The Question of Nationalities and Social Democracy

THAT ONE of the greatest failures of Marxist theory was its inability to understand “the national question” has been a pervasive truism for decades. The fact that this claim has been repeated many times in one form or another indicates that those who hold it are most likely unfamiliar with Otto Bauer’s Marxist classic The Question of Nationalities and Social Democracy. And one cannot blame them (at least if they only read in English): Bauer’s long, complex, and very sophisticated analysis of the nation from a historical materialist perspective has been unavailable in English until now, and in order to read it in the German original much more than a basic command of that language would have been necessary (A French translation appeared in Paris and Montréal in 1987; indeed the book has been translated into all major Western languages, and a Russian version was published already in Czarist times.). I would dare to restate my original statement, and say that Marxism has difficulty dealing with non-material aspects of human experience: human consciousness, culture, identity, and so forth. Bauer’s treatise on the national question is probably one of the best exceptions to this rule, successfully managing to overcome those limitations of classic Marxism without the need to resort to any form of “idealist” or metaphysical explanation. Bauer’s detailed analysis of the nation is deeply rooted in human society and history, and challenges “mystical” notions of the nation or any conception that sees it as a biological or natural phenomenon. In this way, the nation is for Bauer a dynamic entity that changes throughout history. Moreover, Bauer’s analysis avoids as well most of the mechanistic simplifications of “vulgar” Marxism.

Otto Bauer (1881–1934) was a prominent leader of the All-Austrian Social Democratic Party (Gestamtpartei) and a notable theorist of Austro-Marxism, an intellectual current that was linked, but not identical, to that party. While Bauer’s ideas on the nation — together with those of the other Austro-Marxist concerned with this question, Karl Renner — were highly regarded in their party, the program they advanced to solve the national question was never adopted. Renner and Bauer put forward the idea of non-territorial national-cultural autonomy in a multinational state. Yet the party conference held in 1899 in the Moravian city of Brünn adopted a national program demanding national autonomy based on territory and rejected the South Slav delegation’s proposal that a program demanding a non-territorial autonomy be adopted instead.

The Question of Nationalities was first published in 1907, and a second edition appeared during the author’s lifetime in 1924. The present English translation is based on this second German edition, including the valuable preface written after the partition of the Austro-Hungarian Empire into nation states, when, as Bauer himself acknowledged, any hope for the realization of the programmatic part of the book was lost. This preface also contains some interesting additions and examples, in particular a clarification of the often misunderstood notion of “national character” based on a historical-materialist analysis, and illustrated by an extended comparison of French and English national characters. This English edition is superb. Joseph O’Donnell’s translation makes the difficult text intelligible, when necessary providing well-chosen English equivalents for complex German terms, or terms invented by Bauer. The German original of all the key terms is given in square brackets.

Each of the main types of nations is exemplified in the book by prominent examples taken from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The first half of the book is theoretical and historical. It begins with a long analysis of the term “nation,” in which the Germans are the chosen instance of a “historical” nation. Then Bauer moves to the nation state, “deconstructing” the supposedly natural bond between nation and state, and subsequently to the multinational state, examining the phenomenon of the “awakening of the nonhistorical nations” in modern times with the Czechs as the main example. The second half of the book, more programmatic, deals with territorial and non-territorial national autonomy and finally with the “program and tactics of Austrian Social Democracy.” The Jews figure here as the major case study: in response to the question as to whether the Jews should claim cultural-national autonomy, Bauer discard such a possibility, claiming that while the Jews used to be a nation during feudal times, in his time they were integrating and it was likely that they would in the future completely assimilate into the surrounding nations.

Although the book’s general structure is straightforward, it is not an easy read. Bauer’s writing is somewhat idiosyncratic, at every step deploying a rich erudition, and backing every theoretical claim with an abundance (sometimes even an overabundance) of historical examples. However, the examples themselves have intrinsic interest. For instance, by choosing the Germans and the Czechs as his respective case studies of a historical and a nonhistorical nation, Bauer in fact re-writes the political-economic and cultural history of Central Europe. Like many other major works (and let me insist, this is a major work), The Question of Nationalities cannot be summarized in a few pages, and a short review like this one cannot expect to do justice to its content. I do believe that the only way to do full justice to this work would be to recognize its place in the history of understandings of the nation and as such incorporate it into academic and public debates on nations and nationalism.

Bauer rejects, on the one hand, “pragmatic” definitions of the nation based on a mere enumeration of elements (precisely the kind of definition Stalin would later use in his critical response to Bauer), and on the other metaphysical or psychological definitions of the nation, those usually formulated by nationalists themselves. (113–14) It takes Bauer over a 100 pages of historical examples and introduction and explanations of many new concepts to arrive at his own, somewhat synthetic definition of the nation as “the totality of human beings bound together by a community of fate into a community of character.” (117, cf. 101) Each of the terms that make up this definition (community of character, communities of fate) is discussed at length in an attempt to delimit its uses and establish nuances of meaning (see e.g. page 100 on “community”).

Bauer traces the existence of nations back to antiquity and tribal times. Here most contemporary students of the nation would differ with Bauer, but the disagreement may be more a question of terminology than of principle. For most scholars, it is misleading to call early human groups “nations” and other terms must be used to refer to pre-modern formations that would eventually develop into nations (e.g. “ethnic groups,” a term that in this sense postdates Bauer). Still, Bauer convincingly shows that European national cultures do have a much longer history, in most cases dating back to antiquity or the Middle Ages — which does not mean that the human (ethnic) groups that established those national cultures were then “nations.” The distinction between pre-modern ethnic groups and modern nations is not qualitative (i.e. does not imply that nations are in any way superior to ethnic groups) but temporal: the nation is a distinctive modern phenomenon, similar in some respects but in essence different from earlier phenomena. In other words, to be German, Czech, or Jew (to use Bauer’s examples) would have meant something different in the 16th century and the 19th century. It must be noted that even though the term “nation” is not appropriate for pre-modern groups, in modern times both “nations” and “ethnic groups” may be useful to account for various cases.

One specific reason makes it regrettable that this English translation appeared so late: several generations of Marxists encountered Bauer through the falsified representation of his book in Stalin’s Marxism and the National Question. Stalin first proffered a simplified and distorted summary of Bauer’s arguments (and those of the Jewish Marxist party, the Bund, whose national program for Russia was similar to Bauer’s), and then relentlessly attacked them. To be sure, some of the real or apparent contradictions Stalin found in Bauer’s text are not made up, even if Stalin interprets them in the least generous way possible and squeezes them to the maximum to achieve the effect he seeks (in particular Bauer’s ambiguous position on the question of whether the Jews are or are not a nation). Ephraim Nimni — the editor of the present volume, who certainly cannot be accused of hostility towards Bauer — characterizes Bauer’s chapter on the Jews as “enigmatic,” admitting that it stands “in contradiction to his theoretical stance.” (xxviii) It definitely appears more contradictory today than it must have in Vienna before World War I.

One particular section may puzzle contemporary readers: “The Nation as Community of Nature.” (25–33) “Community of nature” and “community of descent” are some of the terms introduced by Bauer to express a relatively simple idea: that ethnic groups in their early, tribal stages are composed of the descendents of common ancestors and tend not to mix with other groups, so that only later will a national culture that holds the nation together and is independent of biology be created. However, to clarify this idea, Bauer borrows from a scientistic Darwinist language that has become outdated and sounds almost offensive to today’s ears; but the ideas themselves, purged from the late-19th century rhetoric, are not offensive. And in any event, Bauer himself later acknowledges the hypothetical status of his speculations on heredity (36) and re-focuses his argument on culture and history, where he is on much more solid ground to develop a systematic analysis. Whereas he sees heredity as having some importance in the early tribal stages of the history of the nations, it becomes irrelevant in his analysis of later stages.

Nimni’s excellent “Introduction for the English-Reading Audience” deserves special mention. Nimni offers a general overview of Bauer’s argument that makes it accessible to the book’s intended audience, as well as an examination of the historical context in which it was written that will be particularly useful to readers not versed in the history of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Austrian Socialist Party. Furthermore, the introduction places Bauer’s arguments in the context of current debates on nations and multiculturalism, and therefore discloses what I think is the main raison d’être for the appearance of this edition now: the need to introduce Bauer’s ideas into these debates in order to challenge the conceptual constraints imposed by liberal discourse (the “centralist-atomist principle” that Bauer borrowed from Renner) on the thinking of alternatives to the limitations of the nation-state and its inability to respond to a multi-ethnic de facto reality.

Nimni’s introduction includes a short paragraph on Canada, pointing to the relevance of Bauer’s arguments to debates on nationality in this country. (xxx) Indeed, despite the fact that this book was written in a very different historical conjuncture and in socio-political conditions different from our own, its conceptual framework might greatly contribute to the controversies on multiculturalism in Canada in general, and in particular to the question of its francophone population. I have in mind for example the recent article in Labour/Le Travail, 46 in which Ralph Güntzel portrayed the massive and rather uncritical support of organized labour in Québec for sovereigntism since the 1960s. It is my belief that an approach based on non-territorial cultural autonomy in the context of a multinational state would reflect much more closely the interests of workers than the insistence on sovereignty at the cost of destroying this multicultural state. Moreover, a solution inspired by Bauer’s program would imply full recognition of the national rights of francophone Canadians, not only those living in Québec but also the Acadians in the Atlantic provinces and other francophone communities or individuals all over Canada, as well as the national rights of other ethnic minorities.

Bauer’s book is a must read for historians, political scientists, social theorists, students, and general readers interested in the national question and/or in Marxism. Not only is it indispensable for any academic library, but it should be required reading in the courses on nationalism taught today in almost every university. Bauer’s concepts, arguments and proposals deserve careful consideration by scholars engaged in the ongoing debate on nations, nationalism and multiculturalism, from both theoretical and historical perspectives. For all these reasons, this long-overdue English edition is a welcome contribution and the credit must go to Nimni’s perseverance for having brought this complex project to a successful conclusion despite many difficulties along the way.

Roni Gechtman
New York University