On Nations and Nationalism

Detail from Franz Wenzel Schwarz, Giuseppe Garibaldi entering Naples in 1860. via Wikimedia Commons.

This essay by Pierre Vilar, translated from the French by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, was published in the Spring 1979 issue of Marxist Perspectives and has not since reappeared. Many thanks to Arbër Ahmeti for rekeying the article from a PDF. 

Fifteen years have now elapsed since the publication of La Catalogne dans l'Espagne moderne, subtitled Recherches sur les Fondations économiques des Structures Nationales. The introduction I wrote at that time devoted numerous pages to the vocabulary and problematic of the "nation" and to other related concepts or words ordinarily used with scant rigor: State, fatherland, nationality, people, country, region, ethnicity — each accompanied by its semantic derivations. The reception of my book left me no grounds for complaint. I could not but note, however, that my preliminary effort to avoid the normal equivocations that plague the definition of the nation was largely passed over in silence. Except in Catalonia, of course — which seemed to prove that even the professional readers of a historical work are more interested in the particular fact, especially if it concerns them, than in the general problematic. Too frequently, the historian refuses to be "sociologist"; the reciprocal, alas, is even more frequent.

Today, for reasons self-evident for Spain, reflection on, not to say theoretizing about, the nation are the order of the day — I should even say á la mode, without endowing this term with a pejorative nuance, since each fashion has its own content.

In contrast, in France in 1962 we were just emerging from the Algerian war, and decolonization had just cost us several years useless bloodshed. Perhaps, in those circumstances, people preferred not to dwell too heavily on the psychological errors committed in the name of the nation. Not that "colonial" problems should be confused with "national" (in the classic sense) problems. And, therefore, I specifically observed, in my introduction to La Catalogne, that each awakening national demand at first meets a denial of its very existence, for the dominant State always reacts so to the awakening, or reawakening of the suppressed nation. For years we heard, "There is no Algerian (or Vietnamese) nation." Thus, the first "nationalist" agitators in a nonindependent country face accusations of correcting "artificial" problems — an accusation that does not prevent those who level them from imposing sanctions on the entire group. And that reaction crystallizes the very phenomenon it seeks to deny.

The events of 1962 brought home to me not merely my scholarly memories of nineteenth-century Europe — "The problem of nationalities" — but the controversies among Marxists during 1904-1913 and the lessons of my work in Catalonia. But I had known, as a child, the Great War of 1914; as an adolescent, the spontaneous reaction of young people about 1920 or so against chauvinism and war; as a citizen, the great shifts in ideology and sentiment provoked by the fascist menace and especially by the Spanish Civil War, and finally as a fighter and then as a prisoner, the defeats and the Resistance. In other words, in the relationship between my life and history, national problems seemed to overwhelm all others. It seemed to me that too many people take this fact for granted, when in reality it harbors violent internal contradictions. And effectively, my experience as a historian confirmed by my experience as a citizen, led me to a reasoned acceptance of the famous dictum by Marx and Engels: The history of all hitherto existing societies — with Engels' reservation about primitive societies — has been the history of class struggles. But the implications remain to be established precisely.

Marxists do not deny the importance of struggles between human groups at different levels of organization: Greeks against Persians; Romans against Gauls; Christian Spaniards against Muslims (or against Amerindians); English and Prussians against French; French and Russians against Germans; or one contemporary superpower against another. The life works of Marx and Engels testify against this abusive interpretation of the primacy of class struggles in historical process. The attribution of primacy signifies only that the evolution of humanity (the extension of its productive capacities and the success of its social transformations) has depended less on these great international clashes, which in fact are inter-State, than on those internal struggles at the core of organized groups — struggles between classes responsible for the production and the distribution of goods. For these struggles between the rulers and the ruled, the exploiters and the exploiting, impose creative contradictions.

Since these contradictions arise within changing political formations, whether classified by territory or types of State, internal and external struggles necessarily interact. Class struggles provide the force that permits man to extend his control of nature. But organized groups other than classes attempt to grow at the expense of other organized groups, although the resultant conflicts produce only local and momentary bursts of growth. Thus, a dialectic exists between group struggles and class struggles — a meeting ground between the classic history of kingdoms and powers and the history, still largely unwritten, of social relations.

Unfortunately, the classic and specifically the "national" historiography of the nineteenth century introduced habits of language into the political discourse that veil, not innocently, this dialectic. Social classes disappear. The group becomes personalized. When it used to be said, "The king of Spain wants" or "The king of France decides," it was perhaps Olivares or Richelieu who wanted or decided. But at least the convention designated the location of the responsible decisions. When it came to be said — and when and how awaits exploration — "Spain wants," "France decides," the illusion emerged of a political body as an active person.

But what body is at issue? Nine times out of ten, in common historical and political language, States are at issue, although often the explicit reference is to nations. The United Nations groups, in false equality, Haiti and China, the United States and the Arab emirates. The nationality of one individual, as listed on his passport, except in socialist countries, actually indicates a State affiliation. In the history of international relations — e. g., in Raymond Aron' s War and Peace Between Nations — "teams," military and diplomatic, confront each other according to theoretical "games," but nonetheless we read that "America is interested in … " or "The U.S.S.R. disposes of …" And let us not forget the language of the economists, for whom money is national and for whom the "national product" of Qatar and Switzerland, Albania, and South Africa, may be calculated without the least regard for the specific meaning in context.

Thus, an entire language leads us to confound "State" and "nation." The nineteenth century — the century of nationalism in Europe — was the century of colonization in Africa and Asia. And the twentieth century — the century of decolonization — has witnessed the division of Germany and Korea, European and Arab supernationalities, and the revival of Irish and Basque passions. Thus, there is no necessary correspondence between the "powers" endowed with different degrees of means and sovereignty and that "will to live together" by which Renan defined the nation. Not even a linear historical tendency toward such correspondence. Yet, all States continue to invoke "the national interest" against various group or class demands, while movements of national liberation continue to arise, to elicit sacrifice, and to win victories.

Where, then, should a true definition of the nation be sought? Should we take off in pursuit of a "concept" — of "a real and theoretical object with an admissible transhistorical irreducibility," as Nikos Poulantzas insists in L’Etat, la pouvoir, le socialisme? I think not. The nation, as a historical category, can only be defined historically, with attention to its psychologically social and ethnic characteristics, which also must be understood historically.

The psychology of groups plays an especially important part in the analysis of the nation, but to make use of it we must be careful to specify precisely the kinds of groups at issue — from sporting clubs to unions, from leagues to parties, not to mention churches. Historically, in more spontaneous and less organized forms, community consciousness has prevailed in concentric progression: A man is of a village.

All community consciousness implies consciousness of an "inside" and an "outside," of an "us" and a "them," of a belonging-possession — we belong to this group, and the group belongs to us. And, immediately, the mistrust of neighboring groups surfaces and can range from disdain to jealousy, from taunt to brawl, complete with such peak moments as fêtes, demonstrations, or matches.

At what moment, at what level of extension, at what degree of intensity and permanence, at what minimum of political will does a community psychology manifest attachment to an entity that can be called a nation? This is the historian's problem, for the phenomenon does exist and, before our eyes, has been playing an inestimable role. And it is impossible to ascribe a value judgment since it has been both positive and negative, revolutionary and conservative, pregnant with admirable actions and bloody horrors. Whether community sentiment rallies to the existing political system or demands independence from it, it animates both defensive resistance and movements for liberation as well as racism, xenophobic chauvinism, and other tendencies subject to demogogy and exploitation — tendencies that may generate such long-run movements as fascism or such momentary mass hysteria as that of August 1914.

These relationships between groups and individuals have been the object of important psychoanalytic interpretations — e.g., that of Wilhelm Reich or, more useful in my view, that of Alfred Adler, who stressed the reciprocal transfer from group to individual of inferiority and superiority complexes and status aspirations. Adler's reading illuminates much in the historical successions of defeat/humiliation/aggression and victory/relaxation/ resistance.

But let us be careful: This social psychology helps us to grasp the forms and to explain the intensities in the history of group consciousness. It says little about the origins or about special insertions at each historical moment. Lucien Febvre identified as "the highest problem" of a true "historical geography" the problem posed "by the very existence" of the "great modern nations." And today, I would add, by their being called into question.

Before turning to history, let us glance at ethnology, so often invoked as implicit justification for the nation. The specificity of the group, and its religious implications, surely inspired Durkheim's vision of the modern nation as a whole, with the sketch of a cult of the fatherland. In 1919-1920 Marcel Mauss clearly demonstrated the difficulties in moving from the conceptions of the group inspired by "segmentary" societies to juridico-political definitions inherited from the philosophy of the Enlightenment. And Georges Davy, in 1950, in a treatise of political sociology, passed without transition or explanation from "potlatch" to the "nation" of Renan.

Structural ethnology has clarified the relations among lineage, mental, and special structures. But Lévi-Strauss' recent seminar on Identity, held in Paris during 1977, failed to answer the question: What role does membership in the group play in the self-consciousness of the individual? Only Michel Izard, in his contribution on ethnic identity, offered some important suggestions, and even he did not avoid semantic confusion. Thus, he said that a group of blacksmiths, being technologically defined, is "ahistorical and international." What a vocabulary! But he did show that what colonizers called the Mossi Empire has been "a package of relations" — an "arrangement of situations of opposition" — marked primarily by having been put down, at a given historical moment, by conquerors. In consequence, there arose at the base a consciousness of marginalization — frustration with all power — which was offset by cultivation of those indigenous moral and peasant values which scorn fighting and the violent world of the powerful. Ethnicity would thus appear to be the seat of the antipowers, the antisacred, the antidiscourses, the antihistory — a view that corresponds to the sensibility of certain contemporary peasant and ethnic movements.

The interest of the case lies in its frequency. Egyptians, Assyrians, Incas, Aztecs — the passage from clans to empires has been common. By conquest. And therefore, there are conquerors and conquered — a State power and an unhappy group consciousness. In America the Spanish conquest profited while adding another cleavage. But can one cast the Indians of the Andes as the "nation" they did not constitute when the Spanish arrived? Can one simply integrate them into a "Peru" or "Bolivia" — entities born of colonial slices within which the Indians long figured as only a "caste"? Ethnology and history cannot be divided.

Regional ethnography also has a word to say about more evolved societies. One can erect a differentiated anthropology at the heart of the best confirmed political unities, as has long been recognized for Spain and is beginning to be recognized for France. But what can be said about the highly differentiated racial minorities who bear a dramatic social heritage in the most modern formations such as the United States? The black problem, like the Jewish problem, has been that of nations without territories. What is certain is that the happy vision of the unifying "melting pot" has assuredly been left behind.

Let me therefore acknowledge that beneath the modern empires similar infrastructures live on. A fortiori, they must have survived under the administrative and military apparatuses of the oriental empires or of the Roman Empire. If the Roman Empire left strong cultural imprints, it neither destroyed latent ethnicities nor prefigured modern nations, whatever a Julian or a Ramón Menéndez Pidal may have thought. At the fall of the Empire the underlying divisions revived: the pagi (countries) that encased the emerging medieval life (counties, bishoprics).

And yet, antiquity left us models. Or rather, images, false but active. Whether small pre-Hellenic monarchies, classic Greek city-states, or primitive Italian cities, these minute unities were originally closer to the segmentary societies (genos-phratraphulé or gens-curia-tribus) than to our present national territories. But, with them, the political body (polis) is personalized. One says Mycenae, Athens, Sparta, Rome, Albe. An entire literary tradition inherits a certain image of the fatherland.

By contrast, the beginnings of the Western Middle Ages contributed negatively to the "nation." To be sure, ethno-linguistic currents ran through the Romanized space and modified both the old substrata and the Roman stabilization. People have spoken of "ambulatory nationalities" — Goths, Franks, Lombards — who in effect left names. But what did they crystallize? Effectively, from the fifth to the tenth century, everything tended to become local and individual, especially in the realm of the established powers. At the basis of the feudal mode of production, a man was first from a village community; subsequently, he adds, "I am of such a lord … " At the summit, however, the universal Church spoke Latin at exactly the moment at which the popular languages were taking shape. So that when the word "nation" — linked to the idea of birth (naissance) — broke through, it signals, first and foremost, differences of language. (Nationes sive lingae, wrote Saint Thomas.)

And to language a slightly later Middle Ages would associate character. In the universities the "nations" grouped students of distinct regional language and origin, and, immediately, in the eyes of the "others," the Englishman became drunk, the Frenchman proud, the German brutal, the Norman boastful, the Burgundian stupid, the Breton inconstant, the Sicilian tyrannical, the Fleming gluttonous. What interests us in this enumeration by Jacques de Vitry is, first, that the national stereotypes were born with their frightening puerilities 3; and second, that they encompass not our familiar national groups but a much larger number of regional identifications (Lombards, Flemings, Poitevins, Brabançons). The numbers of groups have led people to talk of provincial nationalities — a poor choice of vocabulary that nonetheless orients us toward the underlying current of regional ethnicities, some of which still live.

That period posed the problem of who would assume responsibility for the political organization of those underlying groupings. First, the great nobles who assumed the title of kings (counts of Castille, Barcelona, Toulouse, duke of France) exploited sources of prestige and rights of different origin such as feudal suzerainties, the several aspects of royalty, and memories of Roman law. From the point of view of the national future, the process had two aspects: Kings or great feudal lords played, without thought for their subjects, with matrimonial combinations and rights of conquest; and occasionally they called upon the solidarity of origins — nationals nostres, as the Catalan kings say. But in some cases (Poland, Scandinavia) the nobility, in its capacity as ruling class, posed the problems of national construction, even if it did not always resolve them.

To neglect these demands on the pretext that the word "nation" did not have its present meaning during the Middle Ages entails neglecting the underlying role, whether passive or active, of the objective forces of community. These forces assuredly bore on the longue durée during which successive modes of production reemployed and rearranged but did not create them. The community did not create the rising State, nor was the rising State able to create its community out of whole cloth. The relationship between the two must be understood as dynamic and dialectical.

The modern State, which subsequently became identified with the nation, really took shape as the most advanced political form in the transition from feudalism to capitalism in certain countries, at a certain level, at certain moments. It appeared in England with the Tudors, in France with Louis XI, in Spain with Ferdinand and Isabella. And these entities were named from the outside: Spain in the singular, no longer Hispaniae in the plural as before.

The "national" values of the Middle Ages must, therefore, be approached with caution. No more than our own time did the Middle Ages witness a coincidence between politics and ethnicity — between nationality and the reconstruction of the State. Yet, the presence of any medieval national spirit cannot be dogmatically rejected. A group feeling, especially when defensive, as during the Hundred Years War, can favor a royal enterprise. A coalition of ruling interests, bound by common origins and purposes, can sketch out the expansive contours of a precocious national State — e.g., in Catalonia during the thirteenth century. This particular case remains exceptional in its alliance of a feudal monarchy and a commercial bourgeoisie which normally created urban republics with limited territorial possessions.

Poulantzas, a Marxist whose primary concern seems to be to demonstrate that Marxism errs, affirms that the Marxist tradition maintains: "The nation, just like the modern State, was the creation of commercial capital, and rose with the commercial bourgeoisie at the beginnings of capitalism." According to Poulantzas, this explanation "is not only very partial, but functions as an obstacle to a true analysis of the modern nation." Hence, he concludes, no doubt with the intention of removing the obstacle: "The unequal development of capitalism is itself cosubstantial, in its spatialized dimension to this discontinuous morphology, the expansion of capital itself cosubstantial to this topology of irreversible orientation, imperialism in the modern sense cosubstantial with these frontiers. The premises of the territory as constituent element of the modern nation are inscribed in this capitalist spatial matrix."

Is it all clear? Above all, do not ask what capitalism is at issue, nor what capital (the second question being the more important). The Fuggers or the Rothschilds? The Venetian Arsenal or Krupp? Potosi or Standard Oil? Montchrestien or Bastiat? Philip II or Queen Victoria? If you worry about such things, you fall into empiricism. And all the more, if you raise questions about language, tradition, or culture, which, if by Poulantzas' standards you are a Marxist, you should "in some way" consider as "historical essences with an immutable nature." It is always diverting to see a mind, however sympathetic its project, endow others with its own failings by discerning immobility where it does not exist and proposing confusion for rigor. Thirty-two pages on the Nation and the State without mentioning a single state, a single nation, may be considered a theoretical tour de force. Permit me, however, to prefer a historical Marxism.

Let us rather ask what, in the "modernity of the sixteenth century," as Henri Hauser called it, moves beyond the Middle Ages and announces the future even if it remains far from creating the nation-state of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The three great absolute monarchies (Spain, France, England) were assuredly not capitalist States. They crowned a feudal order the dispersion of which they had dominated — just as contemporary capitalism dominates the wild, original capitalism. They protected the values, the hierarchies, the incomes of the feudal class. But they also had to adapt to a transformed world — to the rise of productive forces and the opening of new markets by the discoveries. Did these processes already endow the bourgeoisie with a decisive role?

Let us exercise some prudence: There had been various bourgeoisies since the Middle Ages, and they had had their representation in royal circles; yet, the sixteenth-century kings were known to repudiate their debts when the occasion demanded and to hang their financiers: Nonetheless, by multiplying councils, bureaus, "chambers," appeals to jurists, to cameralists, even to arbitristes, the so-called modern State did manifest a need for a political economy that exceeded the modes and needs of the old royal houses. Can one already speak of the accounts of the nation? Contemporaries still called them accounts of the Prince or of the kingdom. But they also frequently said "of the republic": The State is revealing its pretensions to being "the thing of everyone" (res publica).

This economic attitude of the established powers already betrays a certain sense of unity of the market within the frontiers. Monetary unity offers the most symbolic index. But Spain, for example, does not realize this monetary unity. And unity of customs in France will await 1789. Let us be prudent here again: The nation as a market is above all the conception of industrial capitalism. The rest is only preparation.

By contrast, with respect to the exterior, the identification of the interests of the State with the common interest crystallized in mercantilism. Mercantilism had existed during the Middle Ages and indeed still exists — one has only to read our ministers. But the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries systematized it. In mercantilism, Marx observed, capitalism realized its elementary form ("to make money") at the collective level before preaching it at the individual level. Thus, in 1615, for Montchrestien, economies (the management of the city) was to sell more than one buys, to increase the wealth of the kingdom, to develop tillage and pasturage — "the breasts of France." And the community has been personalized.

Everything prepared this development. The Reformation had broken Catholic universality. Humanism and the Renaissance had revived Justinian law and the notion of belonging-possession that constitutes the fatherland: "France, mother of the arts, arms, and laws/ Long have you nourished me from the milk of your breasts . . ." "Our Spain," the Castillian arbitristes will repeat during 1615-1620.

Is to evoke, and above all to master, this history an obstacle to analyzing the modern nation? Is it not, on the contrary, to seek its source: the appearance of a type of State that, without abandoning its royal image — a patrimonial image — sketches the future myth of the coincidence of State and collectivity? To be sure, casting that development as the "creation of commercial capital" would be absurd. But I should like to see the Marxist text that ever proposed that scenario.

The commercial bourgeoisie's demand for the nation-state did exist, but at the end of an evolution and in a revolutionary situation. The Netherlands against Philip II hardly constitutes a simple story: Interests, language, religion all play their role; princes, nobility, populace intervene together or turn about. But if there is one country in which the commercial bourgeoisie — astonishingly more developed than elsewhere — inspires, organizes, commands, it is certainly in this first model of a national-bourgeois revolution against a foreign power, however legitimate according to feudal law. Can this really be understood as the case of a "territorial matrix" suited to any old "capitalism"? Clearly not. The commercial bourgeoisie is not the capitalist bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century, for the early modern period is simply not the period inaugurated by the industrial revolution. Prior to the market-nation, the mercantile-nation prevailed.

At the end of the seventeenth century the England of the revolutions offers confirmation. Listen to Thomas Mun in England's Treasure by Foreign Trade, recommending to his son, after piety,

Policy, how to love and serve thy Country, by instructing thee in the duties and proceedings of sundry Vocations, which either order, or else act the affairs of the Common-wealth; In which as some things doe especially tend to Preserve, and others are more apt to Enlarge the same… But first of all I will say something of the Merchant, because he must be a Principal Agent in this great business…

What a lesson in the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Such an analysis can be pursued by texts and respect comparisons.

For a start, in the case of revolution, a dominant class invokes — and successfully — ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and religious identity against the existing State, wherever a class in power — or closely associated with established power — affirms the identity of the collectivity and the State without raising the problem of underlying ethnicities. This schema is essential for any understanding of the relations between ruling classes, the State, and the nation. Bear in mind, however, that during the early modern period the word nation is not evoked. The references to republic and to fatherland are already significant enough. What does the word nation add when, with altered meaning, it emerges at the end of the eighteenth century in the front ranks of political vocabulary?

The mutation of the word nation is well known: It occurred in France. One must know the French eighteenth century in order to perceive the gradual perfection of the territorial matrix. On the lands reassembled by the monarchy, the old ethnicities lived on. But the need for unity was economic (free circulation) and social (abolition of feudal privileges). For a protracted period the opposition remained cosmopolitan (e.g., the Enlightenment) at the top and particularist at the bottom. Thus, in the "cahiers de doléances," the provinces of Comté, Provence, Béarne ask if they should remain French. At the summit of the revolutionary process "patriot" acquires the meaning of partisan of the public good against established interests, and "nation" acquires the meaning of the totality of the citizens destined, in opposition to arbitrariness, to assume State power. Internally, "The Nation assembled cannot take orders." Externally, Goethe at Valmy claimed to have witnessed the birth of a "new era" when he heard the soldiers cry "Long Live the Nation."

We thus find ourselves in front of a new encounter: nation-state — a dialectically reciprocal creation, within which the new community sweeps away the old and unity emerges at the most intense point of the class struggle. But it is a revolution. The people participates. The peasant recognizes the defense of his new rights in the defense of the fatherland. The bourgeoisie, born to de facto power, preaches the ideological assimilation of the principle of 1789; the nation as voluntary community, the territory one and indivisible. The national market will be unified, defended, extended. The model will reach its perfection after 1871, under the blow of defeat and with the ascendancy of the middle classes, when each citizen will become soldier and when the school will institute the cult of the fatherland.

This dialectic of the Revolution was propagated throughout Europe. When the French sought to carry "liberty at the point of bayonets," the communities under attack reacted. Reacted in confusion: For the classes of the ancien régime fought for their privileges; the enlightened classes opposed the French with their own principles; and the popular classes had never liked the foreigner. When all those strands came together, as in Spain, the defense went well, the reconstruction badly. Everywhere, however, it became clear that in the face of an invader it is less a society than a community that rises. Later, Tönnies would base a theoretical argument on the distinction — Gemeinschaft-Gesellschaft. It was indisputably experienced in the confrontation with Napoleon, not only in Germany — where the spirit of the people (Volksgeist) was exalted — but in Spain where Capmany, at Cadiz, proposed to define the nation not as the "reunion" of Spaniards but as their "communion," in the same sense, he underscored, as one says "the communion of the faithful." This mystique of the fatherland will remain present, at the end of the century, in the political discourse of a Castelar, a Costa.

Henceforth, how is it possible to see in this nation, in this fatherland, with its mystics, a simple historical category of capitalism — a framework within which the bourgeoisie unfolds? It would be wrong to deem the two things incompatible. We saw them associated in Thomas Mun. Remember that the creator of classical economics, breaking with mercantilism, nonetheless entitled his work not "Wealth of States," but Wealth of Nations.

At this juncture industry intervenes, and with it the industrial bourgeoisie. Listen to their German representatives in the years 1850-1870: 'It is time that the German industrialists act in the direction of the national resurrection of the fatherland …." Or, "Their interest and the interest of the fatherland are identical …. " Or, "Without German entry into industrial life, we would not have moved beyond the pitiful stage of internal division ….’’ Or, "Poland was crossed off the list of nations through lack of a vigorous bourgeoisie such as only manufacturing industry could have called into existence." The last remark is List's — that lucid, cold, even cynical theorist of the links between nation, power, industry, and war. And what then happens to the sentimentally experienced community of language, culture, and character? The vocabulary clearly evokes them. And the "closed State" had been imagined by Fichte, the doctrinaire of the German nation. This conjuncture was realized by the German and Italian unifications. In this fashion the Catalan industrialists wanted to reinvigorate, by means of the economy, the old Spanish power — the "nation" that Capmany sought to define. The link between the industrial bourgeoisie and the nation-state (not necessarily the nation) provides the best established historical evidence for the analysis; for the political and economic events are buttressed by the texts.

The effort to internalize, and then to project, the early-modern States (Spain, France, England) as economic powers and the success of Germany and Italy in breaking the old feudal molds have led to a too easy belief that Western Europe, by its material advance, represented the outcome of a necessary and irreversible process towards the coincidence between nation and State. Despite the obligatory illusion to the Irish exception, the world of 1900 hardly recognized the least internal flaw in the great recognized nation-states of Western Europe. If Marxists sought that flaw, they expected to find it in the antagonism between the working class and the bourgeoisie. But precisely in this respect the nation-states would prove astoundingly solid in 1914. And if the Catalans, Basques, Flemings, or Jurassiens of today wonder at having so little caught the attention of the world before 1914, they should be reminded that the "national movements" of central and eastern Europe, which then held center stage, willingly adopted the most coherent nation-states as models — fatherlands in the French version.

In 1962 I called attention to the surprising flowering of reflections and texts that mark, with respect to the problem of the nation, the awakening of European arms in the years 1904-1913. My purpose was mainly to situate Prat de la Riba whose La nacionalitat catalan (1906) has exceptional clarity. But I also recalled Meinecke, Weber, Tönnies in Germany; Barres, Maurras, Peguy, as well as Durkheim and Jaures in France; Renner, Bauer, Strasser in Austria: so many authors whose major texts on the nation inscribed themselves on that decade. The names of the Austro-Marxists (Renner, Bauer) orient us towards another problem, which has been raised repeatedly in Spain recently and cannot be ignored: the problem of Marxist thought with respect to the nation.

Once again we must cite Poulantzas as typical of a certain intellectual casualness on this matter. The nation, he tells us, "in some sense concentrates the lacunae of a certain traditional Marxism. One must accept the evidence: There is no Marxist theory of the nation. With due respect to the passionate debates on the subject in the working-class movement, saying that Marxism underestimates the national reality still seriously understates the matter."

Curious. There was the great debate of 1904-1913; the war of 1914; the denunciation of the betrayals of Social Democracy; the construction of the USSR ("socialism in one country," "The Great Patriotic War"); the Spanish Civil War; the patriotic resistance to fascism; the colonial liberations (Vietnam!); Cuba; Che Guevara. And the national reality has been underestimated by Marxists! Theory, then, has no relationship to practice?

It has become standard, with reference to Marx and Engels on the nation, to cite the work of Solomon Bloom (1941). The work is useful. But the existence of books about authors too frequently becomes a dispensation from returning to the authors themselves and from returning to their simple formulations. For as Einstein once said to Malraux in reference to the complicity of the bourgeoisies in the Spanish Civil War, "simple easy things are not necessarily wrong." On the contrary, provided one understands them.

Let us return to the Manifesto — which should not always be sacrificed to Capital — and to the famous phrase: "Communists are reproached with desiring to abolish countries and nationality. The workingmen have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not." This sentence, like that on history and the class struggle, has wrought disasters. Marx's adversaries have assailed it in the name of national feeling. Adherents of working class internationalism, themselves disdainful of historical reality, have assailed it as underestimating the national fact — which is true.

Yet once again, in criticizing the simplistic uses of the phrase, let us not in turn underestimate its core of truth. The admirable poem of Nicolas Guillen, "Tengo," inspired by the success of the Cuban revolution, brilliantly captures what a worker has not in a capitalist fatherland and what he has if he changes the bases of society. "The worker has no fatherland" has a meaning. But consider the development of the Manifesto: "Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is so far itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word."

The dense sentence commands a scrupulous analysis: 1. The nation exists; 2. it is a political fact; 3. each dominant class erects itself as a national class; 4. each national class identifies itself with the nation; 5. the bourgeoisie has done as much, and the proletariat must do so; 6. in accordance with the class that assumes power, the national fact can assume new meaning.

In my view that constitutes a theory, and one, moreover, confirmed by practice. One can even wonder if the theoretical value of a text cannot be measured by its brevity. The elaboration depends on the historian and requires volumes. Today, certain Marxists practice the reverse procedure: They put history in parentheses and run off at the mouth for volumes about theory.

One possible line of research on the interpretations of the national fact might be the distinction between those who have ignored, neglected, or contradicted the sentence from the Manifesto, and those who, explicitly or no, have understood and assimilated it well enough to have applied it to the situations with which practice confronted them.

There have been those who raise the nation above social classes and, in certain cases, above history itself. With two orientations:

First, the orientation symbolized in the work of Renaln, which still inspired Jaurés — the legacy of the Enlightenment and of 1789: the nation as the expression of the global will of the conscious citizens. This orientation projects the image of the democratic State with its values — a rational not a mystic conception — and its pitfalls. It implies that all citizens equal in rights are equal in fact, and it calls everyone to the total defense of a system in which only a minority enjoys the benefits. It is the foundation of the bourgeois ideology of the nation, which the French school imposed upon all children and which led to August 1914. 4

Second, an alternative orientation derives from Herder's Volksgeist, from Tönnies' Gemeinschaft, from Durkheim's ethno-sociological model. In this complex it is essential to differentiate the personal position of the authors (frequently eclectic), the contributions to a specific psychology of groups, and the diffuse use that nationalisms and fascisms have made of the notion of community. I should incline, although there is room for discussion, to link these types of thought to that of Otto Bauer, which remains valuable both in its critical attitude toward existing theories and in its intention to link the individual to history despite the ambiguities into which it occasionally plunges. The theoretical conception of the nation as a "community of character awakening from a community of destiny" ("aus Schicksals - gemeinschaft erwachsende Charaktergemeinschaft") underlines the historical foundation of the national fact, but the notion of "destiny" carries an irrational resonance. The same strand will reappear in the thought of Jóse Antonio — and it would be interesting to reconstruct that passage.

Only the heirs of the sentence from the Manifesto deserve the name of Marxists, although not all of them have a complete and coherent interpretation of its content. The controversy between Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin over the Polish case is illuminating but does not get to the bottom of the matter.

Both of them were struck by the double "historical tendency" of capitalist development, with one tendency pushing for the creation of national States and the other reinforcing the great multinational and colonial powers and seeming to internationalize problems. But Luxemburg concludes that the swelling of the "predatory States" is preparing more appropriate cadres for the coming revolution, whereas "the national State and nationalism" are no more than "empty envelopes" into which each epoch and each system of class relations "put their particular material content." She thus foresees for Poland only partial autonomy over such matters as roads and transportation — a view Lenin derides.

Lenin effectively thinks that the tendency toward the creation of national States, characteristic of a preliminary phase of capitalist development, has not exhausted its role and can still be used against such political States as Russia, Austria, Turkey. It is therefore necessary to support completely, both on principle and for tactical reasons, the political demands of national groups sufficiently conscious to claim their own State. Purely material or purely cultural "autonomisms" will not be able to play this role. They, on the contrary, tend to raise bourgeois economic or idealist nationalism to "an absolute, a masterpiece of creation" without taking its negative aspects into account. The working-class movement, by its unreserved defense of the rights of nationalities to independence, must distinguish the anti-authoritarian, anti-imperialist features of this struggle from the apologetic, emotional features of even the most "just," "discriminating," "pure," and "civilized" nationalisms. Such nationalisms, Lenin insists, can lay the ground for the most demagogic bourgeois ideology. The working class must, therefore, struggle against national oppression, not for some future State that would designate itself as the common fatherland of the exploiters and the exploited. These views of Lenin, in their clarity on principles and tactics, take the national fact as given, to the extent that it can be claimed by the workingclass movement. They do not, however, explain what it is. Can that question still be posed, as it was for so long, to Stalin?

Today, a masked intellectual terrorism would have it that one not cite Stalin without apologies. However understandable, this attitude cannot be defended when it leads to disdainful airs toward Stalin's texts. Even in judging Stalin, the worst possible method would be to take the man for a fool. And nothing justifies the transgression of the elementary rules of criticism by the invocation of ad hominem argument: Stalin's influential texts, like those of everyone else, must be considered on their merits. And surely, nothing is gained, except for the narrowest partisan causes, by following historians like Richard Pipes who denigrate Stalin's credentials as a theorist, suggest that Lenin called on him to write his famous article of 1913 only because no one better was around, and then feel relieved of the responsibility to deal seriously with his ideas. 5

Let us begin with Stalin's long article, "How Does Social Democracy Understand the National Question" (1904). True, some critics contest the authenticity of all of Stalin's writings before 1905. But it should suffice to note the compatibility of the arguments in this article with those of the uncontested article of 1913 — of the theoretical unity of the two.

I do not think that it has been noticed that, in the article of 1904, Stalin takes his inspiration from that essential sentence in the Manifesto and uses it as the thread of his article and as an example of the demystification of words. Indeed, Marx and Engels, in an entire if rarely cited part of the Manifesto, demonstrate that there are several "socialisms": feudal, clerical, petty-bourgeois, conservative bourgeois, "critical-utopian." Stalin does the same for the "national question." In Georgia there had been various nationalisms — that of the feudalists, of the clergy, of the petty bourgeois, of the bourgeois, and even of the "socialists" — until, "a new class, the proletariat," intervened in the arena of struggle and posed a new "national question": "the national question of the proletariat." Which constitutes a reply to the more general introductory sentence of the article: "Everything changes. Social life changes and with it the national question changes as well. At different epochs, different classes move into combat, and each class has its own fashion of understanding the 'national question.' " Consequently: "In different epochs the national question serves distinct interests and adopts different nuances according to the class that poses it and the moment at which it is posed."

I cited the italicized sentence at the head of La Catalogne dans L' Espagne moderne in the belief that it afforded the reply to foreseeable false debates about the "Catalan nation" during the Middle Ages or about Catalanism as a "popular" fact or a "bourgeois" phenomenon.

It is true that in the second part of the 1904 article Stalin raised problems specific to Georgia at the beginning of the century, but those problems remain so immediate for present-day Spain that their publication would elicit passions: Should one create working class parties in each "nationality" or retain the Russian Social Democratic Party? Should one encourage federalism? Should one, finally, "raise barriers" higher than those that reality has already constructed? Stalin is perfectly clear on the national "program" of the Social Democrats: They favor civil equality, total liberty of languages, administrative autonomy, and the defense of national cultures. And he displays no tenderness for the pressures of bureaucratic centralism. But when he faces the question of whether or not national independence is advantageous for the proletariat, he energetically refuses to give — what some would demand — a "categorical response." And he gives his reasons:

We see that the circumstances susceptible to provoking and developing a movement of "national liberation" among the bourgeoisie of the dependent nationalities have not yet been realized and that they are not absolutely inevitable for the future. We only admit their existence as eventualities.

Moreover, at the moment it would be impossible to say what degree of development the class consciousness of the proletariat will have attained, nor to what extent this movement will be useful or harmful to it. We wonder on what basis we can rely to give a "categorical" response to this question. And is it not stupid to demand a "categorical" response in these conditions?

It is obvious that the problem of resolving these questions must be left to the dependent nationalities themselves; our responsibility is to win them the right to resolve the question. The nationalities themselves must decide, when the moment arrives, whether "national independence" is useful or harmful for them and, if it is useful, in what form that independence should be realized. They alone can cut through this question!

All these affirmations conform to those of Lenin: It is necessary to struggle against the oppression of the State and not for nationalist ideology; the right to divorce must be proclaimed, but not the obligation to divorce; the nationalities themselves must prove their maturity. There is no nation "in itself" — only consciousnesses in construction, at different degrees of political exigency.

In the face of these observations how can we be surprised that in 1913 Lenin gave to Stalin the responsibility for a "theoretical" article on the "nation," directed against the Austro-Marxists? To be sure, it has become common, in the manner of Pipes, to add that Lenin was less than satisfied with the article. This dissatisfaction is deduced from various "signs." One sign, however, is left aside: In 1917 Lenin entrusted Stalin with the "Commissariat on the Nationalities."

Let us then turn to the famous "definition" of the 1913 article which, it is true, long figured as a "catechism": "The nation is a stable, historically constituted human community of language, territory, economic life, and psychological formation, that translates itself into a community of culture." The formula bears the faults of any definition. Some of its critics find it "dogmatic," "pedagogical." The connoisseurs of "concepts" find it "empirical" and "historicist." Still, the formula only appears in the text after several pages of justification and of criticisms of other definitions. Rather than rehashing these arguments, many of which remain debatable, would it not be better to establish, for each of the terms of the definition, the suggested socio-historical dossier?

Community: It is the entire dossier of the sociologists of the group, of the Gemeinschaft, with its realities and its dangers.

Stable: It is the problem of the historical time appropriate to the phenomenon under consideration; it is precisely the type of fact evoked by Fernand Braudel's "longue durée," whereas the nation-state is a historical category of the middle range and national movement of the short term.

Historically constituted: This term is perhaps the most important, for it pushes aside the images of eternity, of essence, that "transhistorical" of which Poulantzas makes so much; the "nation" derives essentially from the historical matrix.

Language: Discussion is possible: Are there nations of several languages? Or rather, should we not be referring to States — and States that run certain risks such as Canada, Belgium? Language, as I have frequently insisted, is at once sign, cause, and consequence in the political vicissitudes of a nation.

Territory: Against Bauer, but, on this point, in agreement with Borochov — that Marxist-Zionist so important for national theory — Stalin does not believe that the nation, if it is to be realized politically, can exist without a given territorial matrix.

Economic life: This is the whole problem of the network of interests, which, while differing according to historical time, crystallizes solidarities and habits of life — as I tried to show for Catalonia.

Psychological formation, cultural community: Here it is clear that Stalin is far from rejecting the cultural elements advanced by Bauer. He rejects the notions of "national destiny," of "national spirit," which he does not think derive from scientific analysis.

If, however, Stalin agrees with Luxemburg in seeing the nation as the "envelope" in which each epoch and each class places a distinct content, he refuses to believe that the envelope is "empty." Doubtless less original than Luxemburg, than Bauer, or than Borochov, from all of whom he borrows, he nonetheless manages, with acute intelligence, to erase such mystifications as community "of destiny" and "empty" envelope. Let us not, in turn, allow ourselves to be mystified by a sanctimonious revisionism.

Let us, rather, endeavor to rethink without prejudice sixty years of history.

Has the Soviet Union realized, as — ironically — Bauer recognized, the "cultural autonomy" of the "dependent" nationalities? What at the end of World War II were the respective roles of the national factor and the social revolutionary factor in the reconstruction of Europe and Asia? What combinations of nation and revolution were presented by the cases of Algeria, Vietnam, Cuba, Albania, Yugoslavia, Cambodia? How can we grasp the unfolding of that double process which Lenin discerned in the development of capitalism: the tendency toward internationalization and supranationalities (European and American "communities," the multinational corporations), and the tendency toward the rebirth — at very diverse levels — of the underlying ethnicities of the older States? Cannot the national factor, revolutionary as it may be at the heart of the multinational capitalist States, become counterrevolutionary in the hands of dispossessed classes after the revolution? What are we to think of the martyrdom of the Jewish people, of its sparse but persistent cultural community, while Israel installs an obsessive nationalism in the middle of the Arab world? These and other specific problems can only be solved by effective political movements prepared to apply specific analyses that bring a historical perspective to the dialectical links among states, nations, and classes. The revolutionary experiences of the twentieth century have confirmed the essentials of Marx's theory and laid the groundwork for the further theoretical advance of a Marxism that does not lose sight of the processes of change manifested at each historical moment.


1. Michel Izard, in L'Identite Seininaire inter disciplinaire dirlge par Claude Levi-Strauss professeur an College de France, 19744975 (Paris, 1977), 313. Replying to Mr. Izard, Lévi Strauss said: “We call ourselves French because we are not Italians, Germans, Spaniards. Conversely, you (the Mossis) would call yourself French because it is impossible to call oneself duke, baron, doctor, lawyer.” Is it not agreeable to see the great ethnologist advance so maladroitly into the terrain of the national fact?

2. See Henri Fabre-Colbert, Le défi occitan, refus paysan (Narbonne-Paris, 1976).

3. J. Caro Baroja, El mito del carácter nacional: Meditaciones a contrapelo (Madrid, 1970), has sharply attacked the stereotype. But the problem is to observe its origins and its effects. Fabre-Colbert (Le défi occitan, p. 156) is more brutal, My Spanish — and American — friends will forgive me this untranslatable quotation: "Saves-vous ce que pensent les Français á propos des autres citoyens du monde (et les autres pensent la méme chose de nous): les Anglais sont des cons, les Allemands des gros cons, les Italiens des petits cons, les busses des bougres de cons, les Ricains de grands cons, les Arabes de sales cons, les Espagnols de pauvres cons," That, in the judgment of the author, is well worth two hundred pages of Sorbonne specialists on the “epidemic xenophobia of the masses." Perhaps, indeed. But ascertaining is not analysis.

4. It is worth noting that in Le défi occitan Fabre-Colbert, despite his brutality and sharpness with respect to the present confrontation, refuses to condemn August 1914. His peasant friends invested too much of their hearts. As they did in the Resistance, in which he himself participated. The national question is not frozen. Ordinary men experience it differently according to each different historical situation.

5. Georges Haupt, et al., Les Marxists et la question nationale (Paris, 1974), 307, do not repeat, but do not call into question, Pipes' error. They do not even partially reproduce the article of 1904. True, the collections on the national question, published under Stalin, did not do so either. But why should we assume the official attitudes? Only Paulo Iztueta and Jokin Apalategui, El marxismo y fa cuestión nacional vasca (Zaraus, 1977), give an important place to the article of 1904. Debates, ed., Anagrama (Barcelona, 1977), publishes the article of 1913. Rafaél Ribo, presenting the text, but caught between Rodinson, Pipes, and Haupt, et al., does not go back to the source. What then is the use of the "Complete Works" of an author if one.