Friday, 27 January 2017

Engels and the Non-Historic Peoples

One of the most common means of toning down Marx and Engels is to claim that ideas they propounded in their early lives they later rejected. Its true that in the light of changed conditions Marx and Engels did change some of their positions. That is precisely what you would expect a historical materialist to do! For example, Engels stated clearly, later, that much of the Communist Manifesto was redundant, a historical monument. Many of its demands had already been accomplished by capitalism, reflecting the extent to which they were really state-capitalist rather than socialist demands. The document also reflected the extent to which Hegelianism still affected their ideas, but not without cause. There is, in fact, a close link here with their ideas on the National Question.

In 1848 when they wrote the Manifesto the working class in Europe was still in its infancy. Even in Britain, the most developed capitalist state, workers living standards were still lower than they were before the Industrial Revolution. Certainly, as Marx demonstrates in Capital the condition of the average worker was worse than that of the average peasant in the 18th century, and even much earlier. It was only by the middle of the century, and beyond, that workers living standards rose significantly. This was fundamental to their ideas, as it was later to Lenin. A look at their writing on the National Question shows the train of thought.

Engels, in particular, argues that it was the ruling classes that had determined “historicity”. In Europe, it was the large centralising Monarchies that had been the progressive force driving civilisation forward, and in the case of Hungary and Germany driving a wedge through the Slav lands, and thereby protecting Europe from the danger of Muslim barbarism from the South, in the shape of the Ottomans. It was these ruling classes then that had been the driving force of history, developing culture and ideas etc. And as they had driven this wedge through the Slav lands it had been German and Hungarian “Magyar”, ruling classes that had set themselves up as also the ruling classes of these Slav lands that consequently lacked any ruling classes of their own. Hence their lack of “historicity”. It was also these centralising Monarchies that had created the necessary conditions for the development of trade, and subsequently of capitalism.

As Marx and Engels believed that it was capitalism, in the mid 19th century, which was the great revolutionising force, which, with its low prices, was the battering ram knocking down the walls of the barbarian nations, by which they had in mind those Central European mountainous regions, still attempting to keep out civilisation, it was these capitalist classes that they saw as now the vehicle of historicity, and the Slav nations lacked such classes of their own, they were German or Hungarian. It was these capitalist classes allied with sections of the nobility, and with the working class that were the forces of progress and revolution that would first carry through the bourgeois revolution to be followed, they believed, after a short period of capitalist accumulation, by socialist revolution.

It is not surprising then to see why with this view of history from above, with a small impoverished working class, Marx and Engels', original conception of socialist revolution was a statist one, just as, in similar conditions, Lenin adopted those ideas in Russia. But, as good historical materialists, as material conditions changed, their view of socialist transformation changed too. So it is that in their more mature writings, in particular in Capital, this statist view of socialist transformation is abandoned.

Concentrating on Britain, where capitalist relations were most developed, and pointed the way for other capitalist nations, Marx instead, seeing the development of a large working class, that now had shown itself capable of accumulating resources, had already established its own co-operative industries, in Lancashire, which it was able to run more efficiently than the former capitalist owners had done, seeing the potential for the use of credit, seeing a working class that was increasingly educated, and politically as well as industrially organised, saw the way forward as being for that working class to establish its own co-operative enterprises, thereby abolishing within them the contradiction between capital and labour, to use its resources and increased social weight to buy up using credit the joint stock companies, and thereby to transform the basic material conditions of its existence.

It was on that basis that Marx and Engels believed that the working class could translate its de facto social dictatorship into political rule by purely parliamentary means, though having to put down a slaveholders rebellion. It was because of this more advanced development of the working class in Britain, and those material conditions that they believed this process could be accomplished in Britain, though not yet in Europe, and certainly not the ludicrous claim, put forward by Lenin, that they only believed this because the British state at that time was not properly developed!

But they did not change their views on the Non Historic peoples in a similar way, and for good reason. They continued to see the task of nation building as being one that was the task of ruling classes. It was those ruling classes that continued to be the historical forces that had the power to create the economic and social conditions for a nation to be viable. Any nation that had not, by the end of the 19th century, already developed its own capitalist class, capable of developing those economic and social conditions, would simply be swallowed up, just as small companies were swallowed up by larger ones. Socialists do not try to hold back that process.

In order to refute the claims that Marx and Engels dropped their theory of the Non – Historic Peoples, put forward by later Marxists, Rosdolsky offers the following two comments by Engels which came much later in his life than the original 1848 formulations.

“That my letter does not convert you is quite understandable, since you already had certain sympathies for the ‘oppressed’ South Slavs. We all, indeed, had originally carried over such sympathies for all ‘oppressed’ nationalities, in as much as we first passed through stages of liberalism or radicalism. And I know how much time and study it has cost me to get rid of them, but I ultimately got rid of them once and for all.”

Engels letter to Bernstein 22nd February 1882. MEW,35:278


“Now you could ask me whether I have, then, no sympathy at all for the small Slavic peoples and ruins of peoples who are split up from one another by the three wedges driven into Slavdom:the german, Magyar and Turkish wedges. In fact, I have damned little. The Czech-Slovak cry of distress – ‘Boze!….Ach nikdo neni na zemi, kdoby Slavum spravedlivost cinil?’ (O God, is there no one left on earth who will do the Slavs justice?) – is answered in Petersburg, and the entire Czech national movement is aimed at getting the Tsar (to do them justice) spravedlivost ciniti. It is the same with the others too: the Serbs, Bulgarians, Slovenes, and Galician Ruthenians (Ukrainians AB) [at least in part]. And this is a goal we cannot champion. Only after the collapse of tsardom, when the national aspirations of these dwarf-peoples cease to be mixed up with pan-slavic tendencies to world domination, only then can we allow them to be free; and I am sure that six months of independence will suffice to induce most of the Austro-Hungarian Slavs to implore to be taken back once more. But in no case will one concede to these little peoples the right that they have ascribed to themselves in Serbia, Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia: to hinder the extension of the European railway network to Constantinople.”

Letter to Kautsky 7th February 1882. MEW, 35:272-73.

Marx and Engels objection to all these small non-historic peoples, and the reason they talked about an entire people being reactionary (though clearly they did not mean this literally) was that, as Engels says above, in order to try to achieve statehood, that their own resources did not permit, they were led to look to any large power they thought might come to their assistance to achieve that end.  In particular, as slavic nations, they looked to the main slavic power Russia.  Trotsky also discusses this in relation to the slavic peoples of the Balkans that looked to Russia during the Balkan Wars of the early 20th century.

The problem was that these large powers whose support might be enlisted by the small non-historic peoples, had their own fish to fry.  They sought to expand their own colonial empires.  This is a point that Lenin refers to in his own analysis of the question of self-determination.  Many demands for self-determination, he says amount to the intrigues only of foreign monarchies and so on, and cannot be supported.  Today, it is the US that often plays this role of intrigues in the affairs of other nations, under cover of "liberal intervention" etc. as a means of expanding its own global strategic power. Like Marx and Engels, Lenin saw the small nations as historically reactionary, because they were led to lend their support to larger reactionary states, in the hope of such succour.  Its why Lenin argued that communists could give no support to the creation of new bourgeois states, except in the most exceptional circumstances.

I have also referred in the past to the situation in regard to the Palestinians, who would be classified as such a non-historic people.  But, in a world of huge states such as the US, China, India, Russia, Brazil etc., and also of huge proto-state/economic blocs, such as the EU, many more existing states, that were viable, in the 19th and 20th centuries, increasingly become unviable, or viable only by acting as a client of some larger state.

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