin’s smart-aleck conclusion proves that he’s the one who’s got it wrong. If language, he says, produced material goods, then windbags would be the richest men in the world! Well, isn’t that so ? The labourer works with his hands, the engineer with his language. Which of them is the better paid ? The landed gentleman smokes his pipe sitting in the shade and shouts ceaselessly at the day-labourer (who is working his fingers to the bone in silence): “Get on with it, dig!” fearing that the slightest pause will diminish his profit.
We are familiar neither with Marr nor with his books, but dialectics allow us to suppose that despite being menaced with thunderbolts from on high, he has not really “readjusted” anything. We have ourselves said, for example, that since the beginning of mnemonic choral singing during the age of magical-mystical technology, poetry has been the premier mode of social knowledge transfer, and is therefore a means of production. Then, we placed poetry within the superstructures of an epoch. It is the same for language. Language in general, and versification in general, are means of production. But a given poetry, a given school of poetry, within a particular country and within a particular epoch, distinct from those that went before and those that will follow, form part of the ideological and artistic superstructure of a given economic form and mode of production. Thus Engels writes that the upper stage of barbarism “begins with the smelting of iron ore, and passes into civilization with the invention of alphabetic writing and its use for literary records (…) We find the upper stage of barbarism at its highest in the Homeric poems, particularly in the Iliad”. We could also cite other passages and characterise Dante’s Divine Comedy as a funeral lament for feudalism, or Shakespeare’s tragedies as a prologue to capitalism.
For Marxism’s last Supreme Pontiff, iron ore would be a means of production characteristic of an epoch, but not alphabetic writing – because the latter does not produce material goods! But hasn’t the use of alphabetic writing been indispensable, among other things, to arrive at the specialty steels of the modern ferrous metallurgical industry ?
It’s the same for language. Language is always a means of production, but taken individually, languages are part of the superstructure. For example, Dante does not write his poem in the classical Latin of the Church but rather in the Italian vernacular; likewise the Reformation marks the final abandonment of the ancient Saxon in favour of modern German.
Besides, it’s the same for the plough and the hoe. While it is true that a given tool can straddle two great social epochs separated by a class revolution, it is also true that the complete totality of tools of a given society “classifies” and “defines” it, and that the well-known collision of the forces of production against the relations of production compels them to assume the new form that is appropriate to them. We find the wood-turning lathe in the era of barbarism and the precision motor lathe in the era of capitalism. And every now and then an old tool will disappear and become a museum-piece, for example the spinning-wheel mentioned by Engels.
It’s the same for the plough and the hoe. Industrial capitalist society does not have the means to eliminate gruelling small-scale agricultural cultivation, work that twists the spine so proudly straightened by Pithecanthropus erectus. But a communist organisation with a comprehensive industrial base would not use anything other than the mechanized plough. And this society will have overturned the language of the capitalists: we will no longer hear the banal formulae which the Stalinists love to use when affecting to oppose them: moral, liberty, justice, legality, popular, progressive, democratic, constitutional, constructive, productive, humanitarian etc., i.e. all the words that form precisely the toolset thanks to which the largest share of society’s wealth ends up in the pockets of the braggarts, and which fulfils the same role as material instruments such as foreman’s whistle or the gaoler’s handcuffs.
11. The idealist thesis of national language
12. To deny that human language in general arises and functions as a means of production, and that particular written and spoken languages form part of the superstructure of a class society (even if the transformation of these superstructures cannot be immediate, but only gradual) is to fall back entirely to idealist doctrines and politically embrace the bourgeois postulate that the advent of capitalism brings with it a linguistic revolution, which marks the transfer of a common language to illiterates speaking different dialects, producing cultivated people in a politically united country.
Since, according to Stalin, language is neither a superstructure of the economic base, nor is it a means of production, we should perhaps ask what it is. So, here is Stalin’s definition: “Language is a medium, an instrument with the help of which people communicate with one another, exchange thoughts and understand each other. Being directly connected with thinking, language registers and fixes in words, and in words combined into sentences, the results of the process of thinking and achievements of man’s cognitive activity, and thus makes possible the exchange of thoughts in human society”. This should be the Marxist solution to the problem! It is hard to see what orthodox and traditional ideology would refuse to subscribe to such a definition, which clearly states that humanity progresses thanks to a research effort led by thought and formulated in ideas, and passes from the individual phase to collective application through the mediation of language, which allows the inventor transmit his achievement to other men. This conception turns material development completely on its head, such as we have previously illustrated with reference to our standard texts: from action to speech, from speech to idea; and since this process is not individual but concerns the whole of society, it would be better to say: from collective work to language, from language to science, from science to collective thought. The function of thought is only derived and passive in the individual. The definition offered by Stalin is therefore pure idealism. The alleged exchange of ideas is nothing but the projection of bourgeois commodity exchange onto the imagination.
Accusing the disgraced Marr of idealism is strange, as Stalin says he has arrived here by supporting the thesis of mutation of languages, envisaging a decadence in the function of language, which will one day be replaced by other forms. Marr is reproached for having fallen into the quagmire of idealism by imagining that thought can transmit itself without language. But the people who presume that they know how to stay afloat on this quagmire are the most pitiful. Indeed, according to them, Marr’s thesis contradicts Marx’s phrase: “Language is the immediate reality of thought… Ideas do not exist independently of language”.
But isn’t this clear materialist thesis completely contradicted by the definition reproduced above, which reduces language to a means of exchanging ideas and thoughts ?
Let us reconstruct Marr’s audacious theory in our own way (which would have to allow us to have a party theory crossing generations and frontiers). Language is – so far Stalin is in agreement – a means which allows men to communicate with one another. But would communication between men have nothing to do with production ? This affirms bourgeois economic theory, according to which each individual produces alone and only comes into contact with another individual in the marketplace, in order to swindle him. The correct Marxist formulation would not be, men communicate with one another in order to understand one another, but rather, they communicate with one another in order to produce. Thus the definition of language as a means of production is correct. As for the metaphysical “understand one another”: humanity is already 600,000 years old and the disciples of the same teacher still apparently do not understand one another!
So, language is a technological means of communication. It is the first of these. But is it the only one ? Certainly not. Social evolution brings into being a complete raft of increasingly diversified means of communication and Marr’s research on what could in large measure replace spoken language is absolutely not irrelevant. Marr does not claim in this respect that thought, as the immaterial elaboration of an individual subject, will be transmitted to others without the natural form of language. With his formula on “the operation of thought” he indicates that not only individual metaphysical cogitations, but also the full range of technical knowledge relevant to a developed society will develop in forms that go beyond language. Nothing magical or eschatological here.
Let’s take a very simple example. The skipper of a rowing boat commands “On the stroke”. Same thing for a sail ship and the first steam ships: “Heave ho”, “Full ahead”, “Avast”. But when boats become too large, the captain yells his commands down a mouthpiece which communicates with the engine room. But soon that is insufficient, and before loudspeakers arrive – a really retrograde invention – they use a mechanical device called an engine order telegraph, later electrical, which consists of a round dial with an indicator, and which puts the commands right in front of the chief engineer’s eyes. As for the control panel of a modern aircraft, it is covered with instruments that transmit indications to all the sensory organs. Thus, speech gives way to forms of communication which, though less natural are no less material, just as modern tools are no less material than a branch ripped off a tree and used as a weapon.
There is no need to discuss the full range of means of communication embracing spoken language, written language, print, algorithms, internationally agreed mathematical notation etc. In all domains, technical or otherwise, there are universally accepted standards and conventions for transmitting precise indications (meteorological, electrical, astronomical etc.). All of the electronic applications (such as radar) and all the procedures for receiving and recording symbols are new connections between men, made necessary by the complexity of production and day-to-day life. In more than a hundred domains communication ignores words, grammar and syntax, in defence of whose immanence and timelessness Stalin breaks the back of N.Y. Marr.
How could the capitalist system admit that the conjugation of the verbs to have and to cost, or the way in which the possessive adjective is declined, is anything but eternal ? How could it ever renounce the use of the possessive pronoun as the cornerstone of every utterance ? Yet one day we’ll laugh at all that along with “your lordship”, “your humble and obedient servant” and salesmen’s expressions such as “it’s been a pleasure doing business with you”.
12. References and distortions
13. One of the fundamental theses of all Marxist texts on this question is that the demand for a national language is a historical characteristic of all anti-feudal revolutions. A national language is indispensable to the establishment of communication and business between all the newly established commercial locations within the national market, as is the free movement of proletarians torn away from feudal bondage across the national territory, the reduction of traditional religious, scholastic and cultural forms which rely on Latin as the intellectual language, and the shredding of local dialects as the popular form of language.
To support this theory of a language that sits above classes, one that is completely new to Marxism, Stalin attempts to overcome the obvious objections from all sides, based on texts by Lafargue, Marx, Engels and even … Stalin. The good Lafargue is thrown overboard, to be sure. In his pamphlet La langue française avant et après la revolution, he spoke about the sudden linguistic revolution in France between 1789 and 1794. Too short a period, retorts Stalin, and in any case it was only a small number of words that disappeared from the language and were replaced by new ones. Yes, but it turns out that these words are precisely the ones most closely tied to relations in social life. Some of these words were banned by decrees of the Convention. Let’s refer to the satirical counter-revolutionary anecdote:
“What’s your name, citizen ?”
“Marquis de Saint Roiné”.
“There are no more marquises!”
“De Saint Roiné”.
“There are no more ‘de’s’” (‘de’ was an aristocratic designation).
“There are no more Saints!”
“There are no more kings!” (‘roi’ is French for king).
“I am born!” (“Je suis né” – ‘né’ is French for born), the unhappy man yelled.
Stalin was right: the participle né hadn’t changed!
In the article “Saint Max” [a chapter in The German Ideology, which would only be translated into Italian in 1958] which we admit is unfamiliar to us, Marx writes that the bourgeois has “its own” language, which is “a product of the bourgeoisie” and this language is imbued with the style of mercantilism, of buying and selling. In fact, in the Middle Ages the merchants of Antwerp communicated with those of Florence and this is one of the glories of the Italian language, the mother-language of capital. While in music we still say andante, allegro, pianissimo etc., many Italian words were known in European city-squares: firma, sconto, tratta, riporto (firm, discount, draft, report). As to the smelly jargon of commercial correspondence (“with respect to your esteemed correspondence of the 25th inst.” etc.) it became the same everywhere. How does Stalin manage to counter the incontrovertible citation ? By inviting us to read another passage from the same text, where Marx speaks of “the concentration of dialects into a single national language resulting from economic and political concentration”. What of it ? The linguistic superstructure follows the same process as the State superstructure and the economic substructure. The concentration of capital, the unification of the national market, political concentration in the capitalist State, are not inherent and definitive facts but historical outcomes linked to bourgeois domination and cycles of accumulation. It goes the same for the process that ensues, the transition of local dialects to a unitary language. The market, the State and power are only national because they are bourgeois. Language becomes the national language because it is the language of the bourgeoisie.
Stalin then cites Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England: “the working class has gradually become a race wholly apart from the English bourgeoisie […] the workers speak other dialects, have other thoughts and ideals, other customs and moral principles, a different religion and other politics than those of the bourgeoisie”.
Here again, he is grasping at straws: Engels is not saying that there are class languages, Stalin claims, since he is speaking about dialect, and dialect is a derivative of the national language! But haven’t we demonstrated that, on the contrary, the national language is a synthesis of dialects (or the result of a struggle between different dialects) and that this is a class process, tied to the victory of a specific class, the bourgeoisie ?
As for Lenin, he must apologise for having said that there are two cultures under capitalism, bourgeois and proletarian, and that the slogan of national culture under capitalism is a nationalist slogan. Stalin might get away with thinking that he can emasculate the brave Lafargue, but Marx, Engels and Lenin, that’s another matter. Evidently one can reply that culture and language are two different things. But which came first ? For the idealists, who believe in abstract thought, it is culture that came before language and dominates it; but for materialists, speech coming before ideas, culture can only materialise once there is language. What Marx and Lenin say is this: the bourgeoisie will never admit that its culture is a class culture. On the contrary, the bourgeoisie affirms that it is a national culture belonging to a people. Overestimating the importance of national language therefore acts as a brake on the formation of a proletarian and revolutionary class culture, or better, theory.
The fun really starts when Stalin, like Filippo Argenti in Dante’s Inferno, bites himself. At the XVI Congress of the Russian party, Stalin stated that in the epoch of world socialism all the national languages would blend into one. This formula really seems the most radical of all, and it is not easy to reconcile with everything that was clearly stated later about the struggle between two languages and the victory of one over the other, absorbed without trace. Stalin attempts to dig himself out of this hole by alleging that we have not understood that this involves two completely different historical epochs: the struggle and cross-fertilisation of languages takes place in the fully capitalist period, whereas the international language will take shape under full socialism. And so, it is “absurd to require that the era of the rule of socialism is not in contradiction with the era of the rule of capitalism, that socialism and capitalism are not mutually exclusive”.
Okay, now we are dumbfounded! Is this the full force of Stalinist propaganda stating that the dominance of socialism in Russia not only does not exclude that of capitalism in the West, but can peacefully co-exist with it ?
Only one legitimate conclusion can be drawn from all this mess: Russian power coexists with the western capitalist countries because it is also a national power, and its national language, whose integrity is so ferociously defended, is as distant from the future international language as its culture is distant from the revolutionary theory of the global proletariat.
However, in Marxism and problems of linguistics Stalin himself is obliged to recognise at certain moments that the national formation of language closely reflects the formation of States and of national markets, and that this is a characteristic phenomenon of the bourgeois epoch: “Later, with the appearance of capitalism, the elimination of feudal division and the formation of national markets, nationalities developed into nations, and the languages of nationalities into national languages”. This is well said, but less so what follows: “History shows that national languages are not class, but common languages, common to all the members of each nation and constituting the single language of that nation”.
History says this is what happens precisely when capitalism establishes itself! In Italy, the lords, the priests and cultivated people spoke Latin, the people Tuscan. In England, the nobles spoke French and the people English. In Russia, the revolutionary struggle meant that the aristocrats continued to speak French, the socialists German, and the peasants not Russian but a dozen languages and scores of dialects. If the movement had continued on Lenin’s revolutionary path it would soon have developed a language of its own. You all jabbered on in “international French” already. But Joseph Stalin didn’t understand that either. He only hears Georgian and Russian. This was the man in the new situation, a situation where one language swallows up ten others, using as its weapon the literary tradition, a situation of utter and ruthless nationalism, whereby language and everything else follow the law of centralisation and this language is declared to be the country’s intangible heritage.
It may seem strange – though not if you consider that Stalinism wants to continue to exploit the sympathies and adherence of the proletariat of other countries towards Marxist traditions – that Stalin takes up this decisive passage from Lenin: “Language is the most important means of human intercourse. Unity of language and its unimpeded development form one of the most important conditions for genuinely free and extensive commercial intercourse appropriate to modern capitalism, for a free and broad grouping of the population in all its separate classes”. And thus it is clearly stated that the demand for a national language is not eternal but historical. It is – profitably – tied to the appearance of developed capitalism.
But it is also clear that everything will be turned upside-down when capitalism, mercantilism and the division of society into classes fall apart. Along with these institutions, national languages will perish. For the revolution that moves against these institutions, from the moment that full capitalism has triumphed, the demand for a national language belongs in the enemy camp.
13. Personal dependence and economic dependence
14. It is a radical theoretical perversion to limit historical materialism to epochs where there existed directly mercantile and monetary relations between the holders of products and instruments of production (including land). The materialist theory applies also to preceding epochs, where individual property did not yet exist but the first hierarchies were starting to assert themselves on familial and sexual relations. This error, of abandoning all the phenomena touching the sphere of reproduction and the family to “non-determinist” factors is of the same type that, at the other extreme, excludes the linguistic factor from the class dynamic, as is always the case when you banish the laws of dialectical materialism from crucial areas of social life.
A recent text aims to disprove the Marxist interpretation of history, claiming that this is limited to deducing historical developments from the clash of classes that have opposed interests in economic riches and their division (which, unfortunately, is what some imprudent and naïve partisans of the communist movement also believe). The author gives the example of Ancient Rome, which already had a complete organisation at the level of the State although social interaction was not based on relations between classes (rich patrician landed property owners, poor and plebeian peasants or artisans, and slaves) but rather, on the authority of the father of the family.
The author of this text (De Visscher, Property and power in ancient Rome, Brussels 1952) distinguishes two phases in the history of the Roman legal system: a more recent phase, which established the civil law which the modern bourgeoisie has made its own, with the freedom to trade in objects and every type of moveable or unmoveable property, and a more ancient phase, in which law and order were different because in the majority of cases transfers and sales were forbidden, or strictly subordinated to rules based on the patriarchal model of familial organisation. One could talk of the “capitalist” and “feudal” phases with the reservation that within this feudalism and capitalism of the antique world there was a social class that disappeared in the Middle Ages and in the modern epoch, the slaves. The latter were excluded from the law, considered to be objects rather than legal subjects. Limited to the sphere of free men, i.e. citizens, an order based on the family and personal dependence within it preceded a social order based on the free transfer of goods between consenting buyers and sellers.
The author therefore believes he has refuted the “priority that historical materialism has long-since attributed to notions of property law in the development of institutions”. He would be right if the substructure referred to by historical materialism was the simple economic phenomenon of property in the modern sense of the term. But in reality this substructure embraces the whole of the life of the species and of the group as well as all regulation of the relations arising from difficulties in the environment, and in particular regulation of reproduction and the familial organisation.
As we know – and as we will see again in the Part 2 – private property and the institutions of class power had not yet appeared in the old communities and groups of siblings. But work and production have already appeared, and this is what constitutes the material base that Marxism refers to, and which goes way beyond the narrow legal and economic interpretation of the term. It is this material base which, as we have shown, binds together the “production of the producers”, that is to say the reproduction of members of the tribe which perpetuates itself with absolute racial purity.
Within this pure gens, there is no other dependence and no other authority than that of the adult, healthy and vigorous adult over the young ones who have to be raised and prepared for a simple and tranquil social life. The first authority that appeared when promiscuity of the sexes between the male and female groups started to be limited was matriarchy, where the mater is the leader of the community; but there is not yet any division of the land or anything else. This division would take place based on patriarchy, first polygamous, then monogamous: the male head of the family is a veritable administrative, military and political leader, who disciplines the activity of his sons and that of prisoners reduced to slavery. We are on the threshold of the formation of a class State.
At this point it is possible to broadly construe the old Roman order of mancipium, which is lasted a millennium (Justinian finally erased the last traces). People and things belonged to the pater familias: wife or wives, free sons, slaves and their children, all the livestock, land and tools, products and foodstuffs. In the beginning, all these goods are inalienable except via a rare and difficult medium which was known as emancipation, and conversely, one could not acquire them other than through mancipation, from which comes the famous distinction between res mancipii, inalienable things, and res nec mancipii, things that were marketable and formed part of a normal patrimonium, liable to grow or diminish.
Now, while in the second stage, when there is no more mancipii res, and everything is a free article of commerce (for non-slaves) it is economic value that prevailed, and everyone recognised that the struggle for political power rested on the different interests of opposing social classes according to the division of land and wealth, in the first stage the determining element was not economic value or property arising from free purchase, but the personal imperium of the head of the family, where the order that was in force recognised the three faculties of the mancipium, the manus (legal power) and the patria potestas (paternal authority) which made it the bedrock of the society of the time.
For the Marxist it is obviously a fallacious argument to state that economic determinism does not apply to the first stage. The fallacy is based on the tautology according to which in the mercantile system everything takes place between “equals”, and that personal dependencies have disappeared to give way to exchange between equivalents based on the famous law of value. But Marxism demonstrates precisely that the unlimited “Justinian” commercial exchange of products and instruments of production resulted in a new and burdensome form of dependence for members of the labouring and exploited classes.
It is thus very easy to refute the erroneous assertion that whenever a social relation is based on a familial order, it must be interpreted not via the productive economy, but in “emotional” terms, which would be to surrender before the unfurled banner of idealism. Even the system of relationships based on generation and family arose in order to respond optimally to the needs of the group in its physical environment and the necessities of production, and this causal relationship also conforms to the laws of materialism which will become, much later, the phase of utilitarian exchanges between individual holders of title to products.
A Marxist would certainly fall victim to idealist reaction if he was incapable of seeing this and if he admitted, even for a moment, that alongside factors of economic interest made concrete by the possession of private patrimony and the exchange of privately owned goods (including human labour power), factors such as sexuality, familial affection, love etc. could exist in a separate manner as elements that are not driven by the same materialist dynamic; to say nothing of the trivial position according to which, at certain moments, these factors blow away and overturn the facts of the economic base under the pressure of superior forces.
On the contrary, historical materialism builds its immense and difficult construction, which embraces all manifestations of human activity up to and including the most complex and grandiose, on a single cornerstone: that of the effort required for the immediate survival of the species, which brings together inseparably the provision of foodstuffs and reproduction and which, if necessary, subordinates the preservation of the individual to that of the species.
* * *
We will conclude Part 1 by quoting Engels’ Origins once again in order to affirm our doctrinal fidelity and our abhorrence of novelties. It is always the evolution of the instruments of production which forms the basis of the transition from patriarchal imperium to free private property. The social division of labour between artisans and farmers and between the town and the countryside already appeared at the upper stage of barbarism. War and slavery had already started much earlier:
“The distinction of rich and poor appears beside that of freemen and slaves - with the new division of labour, a new cleavage of society into classes. The inequalities of property among the individual heads of families break up the old communal household communities wherever they had still managed to survive, and with them the common cultivation of the soil by and for these communities. The cultivated land is allotted for use to single families, at first temporarily, later permanently. The transition to full private property is gradually accomplished, parallel with the transition of the pairing marriage into monogamy. The single family is becoming the economic unit of society”.
Once again dialectics teaches us that the single family – this clamed fundamental social value celebrated by bourgeois believers and rationalists, which characterises private property-based societies – is itself only a transitory institution. Having no basis outside material determination (including sexuality and love) it will be destroyed by the victory of communism: materialist theory has analysed the totality of its development and has condemned it already.
The relative weight of the national factor in the various historic modes of production
Marxist interpretation of the political struggle
14. From race to nation
1. The transition from the ethnic group or “people” to the “nation” only takes place with the appearance of the political State, whose fundamental characteristics are the delimitation of national boundaries and organisation of the armed forces; this transition can thus only take place after the dissolution of primitive communism and the formation of social classes.
Leaving aside all literary interpretation and all idealist influences, we attribute the category of “race” to biological facts and the category of “nation” to geographical facts. However, it is necessary to make a distinction between the nation as a historical fact, and nationality, which must be understood as a grouping that is affected by two factors, racial and political, at the same time.
Race is a biological fact: to find out the race of a given animal you don’t ask where it was born, but rather, who were its parents; and if both (which is rare in the contemporary world) are of the same ethnic type, then the offspring they gave birth to belong to this type and can be classed within a definite race. You can find the Yorkshire, the beautiful breed of pig also known as the English Large White, everywhere. They are named after the English county where they were rigorously selectively bred, which can only be done with animals (and here the Pope is right) and not with men, short of putting the two sexes in a cage like they used to do under certain forms of slavery. The same applies for Breton cattle, the Great Dane breed of dogs, Siamese cats and so forth: the geographical name is only indicative of a breed.
But such things also occur for people today: thus in the United States of America (apart from blacks, who in certain Confederate States are still forbidden to marry whites) you will find the U.S. citizen Primo Carnera with a mother and father from Friuli, and a whole bunch of Gennaro Espositos who have pure Neapolitan blood but are proud of their American identity cards.
However, the classification of persons by nation is based on purely geographical rather than biological or ethnic facts: it depends in general on the place where the person was born, apart from special cases such as people born at sea. But an increasing number of nations presents a difficult tangle of several nationalities, i.e. not just races (which are becoming progressively more or less impossible to define in biological terms) but rather groups that differ according to language, customs, traditions, culture etc.
We can still speak of a “people” to describe the mass of nomads bringing together several tribes of kindred race who once wandered entire continents in search of the lands that could nourish them, and who often invaded the territories of peoples already settled there to plunder them or to settle in their place. But before such settlement has taken place, we would obviously have no right to call this mass of nomads a nation, since this term refers to the place of its birth, which remains unknown and a matter of indifference to members of a horde who, having wagons and luggage as their principal habitation, forget the topography of their itineraries.
The idea of a fixed territory referring to a human group implies the idea of a frontier delimiting its zone of residence and work, and ordinary historians habitually add that it implies the defence of these frontiers against other groups, and therefore a fixed organisation of guards and armies, a hierarchy, a power. In reality, the origin of hierarchies, of power, of the State comes before such time as the human population has grown to the point of disputing territories; it relates to the internal processes of social clusters which evolve from the first forms of clan and tribe, once the cultivation of the soil and agricultural production are sufficiently technologically developed to allow activity to stabilise over the seasonal cycles on the same fields and meadows.
15. The emergence of the State
2. The precondition for the emergence of the State is the formation of social classes. Among all peoples, this formation is determined by the division of arable land between individuals and families, and, in parallel, by the different phases of the division of social labour and functions, which results in each of the various elements in general productive activity being accorded a particular position and the appearance of differentiated hierarchies responsible for elementary crafts, military action and religious magic (the first form of technical know-how and schooling), the latter detached from the immediate life of the gens and the primitive family.
We don’t need to outline the Marxist theory of the State in its entirety here, but it is of the utmost interest for establishing the structures of the historic collectivities that are indicative of the term nation. In fact, the structures have a far superior complexity to the banal criterion according to which each individual, taken alone, binds himself directly to the land of his birth, the nation being a totality of individual molecules, each similar to one another. This concept has nothing scientific in it and simply reflects the ideology of the dominant bourgeois class of the modern age.
The theory of the State not as a body of people or nation or society, but rather as the organ of power of a given class, is fundamental in Marx. Lenin restored the integrity of this theory against the systematic theoretical and practical falsification that was applied by the socialists of the Second International, relying specifically on the explanation of the emergence of the State contained in Engels’ classic work on the origins of the family and property, which has guided us in our study of the course of prehistory. During that era the ethnic element came into play in a still pure and so to speak virgin condition, in the primitive sharing of work, brotherhood and love that reigned in the ancient and noble (in the concrete sense of the word) tribes and gens. The myths of all peoples remember this as a golden age of the first men who knew nothing of crime or bloodshed.
We will therefore pick up the thread in Engels’ illuminating text that can lead us to the explanation of the struggles of nationalities, and the materialist conclusion that once again it is not an inherent factor, but a product that has certain historical beginnings and cycles, and which will draw to a conclusion and disappear under the conditions that are already largely developed in the modern world. But our original view in no way implies that our doctrine and in particular our action, which is inseparable from it, disregards this fundamental process, the national process (when we say “our” doctrine, this does not mean a doctrine that belongs to one or several individual subjects, but rather the doctrine of our present century-old and global movement). It implies still less that we are committing the enormous historical blunder of declaring this phenomenon settled in relation to the proletarian class struggle within the framework of contemporary international politics.
Engels summarises the process with regard to ancient Greece and the great historical form of Mediterranean classical antiquity that ended with the fall of the Roman Empire:
“Thus in the Greek constitution of the heroic age we see the old gentile order as still a living force. But we also see the beginnings of its disintegration: father-right, with transmission of the property to the children, by which accumulation of wealth within the family was favoured and the family itself became a power as against the gens; reaction of the inequality of wealth on the constitution by the formation of the first rudiments of hereditary nobility and monarchy; slavery, at first only of prisoners of war, but already preparing the way for the enslavement of fellow-members of the tribe and even of the gens; the old wars between tribe and tribe already degenerating into systematic pillage by land and sea for the acquisition of cattle, slaves and treasure, and becoming a regular source of wealth; in short, riches praised and respected as the highest good and the old gentile order misused to justify the violent seizure of riches. Only one thing was wanting: an institution which not only secured the newly acquired riches of individuals against the communistic traditions of the gentile order”.
(Note that we already took the opportunity that we should understand this word “gentile” in the sense of “relating to the gens”, to avoid any confusion with the less ancient concept of aristocracy as a class within the gens, which does not recognise classes, as all are of pure blood and therefore equal: we will not adopt the term democracy for this form, as it is a spurious and historically limited word; nor will we use the term panocracy, since if the first part of this word gives the idea of “all”, the second evokes “power”, something unknown at the time; nor was it even a pananarchy, as anarchy evokes the idea of a struggle by the individual against the State, that’s to say between two transitory forms where, moreover, it is often the second that turns the wheel of history. The gens had a typically communist organisation, but limited to a pure racial group: it was thus an “ethnocommunism” while “our” communism, towards which our historic programme tends, is no longer ethnic or national but rather the communism of the species, which the historical cycles of property, power and productive and commercial expansion have made feasible.)
The passage continues:
“Only one thing was
wanting: an institution which not only secured the newly acquired
riches of individuals against the communistic traditions of the
gentile order, which not only sanctified the private property
formerly so little valued, and declared this sanctification to be the
highest purpose of all human society; but an institution which set
the seal of general social recognition on each new method of
acquiring property and thus amassing wealth at continually increasing
speed; an institution which perpetuated, not only this growing
cleavage of society into classes, but also the right of the
possessing class to exploit the non-possessing, and the rule of the
former over the latter.
“And this institution came. The State was invented”.
And it is Engels again who defines the territorial criterion: “In contrast to the old gentile organisation, the State is distinguished firstly by the grouping of its members on a territorial basis. The old gentile bodies, formed and held together by ties of blood, had, as we have seen, become inadequate largely because they presupposed that the gentile members were bound to one particular locality, whereas this had long ago ceased to be the case. The territory was still there, but the people had become mobile. The territorial division was therefore taken as the starting point and the system introduced by which citizens exercised their public rights and duties where they took up residence, without regard to gens or tribe”.
16. States without nation
3. In the ancient empires of the Asiatic Orient, whose political formations come prior to the Hellenic, we encounter fully developed forms of State power, corresponding to enormous concentrations of landed wealth hoarded by the lords, satraps and sometimes theocrats, and the subjugation of vast masses of prisoners, slaves, serfs and pariahs of the land. But we cannot yet speak of national formations even though characteristics of the State are already present: political territory and armed forces.
The obvious exception of the Jewish people is useful in allowing us to clarify the last step of Engels’ reasoning mentioned in the previous point. We should not confuse the territory which, in less ancient times, defines the fully developed State form, and the relationship between the gens and a given territory which is subsequently broken while the inviolable blood relationship remains.
The territory of the gens does not belong to it in the modern political sense, nor even, if you like, in the strictly economic-productive sense. Engels is saying that a gens is distinguished from others, also in name, by its territory of origin, and not by the different territories that it occupies to settle and to work collectively. The relationship between the Indian Iroquois and its original land was broken over the centuries, not only since white civilisation reduced the few survivors to abject reservations, but since the times when different tribes struggled ferociously against one another, destroying themselves but carefully avoiding any kind of fusion, resulting in their displacement by thousands of kilometres in the immense forests (largely since transformed, thanks to capitalist technology, into deserts that the bourgeois philanthropy uses for its nuclear weapons tests).
The Jewish people were the first to have a written history, but from the first it is a history of class struggle, presenting property-owners and expropriated, wealthy and servants, casually leaping from primitive communism, which is only recalled in Eden, because Cain, the founder and inventor of the class struggle, already appears in the second generation. The Jewish people thus form an organised State, expertly organised even, with clear hierarchies and rigorous constitutions. But it doesn’t become a nation, any more than its Assyrian, Mede or Egyptian barbarian enemies; and this despite the racial purity of the Jews, which was in total contrast to the indifference in this regard of the satraps and pharaohs, whose courts abounded with servants, slaves and sometimes even bureaucrats and officers of different colour and ethnic origins, and whose gynaeceums were populated with white, black and yellow concubines, all originating from military raids and the subjugation of primitive free tribes or other States that had existed before their own at the heart of Asia or Africa.
The Hebrews, divided into 12 tribes, were not assimilated by other peoples, even after their defeats. The tribes and the gens, now transformed into traditionally monogamous patriarchal families, did not lose the pure blood ties, the name of their country of origin and their boring genealogical tradition (although it should be noted that the close attachment to the paternal lineage of the Jews largely tolerates marriage with women of other races) even after territorial deportations, as with the legendary captivity in Babylon and Egypt. The mythical attachment to the promised land is a pre-national form, because even when the ethnic community, which conserved a relative purity, returned to its country of origin, its ethnological cradle, it could not give itself a historically stable political organisation, and the land continued to be crossed by armies of the most various and distant powers. The wars of the Bible are the struggles of tribes more than wars of national liberation or imperial conquest, and the region remained the theatre of historic clashes between the forces of many other peoples aspiring to hegemony in this strategic area of the ancient as well as the modern world.
Likewise the Greeks in the Trojan War did not yet constitute a nation, although they formed a federation of small States in neighbouring territories and a very vague ethnic community, given the completely different origin of the Ionians and Dorians and the confluence in the Hellenic peninsula of ancient migrations from the four points of the compass. The forms of production, the State constitutions, the customs, the languages and cultural traditions differed considerably in each of these small confederated military monarchies. Even in the historic wars against the Persians, unity was no more than circumstantial and it disappeared to give way to bitter wars for hegemony in the Peloponnese and the whole of Greece.
17. The Hellenic nation and culture
4. National factors appeared in an obvious manner in ancient Greece, already in the social organisation of Athens, Sparta and other cities, and even more so in the Macedonian State which not only unified the country, but also rapidly became the centre of the first imperial conquest in antiquity. The literature and ideology of this nationalism not only transferred to the Roman world, but would supply the framework for the national intoxication of modern bourgeoisies.
The Spartan State, as well as the Athenian or Theban States, were not only perfect States in the political sense of the term, with precisely delimited territories, legal institutions and a central power from which emanated civil and military hierarchies. They attained the form of nations to the extent that although their social fabric preserved the division between rich and poor classes in relation to agricultural and artisanal production and to the already well-developed domestic and foreign trade, and although it fully guaranteed the political power of economically powerful social strata, that same social fabric also acquiesced in a legal and administrative framework that applied the same formal standards to all citizens, and assured the participation of all citizens on equal terms in popular elective assemblies with voting rights. Such a legal infrastructure plays a role that is substantially similar to the one that Marxism has denounced in bourgeois parliamentary democracies, but a fundamental difference runs between the two historic modes of social organisation: today everyone is a citizen and it is stated that everyone is equal before the law; however, back then the total citizenry forming the actual nation excluded the slave class, who were nevertheless extremely numerous at certain stages of history, denying them every political and civic right.
Despite this, and despite the class antagonism between aristocrats and commoners, between rich patricians and merchants on the one hand and ordinary workers living on their wages on the other, this form of social organization was accompanied by great developments not only in work and in technology and thus in the applied sciences, but also in pure science. Participation in production on the basis of equality and freedom, despite class exploitation, translates into unprecedented prominence for language, with literature and art reaching new heights. Language reiterates the national tradition that serves the leaders of society and the State by binding all citizens to the nation’s destiny and obliging them to render military service and to make whatever sacrifice or contribution is required whenever the national organism and its essential structures are menaced.
Literature, history and poetry largely reflect the affirmation of these values, making patriotism the primary motor of every social function, exalting fraternity between each and every citizen at every step, while condemning civil wars and struggles. Despite everything, these were frequent and inevitable; they were habitually presented as conspiracies against holders of title to power by other power-hungry groups or individuals, when in reality they were born out of the opposition of interests between classes and discontent among the great mass of citizens, who were fed a lot of illusions but were tormented by poverty, even when the splendour of the polis was at its zenith.
However, this national solidarity was by no means a pure illusion, a mirage created by the powerful and privileged, but rather is determined by economic interests and the needs of the material forces of production in a given phase of history. The transition from primitive localised farming in Greece, which enjoys a favourable climate but whose soil is typically arid and rocky, and which could only feed a poor and under-developed population, would give way to the most intense commercial navigation from one end of the Mediterranean to the other, bringing products from distant countries and allowing the diffusion of the increasingly differentiated handcraft products and a genuine ancient type of industry, which led, in particular in the harbour districts, a considerable growth in population and a spectacular evolution of its way of life. This evolution could not have taken place within a closed and despotic form of State such as the great empires of the continent; it needed a democratic and open form, producing not only peasants and helots (serfs) but also artisans capable of working for large naval architects and the city workshops, as well as workers who, though certainly less numerous than today, were nevertheless necessary to the development of this early form of capitalism and its unforgettable splendours.
In its ascendant phase, each triumph, each blooming of new forms of labour, still exploitative but freed from the immobilising ties to a specific place and the fossilised ancient technologies, drove a great development in science, art and architecture in the superstructure, which was reflected in the opening of new ideological horizons for societies previously tied to closed and traditional doctrines. We will rediscover this phenomenon with the European Renaissance, as feudalism goes into decline; many argue that the golden age of Greek culture remains unsurpassed, but this is just the exercise of a literary device. We can nevertheless assert that the “bridge” thrown by the “national human community” across economic inequality at this time, when democracy excluded slaves from the human community as if they were animals, was more solid than it was during its historical reappearance 15 or 20 centuries later, which claims to have closed the social abyss separating the owners of capital from the disinherited proletariat.
Engels recalls that at the moment of its greatest splendour, Athens numbered no more than 20,000 free citizens (elsewhere wrongly quoted as 90,000) as against as against 360,000 slaves who not only worked the land but also provided the workforce for the aforementioned industries, together with 45,000 “protected” persons, emancipated slaves or foreigners deprived of civic rights.
It is quite valid to say that such a social structure delivered a degree of “civilisation” to the way of life for these 20,000 elect that was qualitatively better than the one that present-day capitalism offers to modern “free” peoples, despite the considerably superior resources of capitalist technology.
None of this makes us want to join in with the ecstatic concert of admiration for the grandeur of ancient Greek art and philosophy, and not simply because these marvels were built on the backs of slaves who were twenty times more numerous than free men; before Solon, these free men were exploited by the landed plutocracy to the point that the system of mortgages could reduce the bankrupt free citizen to slavery. When Athens went into the age of decadence, not wanting to compete with the contemptible slaves (the pride of the free Athenian was so great that, rather than become a cop, he preferred that the State police be manned by hired slaves, such that a slave could arrest free men) free Athenians went on to form a veritable lumpenproletariat, a class of beggars whose revolts against the oligarchs brought ruin upon the glorious republic.
Engels makes a comparison here that says everything about Marxism’s position with respect to apologetics for the great historical civilisations. The Iroquois Indians were unable to raise themselves to the levels attained by the original Greek gens, who were quite similar to the people studied by Morgan in modern America (the newspapers have recently reported on similar primitive communities in the Andaman Islands of the Indian Ocean, people isolated from the rest of humanity until now, who have been visited by Italian explorers on behalf of the new Indian regime). The Iroquois lacked a number of material conditions of production because of geography, climate and the communications between peoples afforded by the sea, and in particular the Mediterranean. And yet, in the modest sphere of their local economy, the Iroquois communists “mastered their conditions of work and their products”, which were distributed according to human needs.
By contrast, even though the momentum behind Greek production allowed it to attain its grandiose diversity, reaching the dizzying heights of the Parthenon friezes, Phidias’ Venus, the paintings of Zeuxis and the platonic abstractions that modern thought has yet to surpass, man’s products started to become commodities that were circulated in monetary markets. Whether slave or free man according to the laws of Lycurgus or Solon, man became slave to the relations of production and to be dominated by his own product. The tremendous revolution that would free him from chains, whose strongest links were forged in the “golden” age of history, was still far off.
“The Iroquois were still very far from controlling nature, but within the limits imposed on them by natural forces they did control their own production. […] That was the immense advantage of barbarian production, which was lost with the coming of civilization; to reconquer it, but on the basis of the gigantic control of nature now achieved by man and of the free association now made possible, will be the task of the next generations”.
Herein lies the crux of Marxism, and you can understand why the Marxist smiles when some naïve individual delights in certain stages of human evolution, attributing them to the works of great scientists, philosophers, artists and poets, who raise us, according to the stupid contemporary formula, above class and party. We do not want to crown this “civilisation”; we want to bring it crashing to its foundations.
18. Roman nation and force
5. The national factor reaches its highest expression in Roman antiquity in the age of the Republic, which added the positive domains of organisation and law to the model furnished by the Greeks in the cultural domain. The Roman Empire established itself on the foundations of the Roman nation and extended to become the only organised State for all known humanity at the time. But the Empire itself could not withstand the pressure exerted by the growth of populations arriving from unknown and distant lands who, themselves driven on by material imperatives to expand the life of the species, had in their turn entered into the same great cycle of productive development that had led the Mediterranean peoples from small gens to this immense empire.
The national process in Italy differed from that in Greece to the extent that there were no longer these little city-States which, while having customs and levels of productive development that were hardly different from one another, competed to achieve hegemony over the entire peninsula. In Italy, the sun went down on civilisations preceding that of the Romans; these had reached advanced forms of production, and they undoubtedly had State powers, but they cannot be regarded as having constituted nations in the proper sense of the term. After their decline, Rome became the centre of a single State organisation with legal, political and military structures that enabled it to absorb all the others rapidly and in an increasingly vast territory, which soon extended beyond the borders of Latium to arrive at the Mediterranean and the Po. As the already very remarkable productive forces of a vast territory were coordinated with those of Roman society, Rome’s social and State organisation, along with its administrative and legal system, were applied everywhere and in an increasingly uniform manner.
A complex division of labour, with crafts, trade, navigation and industry emerged alongside the agricultural productive base less rapidly than in Greece. But soon its military conquests on the other side of the Ionian and Adriatic seas allowed Rome to absorb the knowledge of technological and cultural organisation that already existed among the Greeks and other peoples.
The social configuration was not substantially different from that of Greece, as the contribution of slave labour remained very important. But the spread of mercantilism, slower but deeper, accentuated the scale of social division within the society of free men: organisation and rights themselves rested on the census, which classified Roman citizens according to their wealth.
The Roman citizen was obliged to render military service, while the bearing of arms was rigorously denied to the slave and to the mercenary right up to the Empire’s decadence. The legionary army is a genuinely national army: this cannot be said of Greece and still less of the army of Alexander the Great. The latter advanced, however impetuously, to the frontiers of India, where death stopped the young general; but that was in fact the absolute limit that the crushing superiority of the Western form of the State could reach against the gangs of diverse Asian principalities. The attempt at a worldwide organisation soon disintegrated once it had been divided into several chunks, not because Alexander was no longer there, but because the centralised State was still in its infancy.
Roman organisation was not merely at the level of the State; it was truly national – not just because the citizen took part directly in war and the construction of a network of roadworks and fortifications in all of the occupied territories, but also because of agrarian colonisation, the allocation of land to soldiers, and thus the immediate implantation of Roman forms of production, economy and law. This was not a race to plunder the sought-after hidden treasures of legendary peoples, but rather the systematic extension of a given mode of productive organisation across an ever-expanding radius, crushing any armed resistance, but immediately accepting the conquered people’s collaboration in production.
Nonetheless, it is not easy to define the limits of the Roman nation, as they varied over time. It is even more difficult to trace its ethnographic profile. As everyone knows, from the racial point of view pre-historic Italy was not unified and could not possibly be so, as the peninsular was too open a crossroads between North and South, East and West, in the most densely populated settlements of all time. Even if we assume that the first Latins (leaving aside their mythical Trojan origins) constituted a single racial entity, they were nevertheless very different from their near neighbours: the Volsci, the Samnites, the Sabines, not to mention the mysterious Etruscans, Ligures etc.
The Roman citizen or civis romanus, with his rights and his proverbial national pride, soon extended beyond the original city (the Urbs) across all of Latium; as for the Italic people, they were organised in municipia unto which the centralist criterion of State organisation could not concede any autonomy, preferring after several centuries to confer the title of Roman citizen on any free men who lived there, along with all of the privileges and obligations this implied.
The nation as fact here achieved its most powerful expression ever in the ancient world and along with it, the greatest historical stability known up to the present day. We have thus travelled a long distance from ethnic communities based on blood-brotherhood. All of Rome’s free citizens, though divided into social classes, were united by a common economic system for the production and exchange of goods: from the great latifundian patrician, who possessed properties in the four corners of the Empire, to the small-holding peasant and the proletarian in the Urbs living, in difficult periods, on flour distributed by the State. They were likewise ruled by the same inflexible legal code, for which the State’s armed forces demanded respect without exception across the Empire’s immense territory.
The history of social struggles and civil wars within the walls of Rome itself are well known; but its vicissitudes did not diminish the solidity and the homogeneity of the superb edifice responsible for the administration of all the productive resources of the most distant countries, and which covered them with lasting monuments having the most diverse productive functions: roads, aqueducts, baths, markets, forums, theatres etc.
19. Nationality in decline
6. The decadence and fall of the Roman Empire brought an end to the period of history in which nationality and organisation into States represented the decisive factors directing the development of productive forces.
National solidarity, which does not exclude periods of violent class struggle between free men of varying social and economic conditions, had a clear economic basis: the development of the system of production common to all the citizens of the nation provided, at the expense of masses of slaves, a continuous supply of new resources that raised standards of living in general, such as the replacement of the simple pastoral economy by fixed arable agriculture, of extensive cultivation by horticulture with irrigation, of primitive semi-nomadism by the subdivision and commercialisation of the land as well as slaves and livestock. The economic and then urban economy of Rome also had as its starting point the primitive collectivist economy of the local gentes, which had to give way because it was no longer capable of sustaining populations that had grown rapidly thanks to the mild climate. Engels paints a quick but complete picture of its origins, showing that the first Roman laws were derived from the first gentile rules, and refuting the old theses of historians such as Mommsen (refer in this respect to the last chapter of Part 1, the refutation of a very recent author who denies that historical materialism can apply to this period).
The saleability of land and commercialisation of movable goods under Roman law represented the superstructure of force of a new productive economy, whose output was superior to that of tribal primitive community, and this fact explains the origin of the system; but other economic facts explain the political and historical events that marked its end. The growth of wealth created by trade across an immense area and the accumulation of slave labour created a deep fissure in the once solid “national front”. The small farmers who had fought for the fatherland and laboriously colonised the conquered lands saw themselves ever more expropriated and pauperised, while slaves that had been purchased with the rich landowners’ treasures (as well as herds of large and small livestock purchased under the same title) replaced them on their fertile meadows, plunging them into ruin. Maintaining the relationship between free men and slaves required a relatively low population density, which provided the slaves with the material means to live and reproduce, while allowing free men to experience the rich assortment of satisfactions of the golden age. But when the amount of land beyond the frontiers started to diminish, migrating and demographically rampant populations swelled the numbers of people aspiring to a better life, the degeneracy of farming methods confirmed itself and the inevitable crisis arrived. Agriculture regressed to the point of being able to feed neither animal nor slave, and as the disorganisation got worse the master took the initiative and freed his slaves, which only inflated the masses of miserable free men without work and without land.
The links between the regions in this mighty edifice began to loosen and it was no longer able to intervene when local shortages occurred. As demographic growth encountered famine, human groups were reduced to local, impoverished economic circles, tight circles that were no longer those of the ancient tribes: the profound changes that had occurred, the new relations between the instruments of production, goods and human needs, were not sufficient to modify the situation. The nation that had become an empire fragmented into small units lacking the connective tissue of the law, the magistracy, the armed forces, culture and proud traditions… The great and “natural” fundamental fact of nationalism and patriotism, which is claimed to be inherent in the famous “human nature”, is about to treat itself to a total historic eclipse lasting a few thousand years, to the utter confusion of the idealists.
“In earlier chapters we were standing at the cradle of ancient Greek and Roman civilization. Now we stand at its grave. Rome had driven the levelling plane of its world rule over all the countries of the Mediterranean basin, and that for centuries. Except when Greek offered resistance, all natural languages had been forced to yield to a debased Latin; there were no more national differences […] all had become Romans. Roman administration and Roman law had everywhere broken up the old kinship groups, and with them the last vestige of local and national independence. The half-baked culture of Rome provided no substitute; it expressed no nationality, only the lack of nationality […] But the strength was not there to fuse these elements into new nations”.
The barbarians approach, fortified by their organisation in gens, but not yet mature enough to constitute States and to found nations in the true sense. The shadow of the feudal Middle Ages is looming: but even here it is a determinist necessity, inherent to the development of productive forces, as Engels asserts.
20. Organisation of the Germanic barbarians
7. The peoples who submerged the Roman Empire under waves of invasions also knew, in the beginning, gentile and matriarchal forms of organisation as well as the communist cultivation of the land. When they came into contact with Rome, they were transitioning from the middle to superior stages of barbarism, and they were beginning to transition from nomadism to a settled existence. Their military organisation began to give birth to a class of military chieftains who chose the king and who began to set up great properties, taking land away from the formerly free and equal members of the gens and the tribe, who had meanwhile become free peasants. In this way the State also started to appear among these people, and would slowly lay the foundations for new nationalities which, many centuries later, would lead to the renaissance of the nation in its modern form.
What we know of the origins of these Germanic peoples who travelled across the whole of Europe to the north of the Danube and to the east of the Rhine leads us to attribute to them a communal agricultural production, on the basis of the family, of the gens, and then of the marches (border districts), then a type of occupation with periodic redistribution of cultivated land as well as the portion of this that was not entirely held in common and periodically left fallow. At this time crafts and industry were completely primitive: there was neither commerce nor the circulation of money, except in the border areas close to the Roman Empire, from where the people imported some manufactured goods.
These peoples were already migrating at the time of Marius, who repelled the hordes of Cimbri and Teutones from the Italian peninsular, where they wanted to expand across the Po. They were largely present at the time of Caesar, who saw them appearing on the left bank of the Rhine. It’s only in Tacitus, writing 150 years later, that they are described as settled farmers. Evidently it was a complex process, tied mainly to the rapid growth of population, on the subject of which we totally lack original historical documentation: at the fall of the Empire they were, according to Engels, some six million in an area where there are today perhaps 150 million inhabitants.
The separation of classes between the military chiefs, who held land and power, and the mass of peasant-soldiers (since there were no slaves, everybody who was unable to bear arms or was otherwise exempt from war worked the land) led to the formation of genuine States, insofar as fixed territories were occupied, and secure kings or emperors who were elected, for life only and thus not hereditary by dynastic right. At this point, gentile organisation had already disappeared; the tradition of the popular assembly of the entire community was completely distorted in the assembly of chieftains, or electoral princes, which was the basis of true class power.
This process was undoubtedly accelerated by the conquest of the now decadent Roman Empire, where the conquerors settled. Beyond importing their new organisation, the revolutionary task of these peoples thus consisted of destroying the Roman State, which by then was totally corrupt: as Engels says, they delivered Roman subjects from their parasitical State, whose economic and social foundations were collapsing, and in exchange they gained at least two thirds of the imperial territory.
Given the relatively small number of conquerors and their tradition of communist labour, the new organisation of agriculture in these lands left large areas undivided – not just forests and pastures, but also arable land, with German forms of law prevailing over Roman forms, or combining with them. This enabled the formation, among previously nomadic peoples, of a fixed territorial administration; and the birth, over the course of four or five centuries, of Germanic States, whose power extended over the former provinces of the Roman Empire and across Italy itself. The most remarkable of these was that of the Franks, who raised Europe’s bulwark against Moorish invasion and who, while giving way to the pressure of the Normans at the other extremity, allowed populations to continue to live on the territories where they had established themselves, even if this led to complex ethnic mix between Germans, Romans and, in the Frankish kingdom, aboriginal Celts. This recent jumble of ethnic peoples with heterogeneous traditions, languages and institutions meant that these Germanic States could not yet constitute nations; but they were indeed States by virtue of their solid frontiers and unified military forces.
“… however unproductive these four centuries appear, one great product they did leave: modern nationalities, the new forms and structures through which Western European humanity was to make history to come. The Germans had, in fact, given Europe new life, and therefore the break-up of the States in the Germanic period ended, not in subjugation by the Norsemen and Saracens, but in the further development of the system of benefices and protection into feudalism”.
Before we close this section by recalling the characteristics of medieval organisation, which practically excluded the “national” factor, we want to point out that the Marxist doctrine not only considers the organisation of the ancient barbarian and nomadic peoples into territorial States as a positive historic fact (a process the people of the Mediterranean peninsulas had passed through more than a millennium in advance); it also views the national nature of States positively, their coincidence with nationality, that’s to say with a community that not only rests, to some extent, on race, but also on the language, tradition and customs of all the inhabitants of a vast and stable geographical territory. Whereas the idealist historian sees in nationality a general fact, present for all time and everywhere that there is civilised life, we Marxists attribute to nationality historically determined cycles. We have already run through a first historic cycle: that of the great national democracies superimposed on the mass of slaves, but nevertheless dividing free men into social classes. The second cycle, which we will examine in Part 3, is that of the democracies of free men in which slaves have disappeared. In this second historic cycle, the national reality goes hand in hand with a new division into classes, which is specific to capitalism. The nation and its material influence will disappear at the same time as capitalism and bourgeois democracy, but not before: the formation of national States must actually be considered indispensable as this enables the advent of capitalism in different geographical areas.
21. Feudal society as a-national organisation
8. The economic relations that defined the feudal order explain how the feudal type of production gave rise to a very specific form of political State, but one without national character.
To explain how the encounter of two entirely different types of production, the agrarian community of the barbarian people and the private land ownership of the Romans, led to the feudal system, itself based on agrarian production, and to back up the Marxist conclusion according to which the States of classical antiquity were, especially in their best years, national in nature, a phenomenon that was unknown in the Middle Ages, we must remind ourselves of the most notable relations of property and production at work in the two systems.
In the barbarian organisation, up until the appearance of slavery, the free member of the community worked the land, but land was not divided up into individual parcels, neither to define the work to be performed by each individual, nor for the purpose of defining the right of harvest and consumption of the products.
In the organisation of classical antiquity, the manual worker was essentially a slave, not only in agriculture but also in the production of manufactured goods, which was already developed and independent. It is therefore correct to say that the Greco-Roman world knew a certain type of industrialism and, in a sense, capitalism. However, rather than being composed of land and means of production, capital also embraced living people, just as today the capital of an agricultural enterprise embraces land, machines and working animals. This ancient capitalism did not have as its corollary generalised wage labour, because it was rare for free men to work for money.
But slaves, who represented the fundamental social labour power, were not evenly distributed as a resource (perhaps they were originally the common property of the groups of free men). This meant that free men were themselves divided into two classes: those citizens who owned slaves, and those civilians without slaves. Is it not said that the wise Socrates, in his misery as a philosopher, aspired to be able to buy at least one little slave ?
The citizen who does not own slaves cannot, for this reason, live off the product of other people’s labour, and must therefore work; not as a slave, of course, but as a free man, that’s to say without depending on a master – and this is related to the system of private land ownership. The free worker is a property-owning farmer and he does what he likes with his patch of land, which he exploits with the sweat of his own brow. Other free men who have neither wealth nor slaves are artisans or members of the liberal professions (which in some cases were open, even to slaves, at least as far as intellectual activities were concerned).
When this cycle is perfect, all arable land is reduced to allodial land. Allodium constitutes land that is privately owned with complete freedom of sale and purchase. This means that as soon as new territories had been conquered, they were immediately shared out between the conquering (Roman) soldiers, who became colonists. But for allodial rights to develop in full, there had to be money in circulation allowing the acquisition of various goods, which could be used to trade in slaves as well as land.
Under the regimes of classical antiquity, the small number of goods that were not distributed by lot and remained at the disposition of the State or local administration constituted, in contrast to allodial goods, State property, the public domain. The predominance of allodial title over the public domain required a medium of exchange in circulation, and therefore a general market open to all free citizens throughout the territory: this condition was met in full in ancient Greece and Rome. The type of production in classical antiquity therefore sees the first appearance of an internal national market (and even the beginnings of an international market) – in contrast to the immediate and closed circles of labour and consumption under barbarism. The territorial State is a national State not only when its power imposes itself on the territory through force of arms (which was already true of the Egyptians and the Assyrians, and will later be true for the Salian Franks and Burgundians etc) but when trade is possible in commodities and the products of labour right across the territory and even between distant points within the territory. At the level of the legal superstructure, this is expressed in the fact that citizens enjoy the same rights in all districts of the State. It’s only then that the State is a nation. From the perspective of historical materialism, the nation is thus a community organised across a territory where there is a unitary internal market. This historic outcome goes hand in hand to some extent with commonality of blood, but especially with commonality of language (you cannot do business without language!), customs and practices.
The classical economic environment gave rise, like modern capitalism, to a phenomenon of accumulation: one person has many slaves, the next has none; one person has lots of land, the other has hardly enough to break with his own hands. Concentration led to disaster and rendered slave labour, which replaced intensive parcelling out of land, uneconomical. It’s in this sense that Pliny wrote that latifundia Italiam perdidere (the landed estates destroyed Italy) and it was thus at the level of the superstructure of morals that the enslavement of man became infamous… The contemporary compilers of agrarian law have remained at this level in their understanding of technological and social development, and confuse slavery with the odious capitalist exploitation of agricultural labour. But let us return to the Middle Ages.
The whole mercantile network through which mobile wealth circulated in the empire collapsed along with the Roman property-owning economy, which had become technologically backward and unproductive. Needs of all kinds were less capable of being satisfied. But the barbarians arrived with their tradition of greater frugality; for them, after a brief interlude, during which they depleted the loot found in the cities that had by then sunk into decadence, the true wealth lay in the conquest of land. But it was too late; the social division of labour was already too far advanced to enable the land taken from the Romans, which consisted of small holdings or latifundia (landed estates), to be managed in common or even to be managed as a public domain of the new powers. A new type emerged, combining the allodia and the public domain. Part of the land would be enjoyed in common by the communities (common land rights, some of which have survived to the present day); part would be definitively divided up in the form of allodial rights (though quite precariously, with the influx of new conquerors); finally a third part would be redistributed periodically (even today, this system of redistributing land tenure survives, for example in the cadastral registers of the former Austrian provinces in Italy).
The Frankish peasants who had fallen upon this utterly desirable, fertile land and its favourable climate drew more benefit from it than was obtained by gangs of slaves. In this respect, they were part of a powerful rebirth of productive forces that arose from the coming together of all these idle arms and the rich land despised by the wealthy Romans, who had become like the mythical Croesus. But the entire trading network had been broken along with the Roman administrative network, with all its connections and transport systems, and they regressed to a type of local production with immediate consumption of goods.
This economy without trade characterised the Middle Ages. States possessed their own magistracies and territorial armies, but they did not establish a unitary territorial market, therefore they were not true nations.
If the ancient gens had already lost their social equality in the course of migrations and conquests, they should soon lose their freedom and autonomy of semi-communal, semi-allodial management of the land. The process of consolidation of landed property started again, to the profit of military chiefs, functionaries, royal courtiers and religious institutions.
The slaves of antiquity had been replaced by a new servile class that not only undertook manual labour on behalf of these new elites, and above all the extortion of free labourers. The working of the land in lots presumed social stability, and the centralised Roman State with its judges, agents and soldiers had created this stability, making it sacrosanct, but this had collapsed under the continuous invasions by new armed populaces, amplified by the struggles between chieftains and lords within the poorly centralised power structure.
The Frankish peasant needed security, the basic element of Roman law, today renewed and exalted as a reference model, more than he needed freedom. In ceding his liberty, he found security, that’s to say opportunities to cultivate the land for himself rather than for predators who would expropriate his harvest in its entirety, along with any stockpiles and implements.
Its form was commendation, in essence a pact between the peasant who worked the land and the military lord of the manor. The feudal lord guaranteed the stability of the land worked by the peasant, and the peasant committed to provide him with a part of his harvest or a part of his labour time (corvée or statute labour). But the guarantee of not being chased off his land became the obligation not to leave it. The slave who could be bought and sold ceased to exist, but so too did the free peasant. Instead, there was the serf.
22. The bases of modern revolution
Engels’ defence of the feudal form compared with slavery based on the latifundium is completely Marxist. This new form enabled, for example, the development in France, inhabited by semi-savage Celts, an exceptional increase in production and in the population that was not decreased, two centuries later, by periodic famines (a consequence of the abolition of trade between regions and provinces) nor by the Crusades (attempts to reopen the classical commercial trading routes).
The revolution accomplished by migratory barbarians, which accompanied the fall of the Roman Empire, thus translated into a development of social productive forces.
The destruction of generalised trade and national and imperial markets condemned this Europe, which the ancients had made fertile and colonised, and which was now settled by peoples who began to climb the ladder of technical and cultural development inherent in the organisation of a countryside occupied by stable populations, to a very long period of molecular economic life, scattered in minuscule hamlets; the class that formed the immense majority of the population, serfs attached to the land, was denied any horizons.
But, as Fourier noticed with his genial intuition, while the slave of antiquity had never experienced any really victorious struggles for liberation, the bases were now established for a distant but formidable revolutionary uprising of the peoples of Europe against the dominant classes and institutions of the feudal age.
While the modern urban proletariat was only just making its entrance onto the stage of history, the national demand was the most powerful catalyst of this immense revolution, capable of liberating the modern citizen from the chains of serfdom and raising him up to the level of citizen of antiquity. While it is true that the modern bourgeois revolution quite literally uses and abuses memories of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome’s glories, (as Baudelaire remarked, “qui nous délivrera des Grecs et des Romains ?”) it is also certain that this was a revolutionary ferment of gigantic force.
The national revolution is not our revolution; the national demand is not our demand, and for mankind, it does not represent the conquest of a permanent and irreversible advantage. But Marxism considers it with interest, and indeed with admiration and passion; when the course of history threatens it, Marxism is ready to enter into this struggle at the decisive time and place.
What we must study is the degree of development in historic cycles, identifying the correct times and places. If a thousand years have lapsed between the development of the primitive peoples on the Mediterranean and those of continental Europe, it is perfectly possible that the modern Western cycle will have closed whilst that of people of other races, in another cycle and another continent will remain open to revolutionary potential for a long time to come.
It is for this reason in particular that it is so important to shed light, in a Marxist and revolutionary sense, on the play of national factors.
The modern proletarian movement and struggles for the formation and emancipation of nations
23. Feudal obstacles to the birth of modern nations
1. The organisation of feudal society and the State, decentralised both horizontally and vertically, stood as an obstacle to the bourgeois push for the formation of the modern unitary nation. While each of the recognised “orders” had its own rights and in certain respects did not have social and familial relationships outside the order, almost forming autonomous nations in their own right, on the other hand the feudal districts had a closed economy, also with regard to human labour power, turning groups of serfs into a multiplicity of small enslaved nations.
To summarise our conclusion to Part 2 of this report on the disappearance of the nation of classical antiquity, which followed the fall of the Roman Empire, the barbarian invasions and the formation of medieval States, it is worth our while to list the feudal paraphernalia that inhibited the historical renaissance of the nation. The nation is a geographical network within which economic circulation is free, positive law is unitary and where, in general, there is a community of race and language. In classical antiquity, the nation excluded the mass of slaves, recognising only free citizens; in the modern bourgeois sense, the nation includes all who are born within it.
If we have found States that were not nations before the great historic Greco-Roman step forward, and if we find such States in the period before the end of classical antiquity and the beginnings of the bourgeois stage, we never find a nation without a State. This whole materialist review of the national phenomenon is entirely and consistently founded on the Marxist theory of the State, and this is precisely what separates us from the bourgeois view. The formation of nations is a historical fact every bit as real and physical as others, but when the unified nation is constituted with its State, it remains divided into social classes; the State is not, as the bourgeois would have it, the expression of the totality of the nation in the sense of an aggregate of individuals, or even of districts and municipalities, but rather the expression and instrument of the interests of the dominant economic class.
Two theses are therefore simultaneously true: first, national unity is a historical necessity and therefore a condition for the future advent of communism; second, the realisation of this unity (with a unique internal market, the abolition of feudal orders, equal positive law for all subjects and the centralised State) not only does not exclude, but raises to the highest degree the expression of working class struggle against the capitalist State and the international character of this struggle in the context of the developed social world.
The feudal economy was essentially based on land ownership. The order of the nobility divided possession of all the land, not just in a topographical sense, but also and especially in the sense of personal subjugation of groups of the peasant population. As a consequence of their privileges, the nobility formed, in one sense, a “nation”: they did not mix their blood with that of the serfs, artisans and bourgeois; they had their own law and judges who belonged to their own order. Their hereditary landed property was inalienable in its pure form, resulting from a title and investiture passed down from higher levels in the feudal hierarchy and, in the last instance from the king, within certain defined limits. The bearing of arms, under command, was the privilege of this order; if it was necessary to form mass armies, this would be with mercenary troops, more often than not recruited from abroad.
The serf class did not constitute a nation: not only did it have absolutely no representation or centralised expression, it also reproduced only within closed circles that did not communicate with one another. Legally it depended on the lord of the manor, and it was judged according to legal codes that varied from one region to another or quite simply according to the lord’s arbitrary will. The frontier of the State and the legal jurisdiction of the State had no meaning for the serf: in both cases, his world existed within the confines of the lord’s demesne lands or fief.
We must now turn to the ecclesiastical order, which at various stages was close to power, rather similar to the nobility. But it was not a nation and was not defined by a nation: on the one hand, because the celibacy of the priests meant it could have no genealogical continuity, on the other hand because its limits were extra-national. The Catholic Church, as its name implies, is international; or to be more precise, in its doctrine and in its organisation it is both inter-State and inter-racial. This particular superstructure was the product of an economy of separate, closed islands. The serf alone provided labour power and he consumed a part of it in the form of a fraction of the products of the land. His needs were so limited that he fashioned the manufactured goods that he needed himself, the division of labour being completely embryonic. The first artisans were barely tolerated (these famous artisans who, while the peasants lived in dispersed habitations, gathered in the village below the lord’s manor, and who became the terrible, insupportable bourgeois revolutionaries). The lord and his hired ruffians consumed the products that the peasants either brought to the manor or produced in the course of corvée work performed in the lord’s fields. It is clear that this ability to consume produce in abundance, enjoyed by only a tiny and extremely privileged minority, expanded their wants and little by little increased the demand for manufactured goods, even though it was still the case that princesses ate with their hands and only changed their blouses for special occasions.
From this stems the material opposition that would be the starting point of the immense struggle that would invoke the resounding words Fatherland, Liberty, Reason, Critique, Ideal – a struggle between the regional fragmentation that inhibited the circulation of people and things, and the demand for freedom of commerce first across the territory of the State, and then beyond. If this liberty allowed the lord to enjoy his wealth, it also accelerated the rise of the merchants and stimulated their boldness. One day, their money would purchase the sacred, ancestral feudal land… Those who deluded themselves into thinking they would gain a Fatherland, would instead obtain, within the confines of the State, a single currency, a stock exchange and a unified system of tax collection, conditions that would make possible the eruption of capitalist productive forces.
24. Feudal localism and universal church
2. In medieval society, the productive and economic base was not national, but infra-national as far as enterprises and the market are concerned. The linguistic, cultural, scholastic and ideological superstructure was also not national, as its centre was the Christian Church of Rome, with its universal dogma, rituals and organisation. But the power of the Church, far from being a medium for overcoming feudal particularism, strictly supported the interests and the organisation of the landed nobility.
The nations of classical antiquity had already achieved unity in personal and commercial law within their political frontiers, because as well as agrarian production, which was equally important at that time, there was the possibility to accumulate commodities and money thanks to the exploitation of slave labour and the glaring inequality that was not only permitted but also tolerated under Roman law with regard to the number of slaves that could be owned, and also with regard to the allodial possession of land by free citizens.
After the suppression of this type of slave-labour production, which we have explained in determinist terms, the path towards the general circulation of manufactured goods took another path, the bourgeois path; the production of these goods would develop at first on the basis of equality with agriculture, which it would then surpass on an enormous scale – and irrationally – in the capitalist epoch.
But with Rome the classical nation had become more than a nation. It was a political and territorial totality corresponding to a universal power organised across the entire non-barbarian world.
The fantastic accumulation of land and slaves in the hands of a few very powerful rich individuals, favoured by the centralisation of the State and its dictatorship over the provinces, had led to the inevitable crisis in this mode of production, which made it all the easier for the barbarian invaders to smash this immense unitary organisation to pieces.
In the Middle Ages however, this universality was maintained under a very different form, in the powerful organisation of the Christian Church of Rome. We will not occupy ourselves here with the great historical cycle of the Eastern Empire (this can be analysed using the same social criteria) which survived for centuries after that of the West. The Eastern Empire could stem the tide of Germanic invasions from the north-east but was unable to resist the Mongols arriving from the south-west. It succumbed in ways that were essentially similar and its unity, which in any case had become more and more symbolic, was also shattered.
In Western Europe, the pressing requirement for the development of general mercantile exchange, opposed to the characteristic territorial fragmentation of feudalism, expressed itself in the demand for a restoration of centralism, which had given the classical Roman world a power, wealth and wisdom that seemed to have been lost.
But the response to this demand could not be that of the Guelphs, who opposed the Germanic empires of the Middle Ages and their bellicose ruling class via the international influence of the Church, even if the confrontation of classes through which this opposition manifested itself in the first citadels of the new bourgeois class was real enough: the Italian communes governed by master-artisans, bankers and merchants who had connections across all of Europe.
In fact, the Church constituted, for all of the States arising from the dismemberment of the Empire (after the first centuries of resistance) a common superstructure that supported the power of the feudal barons and their monarchs. It is precisely because they were not national societies that the functions we are referring to transcended national boundaries. There were not yet national or “vernacular” languages spoken by “the people”. The language of the priests was everywhere Latin, while the great mass of serfs spoke dialects that could only be understood within a few dozen kilometres. This situation persisted so long as it was not permissible to travel in order to find work or money, but only to fight – an activity that requires little speech. But Latin was not merely the unique language of religious ritual, which would indeed amount to little; it was the sole vehicle of culture, practically the only language known everywhere by those who could read and write.
Latin, and it alone, was taught to members of the nobility. This meant that scholarship, entrusted to the Church, remained a supra-State structure, even as other classes started to be admitted, that’s to say not just the young lords and future priests or monks, but some sons of urban bourgeois, to the total exclusion of peasants scattered across the countryside (this phenomenon has still not changed in some wretched provinces of countries as distinguished as Italy and Yugoslavia!)
Not only did every aspect of high culture had to pass through this single sieve – the same subjects and texts were discussed in Bologna, Salamanca, Paris and London – the same was also true for practical culture; ultimately this produced all the bureaucratic, civil, legal and military strata, an entire cultured class that only had a very vague “national culture”; as for “national literature”, that would have to wait until after the year 1000 A.D. and beyond.
The bourgeois itself, as it first cut its teeth, paid tribute to this social connectivity, which was a superstructure of the dominant mode of production but also an indispensable instrument of labour: if the Florentine banker wanted to take care of some complex business affairs with Antwerp or Rotterdam, he did this through the medium of commercial correspondence in Latin (even if it was a kind of Latin that would have made Caesar and Cicero turn in their graves; but after all, the same applied to the Latin Mass.)
Despite the grandeur of this construction, which went resolutely beyond differences of blood, race and language – and without any half-measures – the ideological edifice of Catholicism historically adhered to the defence and preservation of the feudal system of serfdom. The collaboration started at the grass roots, between the priest and the local squire, who shared the tithes and tributes of the exploited peasant, whose subjugation was narrowly conditioned by his ties to the land and the fiefdom where he was born. Then again, the monastic communities and the great religious orders acquired – not without struggles against the baronial lords – vast proprieties on which the relations of production were totally identical to those of the fiefs: like the feudal lords, they insisted that possession of soil, body and spirit is inalienably linked to title, whether this be aristocratic or, in their case, tied to the ecclesiastical hierarchy.
25. Universalism and political centralism
3. In Italy, the first struggles of the bourgeoisie, organised within small communal republics, but still incapable of raising itself to a vision of inter-regional economic organisation, found support in the Papacy through the Guelph faction. Anticipating modern power structures, Dante invoked bourgeois monarchy as the first historically possible form of centralised State, though in his Ghibelline universalism, which theorised a central European power, he was not explicitly anticipating the demand for a nation-State.
When Dante, who came from a Guelph family, wrote his treatise De Monarchia, he embraced Ghibelline views. The demand for a unitary, centralising power is fundamental to the historic theory that Dante developed, together with his aversion towards the sterile quarrels between families in the towns and baronies. The new demand for universalism rests on the formidable tradition of the Roman Empire; it avoids and fights against the universalism of the Church of Rome. This is why Dante deplores the power and political leadership of the Papacy, and sees in the Holy Roman Emperor of the Germans a great monarch who could unify a State centralising all of Europe: first Germany and Italy, then France and the rest.
Must we regard Dante’s political doctrine as specific to the Middle Ages, since it does not include the essential bourgeois political demand for the separation of nationalities ? Or should we regard it as anticipating the modern bourgeois epoch ? Evidently, the second hypothesis is the correct one. The institution of absolute monarchy arose in the Middle Ages as the only possible form of centralised State, opposing the federalism of the barons and their pretensions to self-government at the periphery. On the side of the latter was the obscurantism of the clergy and Rome; on the side of the former the first courts, a shining example of which was that of Frederick II of Swabia at Palermo, very close to the Dante’s heart, which opened the way to new productive forces, to trade, and consequently to the encouragement of the arts and the exchange of ideas outside the scholastic dictatorship. This Swabian Emperor was certainly not a national king, but his reputation as atheist, scientist and artist is not pure legend. He was without doubt the founder of the first industries and manufactories, and the precursor of social forms that were incompatible with the retrograde ignorance of the aristocracy, whose knowledge was limited to the bearing of arms. The first form that capitalism took in opposing the old agrarian regime was monarchy, centralised in a great capital, where artisans, artists and scientists opened up new horizons to material life.
The Latin treatise De Monarchia is an early ideological manifestation of this modern demand, and in this sense it is revolutionary, anti-feudal and anti-Guelph; future anticlericalism would furthermore draw extensively on the Divine Comedy’s invectives against the Papacy. If the national demand, in its true sense, is not made explicit by Dante, who disdains the petty bourgeoisie and envisages Italy as being politically united, but as a province of the Germanic empire, this is because in Italy the modern bourgeoisie was born earlier than elsewhere, with a local and communal character. This in no way diminishes the importance of the first great manifestation of the living forces of the future; but it was destined to wither away, for reasons relating to the changes in geographical trading routes, before rising up again in the vision of a powerful unitary capitalist State with national frontiers. Nor does it detract from the fact that, in this country, which would be one of the last in Europe to raise its claim to nationality in modern history, this same Dante used the Italian vernacular language in his literature, and gave a decisive impulse to the diffusion of the Tuscan dialect as against one hundred dialects influenced by their distant origins, from the Lombard to the Saracen.
26. The revolutionary demands of national bourgeoisies
4. In the Marxist analysis of history, every transition from one mode of production to another sees two protagonists: on the one side, the dominant class, which ferociously defends its economic privileges, employing the apparatus of power and the influence of its traditional ideologies; and on the other side, the revolutionary class that struggles against these interests, institutions and ideologies, agitating at the heart of the old society, in a more or less decisive and complete manner, with new ideologies that embody the consciousness of its own achievements and future social mode of production. The modern bourgeoisies develop, in the different nations of Europe, particularly interesting and striking systems, which are true weapons of struggle, all of which revolve around the great demand for unity and national independence.
According to the text books, the modern age begins, and the Middle Ages end, for some in 1492, for others in 1305. The first date refers to the discovery of America and is significant in the history of the bourgeoisie – which Marxism has tracked in the truly epic synthesis of The Manifesto and in subsequent classical descriptive texts – because it signalled the opening of passages beyond the ocean, establishing the framework for a world market, and awakened powerful forces of attraction in the demand for manufactured products, which was always rising, pushing the advanced white race to engage in the war of “overproduction”. In parallel with this grandiose turn of events, we witness a displacement of the cradle of nascent industrialisation from central and northern Italy to the heart of Atlantic-facing Europe, beyond the Mediterranean, where it would make its imperious progress.
But 1305 was the year that Dante wrote The Divine Comedy: at this time the demands of the anti-feudal and anti-ecclesiastical revolution had already been presented in Italy, albeit within a more limited geographical area. The forms of organisation of the Germanic peoples met with greater resistance within the Italian peninsular, because the Roman tradition was particularly well developed there, and the feudal regime never fully developed, despite the influx of new barbarian blood.
The advantages of its location in the middle of navigable seas remained unchanged; commerce and exchange quickly resumed, and the division of labour developed on new foundations. The system of the medieval communes (free cities) broke down, giving way to small baronies and hereditary autocratic monarchs: but serfdom receded, and peasants and independent artisans continued to account for a significant proportion of the population. For these specific reasons, the bourgeoisie did not raise itself to the level of a national class; it could only do this several centuries later, but this time on a much vaster scale. Adjourned in Italy, the capitalist revolution suffered a long delay, but in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries it would gain England, France and then central Europe.
Thus the attempt by a new mode of production to install itself within a restricted area can fail and the defeat can force it to wait entire generations. But with its historic return, this mode of production will impose itself much more extensively. We can therefore understand that the communist revolution, crushed in France in 1871, had to wait until 1917 to attempt the conquest not just of France, but of the whole of Europe; and that, though it is today defeated and drained of energy, just like the narrow bourgeois revolution of the Italian municipalities was in its time, one day it will be able, after a period of several generations, revive again and not just in the areas occupied and controlled by the white race, but on a global scale.
Between the 12th and 15th centuries the demands for legal equality, political liberty, parliamentary democracy, the republic etc. might have seemed to be an illusion swept away by history, although the force of these demands could only grow as they waited to make their impressive historical claim on the European stage, something we today take for granted. Likewise, in the current epoch, the claims of the modern proletariat to the violent overthrow of the democratic capitalist State, the dictatorship of the working class, the destruction of wage labour and the moneyed economy may also seem forgotten and dormant.
Throughout this period, bourgeois classes and groups, whose influence grew with the changes brought about by productive forces and technologies and the impetuous growth of commercial exchange, never stopped putting forward new demands and struggling for them, until finally they succeeded in formulating the global demand for the end of feudalism and the seizure of power.
The artisan and merchant refused to see themselves as serfs, the subjects of a local squire. Despite the initial risks involved, they moved from district to district, travelling across the entire territory of the State, wherever their work called them, even if it was still easy for the nobles to persecute them and strip them of all they had accumulated little by little, as this formed a considerable mass of wealth in the hands of people outside the traditional orders and hierarchies. These pioneers of a new way of life demanded the right to be citizens of the State and not the subjects of a noble; they finally declared themselves subjects of the king, even if this was an absolute monarch. The monarch and the dynasty are the first expression of a central power exercised on the entire people and nation. The relationship between the State and its subjects, the lynchpin of bourgeois law, tended to establish itself directly, without being mediated by fragmentary feudal hierarchies.
To understand this transition at the level of the economic base, we will refer to a film based on Florentine folklore, entitled Il re d’Inghilterra non paga (“The King of England does not pay”, 1941). The large bank of the Bardi family, bourgeois Florentines, has advanced a colossal sum of money in gold florins to fill the king’s war chest, but the king, having lost the war, does not pay interest on the loan and does not pay back the capital: the bank goes bankrupt and the Florentine economy suffers grave repercussions. The old banker dies of grief, having been unable to find a single court or tribunal before which he could bring the brazenly defaulting debtor. Under the bourgeois system, he would have been able to cite the King of England before English magistrates, and force him to pay.
Regarding the demand for equality before the law, we can also mention a play by Lope de Vega (El mejor alcalde el rey) from 1635, in which the king makes a better impression, but where the claim is still bourgeois. In a provincial village, a local tyrant kidnaps a young woman. The father, ridiculed by the seducer, travels to Madrid to address the king. The latter follows him back to the village incognito, with a weak escort and unarmed; he sits in judgment, severely condemns the lord whom he subpoenas to appear and to free the young woman with due compensation. The idea that every citizen can get justice from the king against the abuse of local power expresses the bourgeois demand for centralism.
We also know the famous legend of the miller of Sanssouci, according to which Frederick the Great wanted to expropriate the mill in order to enlarge the park at his castle of delights. The miller refused and left his audience with the King, shouting “There are judges in Berlin!” A judge can condemn the king in the name of the king: this seems to be a masterpiece of style in bourgeois legal theory; but soon the bourgeoisie itself, pushed by its revolutionary needs, would be more resolute and would condemn the king to have his head cut off.
To the extent that the importance of commerce and manufactured goods increased in relation to that of rural agriculture in the old States governed by the landed aristocracy (France and England are the classic examples), and great banks appeared along with public debt, protectionism, a unitary and centralised fiscal system, so the bourgeoisies demand ever-increasing powers for the king, that is to say, for the central administration. In the ideological superstructure and in the cultural and political agitation in favour of these new demands, all of these unitary systems were described and exalted as being the expression not of a dynasty ruling by divine right and consecrated by religious power, but rather the expression of the people as a whole, all citizens, in a word, the nation. Patriotism, this ideal which had been eclipsed with the passing of classical antiquity, once again became the subject of civic enthusiasm; born of necessity, out of the demands of salesmen and manufacturers, it soon enflamed intellectuals, writers and philosophers, who constructed a marvellous architecture of supreme principles and literary decoration on top of this ferment of new productive forces.
27. The iridescent superstructures of the capitalist revolution
5. Just as the conditions of the modern proletariat’s revolutionary struggle appeared with the fully developed expansion of the capitalist mode of production, so too the doctrine and programme of the international communist revolution was built on its fully developed critique of bourgeois ideologies. The latter took on different characteristics in different countries, due to the very fact that every bourgeois revolution is a national revolution and is distinguished by its particular way of building what Marx calls “the conscience that each epoch has of itself”.
In Italy, as we have just shown, the economic content of the bourgeois form appeared precociously, but was insufficient to assume control of society; the political content, which is historically of the first importance, was limited to control of small artisanal, commercial or maritime republican free cities. These forms would not succeed in progressing to the establishment of a nationally constituted power. But, whilst this first bourgeois society would be reabsorbed by European feudal society, despite its military victories against the Holy Roman Empire, its effects at the ideological level and above all the artistic “superstructure” would make itself felt in the course of the centuries to follow. The citizens of the first republics reclaimed with their liberties the political forms and the classical institutions of Roman civilisation; this was reflected less in the organisation of the States and nations than in the blossoming of new technology and the splendours of the art of the Renaissance, which rediscovered the classical ideals and gave them a new life.
At the same time, with the discovery and renewed study of the classical texts, which provided material that was revived and made relevant by the social demands of the time, literature and science opposed the conformist domination of Catholic and scholastic culture. This immense movement is thus the product of a particular development of the clash and transition between two modes of production: it is the light emitted by a new society exploding at the heart of the old, shaking its last defences with an earthquake of historic magnitude, without being able to break them. This is what it is! We could develop and express this better than we do here, but it is not the result of some strange congress of exceptional spermatozoa in alcoves that simultaneously gave birth to a whole host of architects, painters, sculptors, musicians, philosophers, scientists etc, every one of them of the first order.
And despite the situation of political and social servitude, these artists, these poets and ideologues did not fail to emphasise the idea of the Fatherland and their Italian nationality in their greatest masterpieces, which later imitators, in truth often really mediocre, took up again at every possible opportunity and repeated ad nauseam.
In Germany, where the nation’s childbirth was preceded by a series of miscarriages that Marx and Engels often cursed, another grandiose phenomenon occurred, the Reformation, which moreover spread across all Europe, with varying results.
The struggle of the new social strata against the old domination of the feudal princes supported by the Church was unable to materialise in political outcomes. However it was not limited, in the course of this first period, to a critique of artistic and philosophical schools, but developed within the ecclesiastical organisation itself, bearing down on the terrain of religious dogmas. Here we see the fragmentation of the universal Church into diverse national churches which backed away from Rome’s authority, not simply by more or less modifying mystic doctrine, but in particular by breaking their ties with the hierarchy of the church and substituting new national hierarchies. If the national language is one of the main themes of the bourgeois national State’s appearance in history, another aspect, no less important, is religion. The German manifestation was most awe-inspiring with respect to religion and the creation of a national church. The underlying cause was the turbulent appearance of new classes: the bourgeois and the master-craftsmen of German cities, along with the serfs in the countryside, saw in Luther a man who would guide them in their struggle against the princes, the bulwarks of feudal and agrarian organisation. But Luther, not content to disavow Münzer, who led the glorious but defeated insurrection of the peasants against the petty princes, would not even lead the latter to victory against the great princes.
Thus the limits and constraints of medieval society were not broken in Italy except in the field of literature, and in Germany only in the field of religion; these expressions of revolution were immature in the first instance, and crushed in the second. England, by contrast, was history’s first example of a revolution that attacked the entire social economy to its very core. In this country where, for climatic and geographic reasons, agricultural production could not support a large population, intense manufacturing and industrial production, hitherto unknown in other countries, developed in a dominant fashion. The farmers themselves accumulated important financial capital, while an ever-increasing mass of peasants saw themselves robbed of their land and proletarianised: all the conditions of capitalist production came together with more intensity than elsewhere, with the manufacturing bourgeoisie assuming great significance. The nobility and the ruling dynasty were defeated and despite the short duration of the revolutionary republic and (posthumous) execution of Cromwell, the bourgeoisie soon took power with a new revolution and continues to rule today through the same political form, parliamentary monarchy.
Unquestionably, geographical, no less than productive conditions gave the United Kingdom a very well-defined national character, since its borders are on all sides the sea. But Engels rightly pointed out in criticising the Erfurt programme (where he proposed the demand for a single and indivisible republic for Germany, at the time divided into minuscule federated States) that the two British Isles included at least three nationalities, with differences of language as well as race and even religion. Eventually the Irish, of Celtic race and Catholic religion, and speaking Gaelic, a language that had almost disappeared at the time, would detach themselves; and the Scots, who still feel very different today from the English, not to mention other racial traditions, such as the Welsh, and all the effects of later invasions and migrations as different as the Romans, Saxons and Normans. The United Kingdom thus represents a mix of races, traditions, dialects and languages (including literary), of religions and churches, but also the first manifestation of this historical fact of the national unitary State, which corresponds with the full arrival of the capitalist social mode of production.
Finally, in France the bones of the national State were formed in the course of civil war between social classes. The geographical boundaries were already well defined, apart from the historic oscillation of the Rhine frontier, by seas and mountain ranges. A rapid process led to the formation of a unique national language and a literature that strictly adhered to it, absorbing the dialects of the Middle Ages while eliminating their differences. Furthermore, the same goes for ethnological differences, which however were not negligible. We should not forget that this nation par excellence takes its name from the Franks, a Germanic people who arrived from the East, who drove out or subjugated the native Gauls, or Celts. Thus two peoples, of non-Latin origin, which did not prevent the French language growing from Latin roots.
The demand for national unity was therefore not territorial, but social: the bourgeoisie succeeded very quickly in becoming the Third Order, recognised and represented in the Estates General, the consultative assembly supporting royal power. When this no longer sufficed, the struggle became directly political. In France there had been no industrial development comparable to that of England, and this was reflected in particular in the difference between the two schools of economics: the English immediately gave us the theory and advocacy of capitalist production, whereas the French transitioned form the agrarian school of the physiocrats to that of the mercantilists, who situated value not in productive labour but rather in the trading of products.
Politically, there was no hesitation: directly aspiring to power, the French bourgeoisie fashioned its doctrine of the State: sovereignty deriving not from heredity and divine right but by consulting the opinion of citizens, the fall of dogma and triumph of reason, destruction of the orders and the corporations, elective democracy, parliament and republic. The crucible of history cast this other exquisite national form of bourgeois power in a single block.
Thus in the transition from the feudal mode of production to the modern, the fundamental economic base was the contradiction between productive forces and the old relations of production, and the political, legal and ideological superstructures emerged out of this renewal of the economic base.
But this process cannot be reduced to a little pharmacist’s formula. The bourgeoisie did not make a world revolution but rather an assortment of national revolutions, and it cannot be said that we have seen them all.
The preceding quick and highly summarised synthesis allows us to formulate the following sequence of fundamental geographical “areas” and “historical periods” in bourgeois revolutions, with a view to correctly leading the study of the proletarian revolution, which does not differ according to national colours, but whose rich dynamic nevertheless engraves itself within precise limits of time and space: Italy: art; Germany: religion: England, economic science; France: politics. The entire superstructure of the capitalist productive base.
The bourgeoisie’s deeds in history are, as is obvious, at the same time economic, political, artistic and religious. But the richness of its journey cannot be better summed up than with the words of the Manifesto:“Each step in the development of the bourgeoisie was accompanied by a corresponding political advance of that class. An oppressed class under the sway of the feudal nobility, an armed and self-governing association in the medieval municipality: here independent urban republic (as in Italy and Germany); there taxable “third estate” of the monarchy (as in France); afterwards, in the period of manufacturing proper, serving either the semi-feudal or the absolute monarchy as a counterpoise against the nobility, and, in fact, cornerstone of the great monarchies in general, the bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of Modern Industry and of the world market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative State, exclusive political sway. The executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.
“The bourgeoisie finds itself involved in a constant battle. At first with the aristocracy; later on, with those portions of the bourgeoisie itself, whose interests have become antagonistic to the progress of industry; at all times with the bourgeoisie of foreign countries”.
28. The proletariat makes its entry onto the stage of history
6. The new class of wage labourers emerged and took shape with capitalist manufacturing and industry. There was a historic coincidence between the formation of this class in large masses and the great effort of the bourgeoisie to take political power and organise itself into nations. After a first chaotic phase of reaction to mechanisation in a feudal and medieval direction, the proletarian masses found their path in the wake of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, and it was at the national level that the proletariat attained its cohesion as a class, though not yet its autonomy as a class.
The history of modern times is full of these struggles, against a too decentralised nobility and a too universal church, to found modern nations through the bourgeoisie’s victory and full accession to power. In the Marxist analysis, the class content, and especially the overthrow of the old mode of production, is clearly the same for all the national bourgeoisies; however, it is no less clear that each of the bourgeois revolutions, in so far as they were national revolutions, had its own originality and particular profile, whose significance goes beyond the simple difference of time and geographical location. And this helps, in full accord with the necessary progress of capitalist development, to explain why the nations thus established were, for class reasons, solid in their struggle against the ancien regime yet fought against one another relentlessly as nations and as States.
At the same time that the new dominant class, the bourgeois Third Estate, appeared in the first decades of the 18th century, so too (and even earlier) did the new fundamental social element: the working class. The struggles for the conquest of power against feudalism and its ally, the clergy, and for the establishment of national unity, were in full swing: the workers of the town and country played a full part, even when they started to have class organisations and actual political parties whose programmes announced the overthrow of bourgeois domination.
From its first appearance, the socialist and communist movement did not ignore the great complexity of this process; it critically analysed it and moreover laid down the conditions, the times and places in which proletarians would give their total support to revolutionary bourgeois movements and to national insurrections and wars.
In order to be perfectly clear, and to dispel the surprised reactions from those who are obviously hearing these things for the first time, we do well to refer to the Manifesto:
“The proletariat goes through various stages of development. With its birth begins its struggle with the bourgeoisie”. And Marx recalls here the first “reactionary” forms of struggle: burning down factories, sabotage of machines and foreign goods, the demand for a return to the way of life of medieval artisans that had already disappeared.
This first transition in itself is enough to ridicule simplistic and ahistorical recipes such as: there are two classes, bourgeoisie and proletariat, and the latter only has to struggle against the former, and that’s all there is to it. But let us continue:
“At this stage, the labourers still form an incoherent mass scattered over the whole country, and broken up by their mutual competition. If anywhere they unite to form more compact bodies, this is not yet the consequence of their own active union, but of the union of the bourgeoisie, which class, in order to attain its own political ends, is compelled to set the whole proletariat in motion, and is moreover yet, for a time, able to do so. At this stage, therefore, the proletarians do not fight their enemies [i.e. the bourgeoisie], but the enemies of their enemies, the remnants of absolute monarchy, the landowners, the non-industrial bourgeois, the petty bourgeois. Thus, the whole historical movement is concentrated in the hands of the bourgeoisie; every victory so obtained is a victory for the bourgeoisie”.
Let us return to the passage on the unceasing struggles of the bourgeoisie, as well as those between different national bourgeoisies. It continues thus:
“In all these battles, [the bourgeoisie] sees itself compelled to appeal to the proletariat, to ask for help, and thus, to drag it into the political arena. The bourgeoisie itself, therefore, supplies the proletariat with its own elements of political and general education [i.e. training in struggle], in other words, it furnishes the proletariat with weapons for fighting the bourgeoisie”.
But for the proletarian there are new living conditions: “… modern subjection to capital, the same in England as in France, in America as in Germany, has stripped him of every trace of national character”.
This last phase precedes the celebrated passage in the second chapter, which has always been taken out of context and exploited by opportunists down the ages (and today by the most stupid of all, those who hold up the government of Tito as a model). It corresponds to the correct historical thesis that has guided us in all our current work on the national question: the bourgeoisie is everywhere national in character, and its programme is aimed at giving society a national character. Its struggle is national, and to lead this struggle it forms a union which extends to the proletariat itself, insofar as it uses the proletariat as an ally. The bourgeoisie begins its political struggle by establishing itself, in each modern State, as a revolutionary national class. However the proletariat is not national in character, but international.
This does not translate into the hypothesis that the proletariat does not participate in national struggles, but rather into this other one: the revolutionary programme of the bourgeoisie includes the national demand; its victory destroys the non-national character of medieval society. The programme that the proletariat will achieve with its revolution and through the conquest of political power does not include the national demand, which it opposes with that of internationalism. The expression bourgeois nation has a specifically Marxist sense and, during a specific historical phase, it is a revolutionary demand. The expression nation “in general” has an idealist and anti-Marxist sense. The expression proletarian nation makes no sense whatsoever, neither Marxist nor idealist.
This puts back in context everything that relates both to the theory of history and to the programmatic content of each of the revolutionary classes that struggle in it.
29. Proletarian struggle and the national arena
7. Polemical deformations, old and new, have brought about a confusion between the programmatic internationalist position of the communist proletariat and the formally national nature of some of the first stages of its struggle. Historically, the proletariat only became a class and only came to have a political party within the national framework; likewise, it engaged in the struggle for power in a national form, to the extent that it tended to fight the State of its own bourgeoisie. Even after the proletariat has conquered power, this power may, for a certain amount of time, remain limited to the national arena. But none of this detracts from the essential historical opposition between the bourgeoisie, which aims to set up bourgeois nations, presenting them as nations “in general”, and the proletariat which, before it creates an international society, negates the nation “in general” and patriotic solidarity, while fully understanding that the demand for national unity makes sense up to a certain stage, but always as a bourgeois demand.
The phases marking the transition from the bourgeois struggle to that of the proletariat are summarised in the passage in the second chapter of the Manifesto that we just referred to:
“Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political power, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself as a nation, it is itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word”.
This passage and others are affected in all translations by incorrect gradualism in the deployment of the terms political organisation, political force, political domination, political power, and finally dictatorship. This passage follows on from another, no less famous one in the series of responses given to bourgeois objections in the chapter, “Proletarians and Communists”:
“The Communists are further reproached with desiring to abolish countries and nationality. The working men have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got”.
After such a radical affirmation of principle, there was no question of adding: the workers have no nationality. It is a fact that workers are French, Italian, German or whatever, not just by their race and their language (we know there’s a lot we could repeat about these two factors) but by their physical belonging to one of the territories governed by the bourgeois national State, which significantly influences the vicissitudes of their class struggle, and even the international struggle. So much is crystal clear.
But to detach one or two phrases to make it look like Marx was saying that the workers’ programme, after the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, was to found separate proletarian nations, presenting this as an essential aspect of their revolution, is not only a falsification, but again imposes on the proletariat, which is today fully developed, the bourgeoisie’s own programme to keep it under its domination.
This becomes even more clear if you recall the logical and historical order of the preceding chapter of the Manifesto, “Bourgeois and Proletarians” before the passage where it states that the proletariat does not have a national character.
We have recalled the description of the first stage of the proletariat’s struggle, in which it attacked industrial machines, then the later stage, where it achieved a first kind of union in the wake of the bourgeoisie in struggle: it thus established, in fact, a national union of workers, for bourgeois ends.
Then comes the description of the clash between workers and bourgeois at the level of the enterprise and the locality. A great step forward is accomplished when local struggles are centralised as a national struggle, a class struggle.
What we must see here is not a stupid isolation within the framework of a proletarian nation but on the contrary the radical overcoming of localist and autonomist federalism which Marxism has always combated in the reactionary Proudhonists and in all the similar schools of thought that followed. The struggle that takes place within the confines of John O’Groats – or even Glasgow – is not a class struggle. From the moment that the bourgeoisie has triumphed in its demand for national unity, our class struggle appears for the first time when it extends to the entire physical territory of the nation. And here are the other essential words: “But every class struggle is a political struggle!” Marxism throws this thesis in the face of federalists and economistic thinkers of every stripe: every economic movement is a social and political movement! If we are no longer dealing with the little decentralised powers of the nobility, but rather with the one that the bourgeoisie has achieved with its centralised national State, we arrive at the political struggle whenever we have a unified action by proletarians at the national level. Thus in Europe and in France, when proletarians were not yet in struggle, not even as shock troops of the bourgeoisie, even though in England full industrial capitalism already set them in opposition to the bosses’ class and the British State.
We are not within the domain of the proletarian struggle’s programmatic content: we are just describing the successive stages, first in the sense of time and second in the sense of space, that’s to say the internal boundaries within which the classes struggle and confront one another (the word stage originally signified a measure of space or distance, not of time). But in its long struggle the bourgeoisie regrouped the small feudal circles into a single national stage, which became the inevitable arena for class struggle.
The following passage from the Manifesto spells it out: “Though not in substance (in the content, for other translators), yet in form, the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle”. Why, you may wonder, “The proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all get rid of its own bourgeoisie”.
From now on, the different
stages or successive phases of the struggle are perfectly clear:
– The struggle of the worker against his enterprise in a rudimentary, local fashion.
– The national political struggle of the bourgeoisie and its victory, with the help of the workers, at the national level.
– Workers’ struggles against the bourgeois at the level of locality and corporate enterprise.
– Unified struggle of the proletariat of a given national stage against the dominant bourgeoisie, which signifies the formation of the proletariat into a national class and a political party.
– Destruction of bourgeois domination.
– Conquest of political power by the proletariat.
– From here onwards, and from the contingent and formal legal-constitutional perspective, the proletariat must establish itself in a class State (dictatorship), all transitory in nature.
But it does not follow that the proletariat, which did not have a national character, definitively acquires this character, as had been the case for the bourgeoisie. The character and programme of the proletariat and of its revolution remain fully international, and the proletariat that is the first to “free itself of its own bourgeoisie” does not confront other countries where this has not taken place, but rather confronts foreign bourgeoisies by joining in common struggle with the proletarians of other nations.
Once again, we conclude: in given historical phases, the proletarian movement struggles for the constitution of nations, that’s to say, it supports the constitution of bourgeois nations. In this phase, as in the one that follows, in which class alliances are no longer on the agenda, Marxism openly defines the national demand as a bourgeois demand.
30. Proletarian strategy in the Europe of 1848
8. Neither an exposition of doctrine nor a description of the historical process, but rather the political strategy of the recently founded Communist Party, the Manifesto prescribed that in the countries under the subjugation of the reactionary Holy Alliance, the proletariat should give its insurrectionary support to the bourgeois parties that struggled against the feudal absolutism and oppression of nationalities, and that in the event of the bourgeoisie’s victory, it should immediately break its alliance and go over to the workers’ revolution.
We prefer to talk about strategy rather than tactics, since the white-hot historical period in which the Manifesto was published did not involve local, circumstantial solutions that were susceptible to variations from one place to another and would allow subsequent modifications and alternative decisions. Just as in an army the commander must judge if a given company has the strength to attack, or rather should hold its position, or again beat the retreat, for Marxism tactical considerations consist, for example, in deciding the best moment to trigger a local strike, or to give an armed proletarian group from a city district or village the signal to enter the struggle. Strategy is concerned with general directives for a military campaign or revolution: there are either favourable conditions allowing you to apply it, or else there aren’t, in which case it is useless and even disastrous to change or reverse the strategy in the course of action.
Without strategy there is no revolutionary party. For decades and decades, the commentators on the Manifesto and our movement’s other fundamental texts have invested a great deal of effort in excusing the strategic errors that Marx supposedly committed in his projection of future action by the communists. In reality, this exceptional text does not just outline, with incredible conciseness, the theory of the modern historical process and the general programme for the society that will follow capitalism; it also gives precise directions as to the moments and likely rhythms of class struggles and conflicts in different areas.
It was impossible to ignore the overview of the totality of European social and political forces: the dominant trait of this historic period was precisely that, at the moment when the process of forming nations was in full swing, amid the lyrical exaltations of bourgeois ideology, the movement in Paris immediately impacted on that of Vienna, the movement in Warsaw on that of Milan etc., despite the highly variable degrees of resistance that the dying pre-bourgeois regimes presented in different regions of Europe. In this heated atmosphere, everything suggested that now was the ultimate and decisive attack that would destroy the monarchical and imperial fortresses of the ancien regime and remove every last brake on the spread of capitalism.
But the extraordinary power of this text, which is our founding proclamation, is in maintaining that even though the struggle for democratic and national liberty against the last vestiges of serfdom and medieval obscurantism was in the foreground, for more about a decade the fabric of the new capitalist economy had been transformed by the clash of productive forces against the relations of production, which were no longer those of the landed feudalism but those of wage labour and industrial and agrarian commercialism.
The false revolutionaries, who even today celebrate increased rhythms of production and who join in the choir encouraging capital to invest and produce more and more, should remember the terrible phrase which, from 1848, announced that the bourgeoisie would succumb because society possesses “too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce”.
The central thesis of the Manifesto is thus not that in its current phase, Europe was going to become communist, but that every period of violent change can result in a rupture in the relations of production, and that it is therefore evident from this time hence that the capitalist type of relations were not creating an equilibrium but ever more violent convulsions in the productive forces that were shackled by the manacles of capitalist relations of production. A century later, the volume of these forces in the monstrous belly of global capital had increased significantly, but so too had the thickness of the armour plating that covered it. Unable to raise himself to the dialectics of the confrontation between scientific forecast and scientific fact, never having learned the lesson that hindsight is useless when you’re dead, and adoring those who speak “common sense”, the petty bourgeois can only tremble in awe when he hears that we were closer to proletarian revolution in 1848 than in 1948, just as he would not understand that his university degree has brought him a step closer to cretinism than his elementary school certificate.
The European strategy of 1848 therefore sees the working class grappling with two colossal tasks: first, helping to achieve the formation of independent bourgeois States, and second, trying to overthrow the bourgeoisie, in States where it already wields political power as well as those where it does not.
With its highs and lows, and with the confrontation of opposing material forces, history has prolonged the delays in this process, but has not shattered the strategic cornerstone of 1848: you cannot win the second point if you have not won the first; in other words, if you have not yet overcome the last obstacles that prevent the organisation of society into national States.
The main obstacle, in place since 1815, was raised after the fall of Napoleon: the Holy Alliance between Austria, Prussia and Russia. The position of the Manifesto was that there would be no social republic in Europe so long as there was a Holy Alliance. It was therefore essential to struggle, alongside the democratic revolutionaries of the time, against the yoke on the peoples of central Europe; but it would at the same time be necessary to unmask these democrats to the proletarians, already preparing for the time when, once the bourgeois national liberation was assured, the crisis of the bourgeois mode of production would manifest itself more profoundly than ever, with the historic clashes and explosions that this would necessarily provoke in place of the idyllic equality of citizens within the State and between the nations of the world.
So long as you are just a little less narrow-minded and stupid than a professional politician, who confuses the course of history with the expiry of his electoral mandate, you will see that the gigantic vision of the Manifesto has been fully confirmed by history, even if the Holy Alliance was a hard nut to crack, and even if the ever more infamous civilisation of capitalism which triumphed over it is even harder to break.
Dealing with strategy, the fourth chapter of the Manifesto reviews, as is well known, the tasks of the communist party in different States. A brief mention is sufficient to establish that in the USA, England and France, i.e. in those countries where the capitalist system had taken root, communists only have relations with workers’ parties, which they nevertheless criticise for harbouring demagogic illusions or for their theoretical deficiencies. Next come the instructions (to which we will return in detail in the final part of this analysis) concerning Poland and Germany, which were subject nations under the Holy Alliance. Here, communists should support the parties of the bourgeoisie: in Poland, the parties working for the emancipation of the serfs and national liberation, in Germany, bourgeois parties on condition that they struggle against the monarchy, the aristocracy and (we are reminded of modern traitors) the petty bourgeoisie. We also know, and this is confirmed by other texts, that this proposal for joint action, weapons in hand, is inseparable from a merciless and ceaseless critique of bourgeois principles and capitalist social relations, from the perspective of the bourgeois revolution as the immediate prelude to the proletarian revolution. History has not contradicted this schema, but left it aside: in 1848, as we have often said, both failed.
31. Revolutionary downturn and the workers’ movement
9. The struggles of 1848 did not culminate in the overall victory of the European bourgeoisie against the forces of absolutist reaction, and therefore still less to the victory of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie, despite a unique attempt in France. During the unfavourable period that followed, and which lasted until 1866, the central themes of the Marxist position were on the one hand a merciless critique of the liberal, democratic and humanitarian bourgeoisie, and on the other hand support where it was needed for the unity and independence of nationalities, led in the form of insurrections and wars between States (Poland, Germany, Italy, Ireland etc.)
When Marx and Engels drew up their balance sheet on this troubled period after the battles of 1848-49 (which had seemed so promising, and which has retained its colour more than the later years of fire and anguish that Europe and the world experienced during the rest of this terrible century) they were confident that the revolutionary phase would return, but only some time later. Theory, then organisation, must be put in order before action leading to a general victory could be contemplated. There was time enough to do this.
In Germany and throughout Central Europe and Italy the outcome of the struggle was the same: the liberal bourgeois revolutionary insurgents were defeated everywhere, and with them the workers who had fought on the barricades in an alliance, sharing the total weight of the debacle; therefore, the situation was not even open to a further power struggle between the bourgeois and workers. It was not the communist revolution that was defeated, but the liberal revolution; workers everywhere had struggled to try to save it from disaster, as was theoretically expected and politically stated in the Manifesto.
England and France were the exceptions to this historical rule. In the first, feudal reaction had been politically incapacitated for more than a century, and the first confrontations between proletariat and bourgeoisie had already taken place. These had, for example in Chartism, already taken a first political form, although with vague and cumbersome programmes based on democratic ideologies; the bourgeoisie did not hesitate to resort to the most violent repression, while being forced to make a few legislative concessions of a reformist nature, moderating the inhuman exploitation that the factory owners inflicted on the workers.
France had followed a different path, rich in lessons for the theory and politics of proletarian revolution. For Marx, the defeat of Napoleon signified a real defeat for bourgeois revolutionary forces under the blows of European absolutist reaction. In response to the facile remarks on Caesarism, despotism, the dictator, the executioner of revolutionary liberties and similar clichés, it is worth recalling Marx’s letter to Engels of 2 December 1856: “the intensity and the viability of all revolutions since 1789 may be gauged with fair accuracy by their attitude towards Poland. Poland is their ‘external’ thermometer. This is demonstrable in detail from French history […] Of all the revolutionary governments, including that of Napoleon I, the Comité du salut public is an exception only in as much as it refused to intervene, not out of weakness, but out of ‘mistrust’”.
The Bourbons, restored to the throne of France by Austria, Prussia and Russia after Waterloo, ruled France from 1815 to 1830. In 1830, the revolutionary insurrection in Paris overturned the absolute monarchy and the Duc d’Orléans became king, with a parliamentary constitution. Thus a victory for the bourgeoisie, supported from this moment on by the workers.
But the bourgeois monarchy sided too much with the big landowners and financiers, and in February 1848 a once-more insurgent Paris proclaimed the republic. As Marx enthusiastically recalled, bourgeois, petty-bourgeois and workers all brandished the banner of 1793: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité – a slogan that could not have burned brighter, even if they’d had neon lights.
This time the workers engaged in the struggle to go beyond their allies, who had betrayed them: the new republican government refused to implement immediately the social improvements that it had promised. Marx describes the terrific battles of June 1848 in a book that is at once scientific and epic, The Class Struggles in France, published in 1850 in four instalments in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung Revue. The terrible defeat suffered by the workers historically established that the modern republican and democratic bourgeoisie was capable of more ferocious repression than the feudal aristocracy and monarchical despotism. It is from this point on that we have the full revolutionary schema that served us in fighting the opportunist wave of the First World War, and should have served us in combating the opportunism of the Second. It is in these pages that we find this fundamental political thesis: Destruction of the bourgeoisie! Dictatorship of the working class! And again: The permanent revolution, dictatorship of the proletariat! These are the “forgotten words of Marxism” that Lenin restored. Likewise there are forgotten words that we must restore today in confronting the renegades who have turned against Marxism and Leninism, as Engels underlined in his 1895 preface to this fundamental economic thesis: “the power over capital, the appropriation of the means of production, their subjection to the associated working class and, therefore, the abolition of wage labour, of capital and of their mutual relations”.
If the State, as in Russia, takes possession of capital without abolishing capital, it has gone no further than a bourgeois State can go.
The State that economically abolishes capital, wage labour, and the exchange relation between capital and labour can only be the proletarian State!
From 1848 onwards the series of glorious revolutionary alliances with the Jacobin bourgeoisie had been denounced by the workers in France, but not in the rest of Europe, and since 1848 we have had our own model (yes our model: the revolution is the discovery of a model of history) for the communist class revolution. These denunciations cannot be recanted, because they are signed with the blood of tens of thousands of workers who fell on the barricades, among them 3,000 prisoners executed in cold blood by the bourgeois republic.
Marx justifies the icy indifference of the French proletariat, which you can hardly accuse of cowardice, to the fate of the verbose democracy which succumbed to Louis Napoleon’s coup d’état, which was no feudal restoration, to be sure. The Italian proletariat’s reaction to the similarly banal Mussolini episode was a lot more unfortunate.
The French nation is now a definitive outcome of history. Nothing now prevents the proletariat from pursuing its own goal: “getting rid of its national bourgeoisie”. After Babeuf’s attempt in the course of the great revolution itself, the workers of France buckled down to this task with the June insurrection and then again with the Commune. They inflicted setbacks on their tradition in 1914 and 1939, two grave crises for the bourgeoisie. Here again, the words of Marx have retained all their force: “A new revolution is only a consequence of a new crisis. The one, however, is as sure to come as the other”.
32. Struggles for nationhood after 1848
10. The revolution of 1848 in Germany did not end with the political victory of the bourgeoisie and its installation in power; the German proletariat, numerically few at the time, therefore did not find itself strategically placed to attack the bourgeoisie after pushing it forward. From this point on, the position of Marxist communists was to support the process of establishing the German nation and the liberal revolution against the Prussian dynasty and State, as a necessary point of transition towards an open class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.
Historically, the German
national process was particularly complex. Even today, there is no
unitary national German State. It also did not exist before the First
World War; only Hitler achieved this through the violent annexation
of Austria, which had been stripped of all its territories occupied
by other peoples and nationalities after the defeat of 1918. After
the Second World War, the victors divided the Germans
into three States: East Germany, West Germany and Austria. But while the various sides talk of a possible reunification of the two Germanys, all agree to isolate the weak and small Austria.
Innumerable citations would serve to characterise the position of Marxism on this problem from 1848. It considered the Prussian State to be feudal and reactionary, not susceptible to transformation into a bourgeois political State within the confines of its territory, just as it considered the Hohenzollern monarchy as the enemy of bourgeois revolution. Marxism views the dynasty, the aristocracy, the army and the bureaucracy not as German, from the national point of view, but rather as influenced by non-national relations (Russophiles, Balts, Slavophiles). It is undeniable that antagonisms with the large bordering nationalities are a key aspect of the formation of political nationality during the advent of capitalism. If this antagonism plainly existed with the French, the centuries-old enemy, it was totally absent on the eastern border: thus the wars of Frederick the Great, who strengthened Prussia while turning it into a satellite-State, must be considered particularly negative from the point of view of the national process.
As for the wars against Napoleon, they utterly failed to provide an adequate basis for the German nation, since they were specifically directed against the vanguard of the new bourgeois and national society, represented by the armies of the Convention, the Consulate and the First Empire, and they were distorted by the alliance with the autocratic Russian and Austrian States, oppressors of nationalities. So it was not possible to look to these wars as a way to create the German national State.
However, we must understand that, while Marx and Engels refused to consider the Prussian State and territory as the basis for a modern nation, they were even more opposed to the preservation and independence of the small States and principalities. Whether or not it exerted its hegemony over them, Prussia was not the German nation that had been anticipated for centuries, but no more could Saxony or Bavaria be considered nations, and the crumbling Grand-Duchies were pure feudal detritus. Nor did Marx and Engels ever advocate a federal solution – their eyes were fixed on the neighbouring “one and indivisible” republic.
For them, the centralised and democratic State, in which every citizen would be legally German and subject to central authority, would be a great step forward. The revolutionary assault of the rapidly growing German working class would then be directed against this unitary capitalist State.
The internal anti-feudal insurrection having failed, in particular as a result of the complete capitulation of Germany’s weak bourgeoisie to Prussia, meant that the solution in 1850 could only come through wars between States, at the root of which were national questions. Marx’s positions are particularly interesting with regard to the war against Denmark in 1849, that between Austria and France in 1859, between Austria and Prussia in 1866 and finally the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, whose outcome was the declaration of the German Empire; yet all of these wars still had the Prussian and Bismarckian imprint.
In all of these wars, as we have recalled on other occasions, Marx and Engels came down on the side of one camp or the other for precise and justified reasons, and agitated politically as a result. Naturally, their position is a million miles from that of the radical bourgeois advocates of the nation and the revolutionary supporters of the independenceof various nationalities roaming Europe: Marx and Engels treated them as buffoons and bigoted zealots, even the most illustrious (Kossuth, Mazzini, Garibaldi and the like, not to mention French windbags such as Louis Blanc and Ledru-Rollin, who are of a similar political colour but lack all historical justification because they no longer have a bourgeois country to found). We must constantly make this distinction to prevent our historical reconstruction from being naively viewed as a justification of the rubbish dump of those “proletarian” parties, which have recently prostrated themselves, or are prostrating themselves once again in a nauseous manner, in order to lick the boots of Churchill, Truman, de Gaulle, Orlando, Nitti and one hundred other would-be liberators and resistance fighters.
We will make do with a couple of references and a single quote, referring the reader to the articles published in Battaglia Comunista (issues 9 to 14, 1950) as part of the “Thread of Time” series on Nation, War and Revolution.
War of 1848-49 between Piedmont and Austria: Marx and Engels condemned Austria, even though attacked by Piedmont, because it was a war for the formation of the Italian nation.
War of 1849 between Prussia and Denmark for the conquest of Schleswig-Holstein: generally condemned as aggressive, but was on the contrary supported by Marx and Engels and it gave the Germans a German territory.
In 1859, Napoleon III’s war against Austria, as ally of Piedmont, then the Italian struggles of 1860. The position was clearly to favour the constitution of a unitary Italian State, and therefore supported the defeat of Austria; Engels demonstrated that German interests could not be defended on the River Mincio [the tributary of the Po that formed the frontier between Italy and Austria from 1859 to 1866]. Did this mean that Bonaparte should be supported elsewhere ? The same text calls on Germans to fight “sword in hand” against him on the Rhine, and even to take up the long delayed war against Russia. The Second Empire was likewise reviled for having defrauded the Italian nation of Nice, Savoy and even Corsica. Marx repeated this accusation in his text on the Commune, fiercely condemning the French intervention in favour of the Papacy and against Rome as capital of Italy, just as he had previously condemned the Second Republic for having crushed the Roman Republic in 1849.
As there is more to say on the wars of 1866 and 1870, for now we will simply provide the quote that clarifies Marx’s thinking: the need to call for the German nation and then to wrench it from the bourgeoisie; denunciation of the counter-revolutionary Berlin regime. In his letter to Engels of 24 March 1863, he says that Bismarck accurately represents “the principle of the Prussian State; that the ‘State’ of Prussia (a very different creature from Germany) cannot exist either without Russia as she is, or with an independent Poland. The whole history of Prussia leads one to this conclusion which was drawn long since by Messrs Hohenzollern (Frederick II included). This princely consciousness is infinitely superior to the limited mentality of the subject that marks your Prussian liberal. Since, therefore, the existence of Poland is necessary to Germany and completely incompatible with the State of Prussia, the State of Prussia must be erased from the map. Or the Polish question simply provides further occasion for proving that it is impossible to prosecute German interests so long as the Hollenzollerns’ own State continues to exist”.
The constant demand is
therefore as follows: Germany, German nation, German interests,
that’s to say, of course, German national
interests. This particular case – though one of extreme importance
– illustrates very well the thesis that the unitary and centralised
constitution of the nation-State is in the interest of the bourgeois,
as the form of its class power, but also in the interest of the
proletarians up until the moment that it has been achieved, since it
is this that gives birth to the political class alignment that will
allow the proletariat to seize power in its turn from the national
33. The Polish question
11. Marxism’s full solidarity with the demand for Polish independence and liberation from the Tsar is of fundamental importance, since this was not just a historical judgement expressed in theoretical texts, but a case of the forces of the First International taking a clear position in practice. Not only did the latter offer and provide the full support of European workers, but it also considered the Polish revolt as a potential fulcrum for a new revolutionary upturn and for generalised struggle on the entire continent.
Let’s follow these positions in detail in the texts and documents of our political current, in order to prove the error of the thesis that says Marxist politics must make judgments and draw conclusions on a case-by-case basis, according to the merits of different situations and contingent events, enabling an easy change of direction. On the contrary, political decisions are rigidly connected at each stage to the unique vision of the historical course of the revolution in general and, in our case, to the definition given by historical materialism on the function of nationalities in relation to the succession of typical modes of production.
For more than a half century, we have seen the most diverse currents struggling to exploit fragmentary and episodic data in order to justify their incessant opportunistic and eclectic contortions, which claims to deliver a new doctrine each day and new rules, shamelessly making demons of yesterday’s angels and vice versa.
But the Polish question is also interesting from another perspective. One could believe that this resolute sympathy for national struggles has only been platonic in scope and is limited to texts and studies of historic accounts or even social theory, without being translated into the domain of political programmes and actions of the party, this veritable proletarian and communist party which, in the period under consideration (1847-71), already had the struggle between the proletariat and capitalism and the destruction of this social mode of capitalism as its own objective. Yet we do not invoke Marx and Engels’ testaments as writers, but rather as international leaders of the communist movement. Based on a shallow and youthful reading of Engels’ pages on The Po and the Rhine and Savoy, Nice and the Rhine you might get the idea that they were politico-military texts written during a pause in the class revolution, abstracting from the methodology of socio-economics. A step further and you can slip into the idea that it is alright to open parentheses and establish “free zones” in Marxist doctrine covering a succession of events, indeed any or all events. It is therefore of the utmost importance to show that all the conclusions of these documents are perfectly in accordance with the materialist analysis of history, including the interpretation of humanity’s collective “journey” through time, in the light of evolving productive forces. No one should be allowed to forget this, whether they are holding a sword or a scalpel, brush chisel or bow, or indeed the hammer and sickle.
Portraying Marx and Engels as “occasionalists” might suit Cominform and other cliques, but this is the main falsification among all the other miserable counterfeits in circulation.
In a letter dated 13 February 1863, Marx inquires of his friend Engels about the events in Poland. The news of that heroic insurrection in the cities and the countryside, which became a real civil war waged against Russian forces, caused Marx to exclaim: “This much is certain, the era of revolution has now fairly opened in Europe once more. And the general state of affairs is good”. However, the memory of the bitter defeats of 1850 was still too fresh: “But the comfortable delusions and almost childish [this marks the first instance of the use of this adjective that was so frequently used by Lenin, but always in a non-disrespectful way] enthusiasm with which we welcomed the revolutionary era before February 1848, have gone by the board…. Old comrades … are no more, others have fallen by the wayside or gone to the bad and, if there is new stock, it is, at least, not yet in evidence. Moreover, we now know what role stupidity plays in revolutions, and how they are exploited by blackguards”. So get going, slackers, you are no longer infantile but senile. Try to update Karl Marx on this point!
This letter paints, with a few quick strokes that we will complement by referring to subsequent letters, a picture of all the European political forces to the Polish insurrection. The “nationalist” Prussians, who took an autonomist position to prevent the Emperor in Vienna from placing himself at the head of the German Confederation, and who hypocritically proclaimed their solidarity with Italy and Hungary, which were demanding their independence, were caught red handed: shamelessly Russophile, they sided against Poland. The Russian revolutionary democrats (Herzen) were also put to the test: despite their Slavophile sentiments, they had to defend the Poles against official Russia (and not claim that once a constitution had been obtained from the Tsar, Poland remained a Russian province). The bourgeois government in London and that of Plon-Plon (Napoleon III) hypocritically feigned support for the Polish cause in order to defend their own interests against Russia, but both were suspect, and the latter’s betrayal was certain: his agents were in constant contact with the right wing of the Polish movement that would certainly defect, especially in the event of a setback.
European “democracy” did not want to do anything, or anything of consequence, for insurgent Poland. Marx immediately appealed to the International Working Men’s Association, which had been established in London on 28 September 1864, to publish a practical programme of action. Before the famous meeting at St Martin’s Hall, Marx relied on the English Workers’ Association. His plan was soon ready: a brief proclamation addressed by the English workers to the workers of all countries and a booklet written by himself and Engels to explain the specific points on the Polish question. And immediately after the September 1864, debates on the actions to be taken within the General Council, which Marx presided over morally without having accepted the chairmanship. This debate gave rise to discussions of the greatest interest and enabled the clarification of the political issues of the moment.
The action on behalf of Poland can therefore be found in all the letters in documents emanating from the party, from the workers’ International. Moreover, it was considered to be the main lever for developing workers’ agitation to the maximum in Europe and hasten the opportunities for revolutionary movements. Details of principle on the historical problem of the internationalist proletariat’s support for a national struggle thus become of much greater importance.
34. The International and the question of nationalities
12. A series of interesting debates within the General Council of the First International and under the personal leadership of Marx provides the facts enabling us to correct errors of principle on the question of the historic struggles of nationalities. The tendency to ignore them instead of explaining them from the materialist point of view is a manifestation of particularist and federalist positions derived from utopian and libertarian theories that Marxism had jettisoned, rather than being evidence of an advanced internationalism.
The same founding congress of the International Workingmen’s Association was convoked in solidarity with the Poles (following a letter from English workers to French workers on the subject of Poland) and with the Armenians who were oppressed by Russia, and as Marx himself recounts, was attended by many radical democrat elements, who aroused the mistrust of the workers. Concerned about theoretical clarity but also about the power of the movement at a historical moment when the demands for independence had a real revolutionary content, Marx arranged to have a badly drafted report shelved and wrote the powerful Inaugural Address, which gave the greatest emphasis to the struggle of the proletarian class in England and on the continent.
Marx’s famous letter of 4 November 1864 explained that he was on his guard and ready to take arms against any attempt by theoretical democratism to infiltrate the workers’ ranks.
This is interesting in allowing us to correctly interpret the dignified replies he made later to those who accused him of being, as we would say today, to the right on the national question. A certain Major Wolff had presented a charter that he claimed had been adopted by Italian workers’ societies: “[These] are essentially associated Benefit Societies…. I saw the stuff later. It was evidently a concoction of Mazzini’s, and that tells you in advance in what spirit and phraseology the real question, the labour question, was dealt with. As well as how the nationalities question intruded into it”. When Eccarius asked him to attend the meeting of the subcommittee, Marx heard “a fearfully cliché-ridden, badly written and totally unpolished preamble pretending to be a declaration of principles, with Mazzini showing through the whole thing from beneath a crust of the most insubstantial scraps of French socialism”. There was also, in the Italian charter, “something quite impossible, a sort of central government of the European working classes (with Mazzini in the background, of course)”.
Finally, Marx prepared the Address, reducing the charter from 40 to 10 articles, and read the text that would later become historical, accepted unanimously. However, he did not openly expound upon his method. Lots of these people would understand nothing, he confided to Engels, they are the sort of people who would join meetings with liberals in support of universal suffrage!
It is well known that the famous Address contains, after the social and classist part, a final paragraph referring to international politics, where the workers demand that the relations between States should be subject to the same moral norms as those between men. The phrase is repeated in the first “Address” on the war of 1870, and not only expresses a demand which, like all demands concerning the national question, is a purely bourgeois demand, but expresses it in a purely propagandistic form. Marx will be excused for having had to act fortiter in re, suaviter in modo – harshly with regard to content, but gently with regard to form. But the false Marxists of today have also sunk below the most rancid piss of the ultra-bourgeois democrats, even with regard to form. In this clarification, we hear the authentic voice of Marx: “Insofar as International politics is mentioned in the ‘Address’, I refer to countries and not to nationalities, and denounce Russia, not the minores gentium [smaller nations]. The Sub-Committee adopted all my proposals. I was, however, obliged to insert two sentences about ‘duty’ and ‘right’, and ditto about ‘Truth, Morality and Justice’ in the preamble to the rules, but these are so placed that they can do no harm”.
On 10 December 1864, Marx presented the debate on Fox’s proposal concerning the appeal on behalf of Poland. This good democrat did his best, forcing himself to reduce the problem to a class question. But there was a point that Marx could not swallow, an expression of sympathy for French democracy, which actually extended “as far as Boustrapa [=Bonaparte]”: “I opposed this and unfolded a historically irrefutable tableau of the constant French betrayal of Poland from Louis XV to Bonaparte III. At the same time, I pointed out how thoroughly inappropriate it was that the Anglo-French Alliance should appear as the ‘core’ of the International Association, albeit in a democratic version”.
The proposal was accepted with Marx’s revisions, but the Swiss delegate Jung, representing the minority, voted against this “altogether ‘bourgeois’” text.
However, to get an idea of the lively interest provoked by the Polish revolt, we can recall that the General Council not only had direct contacts with the bourgeois Poles, but that in one session it even received representatives of the aristocracy, as part of the national anti-Russian union. These aristocrats assured the Council that they, too, were democrats, and that the national revolution in Poland was only possible with a peasant uprising. Marx simply asked himself if they really believed what they were saying.
We now come to 1866. Once again, the Polish question was “at the heart of controversies within the Association”. A certain Vésinier accused the International, no less, of having become a committee of nationalities in tow to Bonapartism. This ruffled Karl’s beard. “This ass” had attributed a paragraph on Poland included in the agenda of the Geneva Congress to the Parisian delegates, when quite the contrary, they had considered it inopportune. It deplored that questions were being addressed “not concerning the goal of the Association and contrary to law, justice, liberty, fraternity and the solidarity of peoples and races, such as: ‘the elimination of Russian influence in Europe etc.’” Vésinier’s thesis is as follows: it is neither class-based nor internationalist to encourage a national war by the Poles against the Russians and to become enemies of Russia, because we must be for peace among the peoples. As justification for this position he recalled the iniquities of the Bonaparte regime and of the English bourgeoisie, and the emancipation of the serfs in Russia and Poland, which only recently took place, and asserted “that it was the duty of the Central Committee to proclaim solidarity and fraternity among all peoples, and not to put one of them alone beyond the pale of Europe”. Vésinier then accused the Poles of using the Association “to help to restore their nationhood, without concerning themselves with the question of the emancipation of the workers”. Marx simply mentioned the bursts of laughter that greeted these lies and falsehoods, depicting it as “the Muscovite line pursued by Proudhon and Herzen” and saying that “Vésinier is just the fellow for the Russians. Of little merit as a writer…. But with talent, great rhetorical power, much energy and above all unscrupulous through and through”.
Vésinier would be expelled from the International, and “We are commemorating [Poland’s] revolution on 23 January”. As for us, we are totally of the opinion that every armed revolution “against the existing social conditions” is worth one hundred times more than any theory of exaggerated extremism and pacifism of the people, and while believing or feigning to believe in a class perspective, in reality only invokes the accolade of the Western bourgeoisie and the Tsar of all the Russias.
35. The Slavs and Russia
13. The historical cycle of the formation of bourgeois national States in parallel with industrialisation and the formation of great markets, undeniably embraced England, France, Germany and Italy; other lesser powers could be considered to be established nations: Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Holland, Sweden and Norway. The Marxist demand applied in typical manner to Poland, and is especially valid as a declaration of war against the “Holy Alliance” of Russia, Austria and Prussia. But from the Marxist perspective this cycle would come to an end leaving the problem of the Slavs of Eastern and South-eastern Europe, among others, unresolved.
Since 1856 Marx had been interested in a book by the Pole Mieroslawski, openly directed against Russia, Germany and Pan-Slavism, in which the author proposed “a free confederation of Slavic nations with Poland as the Archimedean people”, which means the people in the vanguard on the road to freedom. Something of this kind was to take place with the formation of the Little Entente of the Slavic States (Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Poland as the most important and homogeneous State) after the First World War and the dissolution of the Austrian Empire (1918). And as we know, this situation lasted for barely twenty years, until there was a new partition between the Germans and the Russians in 1939.
Apart from the reproach for having based his hopes on the English and French governments, what interests us here is Marx’s critique of Mieroslawsky’s attempt at social analysis. The author did not foresee the strong industrialisation of many districts and cities in Poland, and based his independent State on “democratic agrarian community”. Originally, Polish peasants had been united in free communes, agrarian communities, opposed to which were a dominium, or territory under the military and administrative control of a baron; the nobles, in turn, elected the king. But the peasants’ free land was soon usurped, partly by the monarchy and partly by the aristocracy, and the peasant communities were subjected to serfdom. Nonetheless, a class of almost free middle-peasants survived, with the right to form a semi-nobility, an order of knights; but the peasants could become members of this order only if they participated in a war of conquest or in the colonisation of virgin lands; this stratum in turn was transformed into a kind of lumpenproletariat of the aristocracy, a shabby nobility: “This kind of development is interesting”, Marx writes, “because here serfdom can be shown to have arisen in a purely economic way, without the intermediate link of conquest and racial dualism”. In fact, the king, the high and low nobility, and the peasantry were all of the same race and spoke the same language, and the national tradition was as old as it was strong. Marx’s thesis therefore established that the class yoke appeared with the development of the technological means of production, even within a uniform ethnic group, just as in other cases it appeared as the result of a clash between two races and two peoples, in which case race and language, in turn, functioned as “economic agents” (cf. Engels in Part 1).
Evidently the Polish democrat did not foresee the entry of a real industrial bourgeoisie into the struggle, and still less that of a powerful and glorious proletariat, which in 1905 was going to hold Tsarist troops in check, and would even rise up during the Second World War in a desperate attempt to take power in the martyred capital against the German and Russian general staffs, before going down like the Communards of Paris, killed in the crossfire of their enemies.
Marx’s attention was not distracted from Russia for an instant, since he regarded the Tsar’s troops as the reserve army of the European counter-revolution, ready to cross frontiers everywhere to re-establish “order” in central Europe, suppressing every new movement seeking to overthrow the States of the ancien regime, cutting off all potential sources of an upsurge in the proletarian revolution. Almost ten years later, Marx took an interest in the theory of Duchinski, a Russian professor from Kiev, who was living in Paris). Duchinski stated that: “the real Muscovites, i.e., inhabitants of the former Grand Duchy of Moscow, were for the most part Mongols or Finns, etc., as was the case in the parts of Russia situated further east and in its south-eastern parts. I see from it at all events that the affair has seriously worried the St Petersburg cabinet (since it would put an end to Panslavism in no uncertain manner). All Russian scholars were called on to give responses and refutations, and these in the event turned out to be terribly weak. The purity of the Great Russian dialect and its connection with Church Slavonic appear to lend more support to the Polish than to the Muscovite view in this debate […] It has ditto been shown geologically and hydrographically that a great ‘Asiatic’ difference occurs east of the Dnieper, compared with what lies to the west of it, and that (as Murchison has already maintained) the Urals by no means constitute a dividing line. Result as obtained by Duchinski: Russia is a name usurped by the Muscovites. They are not Slavs; they do not belong to the Indo-Germanic race at all, they are des intrus [intruders], who must be chased back across the Dnieper, etc. Panslavism in the Russian sense is a cabinet invention, etc. I wish that Duchinski were right and at all events that this view would prevail among the Slavs. On the other hand, he states that some of the peoples in Turkey, such as Bulgars, e.g., who had previously been regarded as Slavs, are non-Slav”.
We do not know if this passage from Marx’s letter was used in the bourgeoisie’s recent polemic against the Russian Revolution to support the current thesis that the Russian people submitted to dictatorship because they are Asiatic and not European ! It is clear that the thesis Marx was alluding to, while absolutely inoffensive for true Marxism, becomes galling to today’s Russians who follow in the footsteps of Stalin by turning to a racial, national and linguistic tradition rather than that of the class relationship between the proletariat of all countries.
From the Marxist point of view, the fact that the Great Russians should be classified as Mongolians rather than as Aryans (we should not forget that famous phrase that Marx so often recalls: “Grattez le Russe, et vous trouverez le Tartare” – “scratch a Russian and you will find a Tartar”) is of fundamental importance with regard to the following question: must we wait for the formation of a vast capitalist Slavic nation, including all of the Russian State, or at least as far as the Urals, in order to conclude the cycle during which the European working class must subordinate its forces to the cause of forming nations, which must be closed before the proletarian revolution is on the agenda ? Marx’s response was that the formation of modern nation States as a premise for the workers revolution corresponds to an area that extends in the east as far as the eastern borders of Poland, and under certain circumstances might include the Ukraine and Little Russia as far as the Dnieper. This is the European arena of the revolution, the one that had to be dealt with first, and the cycle that preceded the next period, characterised by purely class-oriented action, came to an end in this area in 1871.
We must not forget, if we are to avoid taking ethnology to be the sole determining factor, that people of Mongolian race, the Finns, formed socially advanced nations in Europe (Hungary, Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia) which therefore form part of the historic European area; during this period Marxism viewed favourably their attempts to win independence from the three powers of the Holy Alliance.
36. The wars of 1866 and 1870
14. While the Polish insurrection receded and this path to the revolution closed, as it had done in 1848, Marx and Engels became aware that war was approaching between Austria and Prussia. Italy would undoubtedly become embroiled because of the burning issue of independence for Venice, once again under Austrian occupation; the position of Russia and France was meanwhile ambiguous: it was clear that a new period of upheaval was at hand. The battle of Sedan would settle all accounts but the only enemy of the revolution that would perish was the French Empire.
On 10 April 1866, Marx believed that it was the Russians who wanted war; they were indeed massing troops on the frontiers of Austria and Prussia, hoping to profit from the situation to occupy the two other parts of Poland. But this would mean the end of the Hohenzollern regime, and the Russians’ true objective was to make it possible to march on a revolutionary Berlin in order to maintain the Hohenzollerns on the throne. Marx and Engels hoped that Berlin would rise up at the first news of military defeat.
It is very interesting that, even though they were against Austria on the Venetian question, they considered that an Austrian victory would be useful from the perspective of the anti-Prussian revolution.
As for Napoleon III, he was no less suspect than Alexander of Russia from the perspective of the proletarian cause, since he was still dreaming of becoming the “fourth member of the Holy Alliance”, which was now broken.
When war broke out on 19 June 1866, the Council of the International debated the situation, attacking the problem of nationalities as a matter of principle.
“The French, very strongly represented, gave vent to their friendly dislike for the Italians”. Marx referred to the fact that the French were, uncounsciously, against the Italo-Prussian alliance and would have preferred an Austrian victory. But the theoretical question was rather more important than taking positions in this session: “The representatives of ‘jeune France’ (non-workers), by the way, trotted out their view that any nationality and even nations are des préjugés surannés [outdated prejudices]”. Here Marx drily commented: “Proudhonised Stirnerism”. (Stirner is the ultra-individualist philosopher who, focusing entirely on the “unique” subject, on the one hand touches on the Nietzsche’s theory of the super-dictator while on the other hand on the anarchist theory negating the State and society: both theories are the quintessentially bourgeois. In economics and sociology, Proudhon glorified small autonomous groups of producers trading with other groups.) Marx explained what he was condemning here, a reactionary position masquerading as something radical. As we have already pointed out, this position did not go beyond the historically bourgeois but active demand for the nation, but rather fell short of it:
“Breaking everything up into small groups or municipalities that in turn form a union, but no State. And this individualisation of humanity, as well as the ‘mutualism’ that corresponds to it will be formed in this way, bringing history to a halt in all other countries and the whole world while we wait until the French are ready to carry out social revolution. Then they will demonstrate the experiment and the rest of the world, driven by the force of their example [do you not get the impression that he could be speaking of today’s Russians ?] will do the same thing. Just what Fourier expected from his phalanstère modèle [today the Russians would say the socialist fatherland, the country of socialism]. Yet everyone who clutters up the ‘social’ question with the ‘superstitions’ of the Old World is a ‘reactionary’”.
On this occasion Marx, ordinarily so reluctant to engage in public activity, could not avoid taking sides against his future son-in-law, Lafargue. He made the English burst out laughing when he pointed out that Lafargue, having abolished nationality, spoke in French, a language unknown to 90% of those present: “I pointed out that [Lafargue] seemed to be implying that the abolition of nationalities meant their absorption by the model nation, the French nation”.
But what was Marx’s preference in this war ? First of all, defeat for Prussia. He said, not to the Council, but in his letter to Engels (let’s not forget the “internal” nature of the correspondence we are citing): “The situation is indeed difficult at this time. On the one hand we must confront the stupid Italophilia of the English and on the other hand the false polemics of the French, in particular to prevent any demonstration that might channel our Association exclusively in one direction”.
Thus there was no official taking of positions in favour of one of the belligerents in the war of 1866 comparable to the one taken in favour of the Poles during the insurrection against the Russians.
After Austria’s success in Italy, Prussia triumphed at Sadowa and Napoleon III intervened as a mediator. On 7 July 1866, Marx wrote: “Besides a great Prussian defeat, which perhaps (oh but those Berliners!) might have led to a revolution, there could have been no better outcome than their stupendous victory”. Marx calculated that Bonaparte’s greatest interest lay in a swinging of fortunes between Austrian and Prussian victories and defeats, preventing the emergence of a powerful Germany with a decisive central hegemony, allowing him, with his intact military forces, to become the arbiter of Europe. Marx also thought that Italy’s position was very dangerous and that Russia stood to gain no matter what happened. As we know, Austria, accepting the mediation of France, surrendered Venice to France: in order to get the city back, the King of Savoy had to give in once again to his French ally of 1859, who opposed the occupation of Rome with his famous “jamais”.
In this respect, the position of the International was clear: the next war would be unleashed by Bonaparte, who at the time was introducing the Dreyse needle rifle to his infantry (in his letter of 7 July, Marx treated the technical evolution of weaponry as a practical application of economic determinism, “Is there any sphere in which our theory that the organisation of labour is determined by the means of production is more dazzlingly vindicated than in the industry for human slaughter ?” – suggesting that Engels write a study on the subject; (today it seems everything relates to the question, “who has the atomic bomb ?”) And in the second place, in this war, it was essential that France and Napoleon III should be defeated.
We have comprehensively developed the question of proletarian politics in regard to a domestic and revolutionary national war of independence, like the war in Poland in 1863 (or in Italy in 1848 and in 1860), where the alignment of forces was clear and unambiguous. We need not repeat everything that has extensively reported about the war of 1870 between France and Prussia. The proclamations of the International totally ruled out any support for either the government of Bismarck or that of Bonaparte: on this question, there is no doubt. But the International resolutely wished for the defeat of the Second Empire (just as in 1815 it would have preferred victory for the First).
In fact, having applauded the French sections’ courageous opposition to the war, the “Address” of the General Council of 23 July 1870 contained the famous phrase that was exploited so much later (and later commented upon in a historically irrevocable manner by Lenin): for the Germans, this was a defensive war. But this was immediately followed with a sharp attack on Prussian politics, and an appeal to German workers to fraternise with the French: the victory of Germany would be a disaster and would reproduce “all the miseries that befell Germany after her [so-called] wars of independence [against Napoleon I]”. It was necessary to wait for a Lenin to come along and say: the philistine petty-bourgeois cannot understand how one can desire the defeat of both belligerents! As of 1870, the general theory of proletarian defeatism was already in place.
Marxism’s historical evaluation of 1866-70 and the balance of forces between the feudal powers of the east and the bourgeois dictatorships of the west is summed up in this phrase (although we remind any nitwit trying to become a published historian that the use of the word “if” is not advisable): “If the battle of Sadowa had been lost instead of being won, French battalions would have overrun Germany as the allies of Prussia”.
A defensive war means a historically progressive war. As Lenin demonstrated, this was the case in Europe between 1789 and 1871, but not afterwards (and we will never tire of throwing this in the face of the partisans in the “just war” of 1939-45). This means that if Moltke had set off one day before Bazaine, and if the warmongers had shouted: “to Paris, to Paris!” instead of “to Berlin, to Berlin!” the Marxist analysis would have been the same.
37. The Commune and the new historic cycle
15. The failed revolution in Germany in 1848 did not break out again in 1866 and in 1871 because of the sensational victories of Prussian militarism. But the terrible defeat suffered by French militarism aroused the Parisian proletariat, not just against the demoralised regime, but against the entire bourgeois class, republicans and prone to capitulating, and against the reactionary power of Prussia. The fall of the revolutionary Communard government in no way detracted from the historic significance of this event, which made the dictatorship of the proletariat the only direct historical perspective for communists in Europe.
The Second “Address” of the International (9 September 1870) followed the victory at Sedan, the surrender of the French army, the deposition of Napoleon III and the proclamation of the Republic. It was an utter indictment of the project to annex Alsace-Lorraine under the pretext of assuring Germany a secure military frontier. The “Address” ironically remarks that the Prussians were not so concerned about the security of their Russian frontier, and foresees a “war of races – a war with the combined Slavonian and Roman races”. The text also says that the German working class “have resolutely supported the war, which it was not in their power to prevent”, but that it now demanded peace and recognition of the Republic proclaimed in Paris. It expressed serious reservations with regard to the latter, while at the same time advising the French proletariat not to rise up in revolt. But it is the Third “Address”, edited by Marx in person, which not only constitutes a manifestation of proletarian politics but a cornerstone of the revolutionary theory and programme. As Engels recalled in his preface, Marx delivered the Address on 30 May 1871, just two days after the last combatants of the Commune had fallen at Belleville.
This classic source of revolutionary communism, upon which we draw ceaselessly, goes beyond any kind of concern, such that which had suggested to the General Council six months earlier to dissuade the Parisian proletariat from undertaking an impossible enterprise, for fear that a new catastrophe could favour further Prussian invasions and annexations, causing an immense new national problem at the very heart of the most advanced part of Europe. The International, belonging to the workers of the entire world, aligned itself fully with the first revolutionary working class government and accepted the lessons of the ferocious repression, lessons which provided the clearest battle orders to those who would write future chapters in the history of the proletarian revolution.
These orders were twice disobeyed on a world scale, in 1914 and 1939, but the goal of our patient historical reconstructions and tireless repetitions is to demonstrate that despite this, the lessons will be taken up again at some future turning point in history, as had been set out in this memorable covenant.
The alliance between the Versaillais and the Prussians to crush the red Commune, or more precisely, the fact that the former assumed, under pressure from the latter and under Bismarck’s orders, the role of hangman of the revolution, can only lead to the following historic conclusion: “The highest heroic effort of which old society is still capable is national war [which we therefore had to support]; and this is now proved to be a mere governmental humbug, intended to defer the struggle of classes, and to be thrown aside as soon as that class struggle bursts out into civil war”.
It was not Lenin who invented the formula, “transform the national war into a civil war”; he found it written in black and white. Lenin did not say that the orders of the International were only relevant to the European parties from 1914 to 1915, and that in later situations the instructions might be different, and that the phase of alliances in national wars, the phase of “peace between the workers and those who appropriate the product of their labour,” as the text cited above added. Marx and Lenin recognised the historical law that, from 1871 until the destruction of capitalism in Europe, there are two alternatives: either the proletariat can apply defeatism in any war, or, as Engels wrote prophetically in his postscript to the 1891 edition of The Civil War in France, and as we see today, “… is there not every day hanging over our heads the Damocles’ sword of war, on the first day of which all the chartered covenants of princes will be scattered like chaff... a race war which will subject the whole of Europe to devastation by 15 or 20 million armed men”.
First: Marxism has always foreseen war between bourgeois States; second: it has always admitted that in particular historical phases it is not pacifism but war that accelerates general social development, as was the case with the wars that enabled the bourgeoisie to form national States; third: since 1871 Marxism has established that there is only one way that the revolutionary proletariat can put an end to war: with civil war and the destruction of capitalism.
38. The imperialist epoch and irredentist leftovers
16. In the epoch of bourgeois revolutionary wars of independence and the formation of nation States there are still many cases of lesser nationalities being subjected to States of another nationality, even in Europe; nevertheless, the proletarian International must reject every attempt to justify wars between States for reasons of irredentism, unmasking the imperialist purposes of every bourgeois war, and calling upon the workers to sabotage such wars from both sides. The inability to put this into practice has brought about the destruction of revolutionary energies under the opportunist waves that accompanied the two world wars; and if the masses do not abandon the opportunist leadership in time (social democratic or Cominformist) it will result in another war, thus allowing capitalism to survive its violent and bloody crises once again.
It was Lenin who showed that the war of 1914 broke out because of the economic rivalry between the major capitalist States over the division of the world’s productive resources and especially those of the colonies in the underdeveloped continents. He never denied the existence of serious national problems in various metropolitan States; the perfect example is the Austrian monarchy which ruled over various Slavic, Latin and Magyar regions, and even some Ottoman groups. Another example: Russia, whose feudal State straddled the border between Europe and Asia. Therefore, one cannot reach conclusions on questions of nationality in Russia without taking into account this current analysis, as well as the one that will be presented in a future meeting on class struggles and national struggles in non-European continents and between coloured races (the Eastern question and the colonial question). [Editor’s note: this was covered in a series of articles in Il programma comunista from Issue 21/1954 to Issue 8/1955.]
The socialists of the Second International based their betrayal not only by invoking the two sophisms of supporting the nation in the event of a defensive war or a war against a “less developed country”, but also on a third, that the war of 1914 would tend to resolve the problems of irredentism. These problems were extraordinarily tangled: France, for example, wanted to recover Alsace and Lorraine, but had no intention of surrendering Corsica or Nice. England lent its support, but jealously defended its control of Gibraltar, Malta and Cyprus. As for Poland, there were three would-be liberators, each wanting to keep it united under their own domination.
We likewise know that the Italian socialist party provided a laudable example of resistance to the seductions of irredentism; an even more exemplary case was that of the Serbian party which, active in a country surrounded by territories inhabited by oppressed compatriots and, moreover, attacked by a far more powerful Austria, led a vigorous struggle against the militarism of Belgrade and the patriotic fever. We have already set out the fundamental theses regarding these national questions in a series of “Threads of Time” published in 1950 and 1951, so we will now make do with a brief summary:
1. Radical Marxists have rightly combated the social-democratic thesis of simple linguistic “cultural” autonomy within a unitary State in multi-national countries, supporting total autonomy for minority nationalities, not as a bourgeois outcome or facilitated by the bourgeoisie but as a result of the overthrow of the central State power with the participation of proletarians of its own dominant nationality.
2. Liberation and the equality of all nations, which are unachievable under capitalism, are bourgeois and counter-revolutionary formulas. However, resistance mounted against the State colossi of capitalism by oppressed nationalities and small “semi-colonial” powers or small States under protectorates are forces that contribute to the downfall of capitalism.
3. Even within the cycle during which the proletarian International refuses any support by its own organised political forces for wars between States, and denies that the presence on one side of despotic feudal States (or States that are less democratic than others) is a reason to abandon this historic international position, and everywhere adopts a defeatist stance within the “own” country, it can and must however consider the different effects of this or that outcome of the conflict in its historical analysis.
We have given many examples in other texts: in the Russian-Turkish war of 1877, in which Franco-British democracy rooted for the Russians, Marx ardently sympathised with the Turks. In the Greek-Turkish war of independence of 1899, without going as far as to volunteer to fight like the anarchists and republicans, left-socialists were for Greece; later, they took sides with the Young Turks’ revolution and also for the liberation of the Greeks, Serbs and Bulgarians in the territories under Ottoman domination in the Balkan wars of 1912. And the same thing could be said of the Boer War against the English, a war, like the Spanish-American War of 1898, which had extra-European impacts and was fought for imperialist purposes.
But these were only episodes that punctuated the great period of calm that lasted from 1871 to 1914.
Next came the world wars: every proletarian party that supported its State or its allies in war committed an act of treason; everywhere, the tactic of revolutionary defeatism had to be applied. From this crystal-clear conclusion, however, one must not deduce that the victory of one or another side would make no difference in terms of the development of events from a revolutionary perspective.
Our position on this question is known. The victory of the Western democracies and of America in the first and second world wars set back the possibilities for the communist revolution, whereas the opposite outcome would have accelerated them. The same thing is true of the American capitalist monster in a third world war, which could take place within one or two decades.
The victory of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie is the precondition for the communist revolution, or rather, it is the revolution itself. But we can also recognise revolutionary conditions brought about by the wars between States, which, until it can be proven otherwise, have until now mobilised more physical energies than social wars. The two principal conditions are a catastrophe for Great Britain and the United States of America, the colossal flywheels that are responsible for the capitalist mode of production’s current terrible historical moment of inertia.
39. A formula for Trieste offered to the “contingentists”
17. The position of Marxist communists towards the current conflict over Trieste has three cornerstones: since 1911, the Italian proletariat declared its opposition to demands for unification with Italy; in 1915, Italian socialists refused to support the war for Trieste and Trentino, and the groups that would later form the Communist Party at Livorno in 1921 declared itself in favour of sabotage against the national war; after 1918, the proletariat of the Julian March (Venezia Giulia), of both races and languages, ranged itself massively on the side of revolutionary socialism and the party founded in Livorno. The communist party must treat the nationalist politics of the governments of Rome and Belgrade with the same contempt, and even more so the unbelievable deceitfulness of Cominform followers.
By a strange coincidence, our meeting was taking place at the very moment that unexpected events brought Trieste to the foreground of international politics. What do the communists say about the Trieste question ?
The Communist Party of Italy was founded in Livorno in 1921 out of groups which, not content with refusing the “sacred union” and the formula “neither support [for the war] nor sabotage”, adhered to the Leninist position of defeatism and demanded the most resolute opposition to the war that liberated the Julian March, Trieste and Trentino, calling in May 1915 for an indefinite strike against mobilisation and pushing the old party to action through the course of the war and in the period following the setback at Caporetto.
Thus we didn’t want Trieste. But proletarian and revolutionary Trieste was with us, and the majority of political sections, the trade unions, the cooperatives, regardless of whether they spoke Italian or Slovenian, came over to the Communist Party, as well as the glorious editorial board of Lavoratore, which appeared in both languages with the same articles on theory, propaganda and political and organisational agitation. Red Trieste was in the front rank of communist battalions in the struggle against fascism, which never managed to impose itself without the intervention of the national carabinieri.
Nothing in common here with the attitude of today’s Italian pseudo-communists. Yesterday, they would have allowed Trieste to be swallowed up by Tito because it would be joining a socialist country; today they flaunt their blatant nationalism, calling Tito a lowlife hangman.
The rivalry between Belgrade and Rome in the repugnant arena of global diplomacy, as well as the rivalry between the Italian parties over Trieste, is wrapped in the most rancid nationalist formulas; and the crudest exponents of linguistic, historical and ethnic sophistry are not the authentic bourgeois, but the pseudo-Marxists Tito and Togliatti.
Usually we are indifferent, and not just because of our numerical weakness, to the usual question: what do you propose doing in practice ? But we can offer these “Marxist” political positivists a formula that they have never really considered. The problem of dual nationality and dual languages is incomprehensible, and you cannot resolve it by writing speeches for Venetians and Slovenes in English or Serbo-Croatian.
Basically, the situation is as follows, in the cities, organised along bourgeois lines, the Latins outnumber the Slavs; in the villages scattered across the countryside of the interior and especially far from the coast, it is the opposite. The merchants, industrialists, workers and members of the liberal professions are Italian, whereas the rural landlords and the peasants are Slavs. In short, a social dissimilarity presents itself as a national one: it would disappear if the workers got rid of the industrialists and the peasants hunted down the landlords, but you cannot wipe it away by drawing new borders.
In the constitution of the USSR, Marxist gentlemen of the Via delle Botteghe Oscure [Editor’s note: the headquarters of the Italian Communist Party], which served as the model for that of the People’s Republic of Yugoslavia, Marxist gentlemen of Belgrade, the foundation of the alliance between workers and peasants was the following formula: one representative for every one hundred workers, one for every one thousand peasants.
So hold this plebiscite that excites you so much (you took the formula from Mussolini, your common enemy) with the proviso that the vote of a city-dweller or town (for example, those with more than ten thousand inhabitants) is worth ten, and that of the inhabitant of a small town or the countryside is worth one. Then you will be able to extend the democratic vote to the entire area situated between the borders of 1866 and those of 1918: you can add Gorizia, Pola, Fiume and Zara.
But both parties in this dispute have ingested so much disgusting bourgeois democracy that they bow down before the sacred dogma, which has the rich roaring with laughter, the one that says each person’s vote has the same weight, anywhere.
Who knows if, by applying the arithmetic we suggest, you wouldn’t get a majority for the thesis: a plague on both your houses!
40. European revolution
18. From the point of view of the historical development of society’s productive forces, Trieste is a point of convergence of economic factors that go far beyond the frontiers of the contesting States, a centre with modern industrial plants and perfect communications; in any event, any separation from the hinterland would militate against the extension of trade that constituted the basis of the great movement towards the formation of unitary nation States that came to an end in Europe in the 19th century. In the middle of the 20th century, the only possible future for Trieste is international, a future that cannot be usefully found in the political and economic compromises between bourgeois forces, but only in the European communist revolution, in which the workers of Trieste and its region will be one of the vanguard battalions.
In the radiance of capitalism’s dawn in Italy, one of whose first political States was the Most Serene Republic of Venice; it is indisputable that the dependence of Trieste, the port and emporium of the Adriatic, at the heart of a feudal and semi-barbarous Europe, on Venice, was a decidedly progressive fact of history.
With the opening of global maritime communications, Mediterranean capitalism was overtaken and the world market emerged, built through the mediation of Spain, Portugal, Holland, France and England via the Atlantic trade routes; nevertheless, as a result of its geographical situation Trieste was always a potential point of penetration of the new mode of production into the heart of central and eastern Europe, where the anti-industrial and reactionary landed class seemed to have been entrenched for centuries, erecting obstacles to the new form of human organisation.
Though its organisation was a fragmented mosaic, the Austrian Empire, which connected the Adriatic port to the nascent industrial centres of Germany, Hungary and Bohemia, was progressive compared to the more distant barriers erected by the Russians and the Turks, which capitalism would break down at a later stage.
From the perspective of re-establishing industrialism to the Italian peninsula, and establishing it in the Balkans, a positive new factor was Trieste’s connection with the powerful German economy and in the latter’s attempt to undermine Anglo-Saxon economic hegemony in the Mediterranean basin.
Trieste has mainteined a primary importance after the defeat of the Axis, since the city and its territory have been placed under a state of emergency, with a view to implementing America’s colonisation of Europe and other repugnant schemes all the more effectively.
Every communist revolutionary hails the Trieste proletariat, which has been subjected to a succession of unhappy phases, in the course of which its territory has been obscenely colonised by the worst representatives of capitalism and of ferocious militarist nationalism, who have revelled in orgies of cruelty, corruption and exploitation.
The hooked claws of so many pimpish and brazen colonialists are sunk so deep into this small area that Trieste will not find a national solution from any side, regardless of which language it uses to invoke it.
The solution can only be international; but just as it will not come from summit meetings or conflicts between States, it will not come from democratic fornications or from the sordid unity of a European servitude, either.
We don’t want to see a national flag fluttering from the top of the San Giusto tower: we long for the advent of the proletarian dictatorship in Europe. When the hour finally arrives it will find many of its most resolute militants among a proletariat that has emerged from so many, and such painful experiences.