Returning to Marx and Engels on the National Question

Marxism-Leninism has been complicit in the reification of the nation-form and of nationalism as a dominant ideology. However, the desacralization of Lenin allows in principle for a return to origins of sorts within the Marxist tradition, opening up space for questioning and re-evaluating old Leninist dogmas. Among these, the dogma about national self-determination.

At first blush, this task may seem difficult, since it has often been alleged that the founding fathers of historical materialism had surprisingly little to say about nationalism at the level of theory, and that they underestimated the strength of its appeal at the level of practice. In this vein, Pelczynski complains that “[t]hey had no explanation, for instance, of why Polish patriotism in the nineteenth century was so intense and manifested itself in frequent uprisings against foreign powers, although they noted it and praised it often in their writings,” before posing the question: “How could Marx, who was such an acute observer of contemporary history as well as a social theorist of genius, have been so theoretically unconcerned about one of the dominant political phenomena of nineteenth-century Europe, and apparently blind to its significance for world history?”

There is some truth in this accusation. Marx and Engels did, after all, famously and falsely diagnose in their Communist Manifesto – a document drafted in response to the so-called “springtime of the peoples” of 1848 – that “national differences and antagonisms are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world-market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto.” Indeed, they even went so far as to insinuate that the dialectical development of the laws of capitalism was leading to an imminent transcendence of “national culture” and “national consciousness” and the emergence a world culture alongside an international revolutionary class consciousness. In terms of the imminent transcendence of national culture and its replacement with world culture, they described/predicted:

“In place of old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations, and as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures there arises a world literature.”

It must be recalled, however, that the Communist Manifesto was a pamphlet drafted in a hurry, as a programmatic, even propagandistic, call to action in response to rapidly developing revolutionary tumult. It was thus intended as a direct public intervention in an on-going political struggle, in which Marx and Engels were explicitly concerned to steer events – in accordance with a roadmap they drew, a roadmap for worldwide revolutionary rupture, expected to erupt in and spread out from the capitalist core. Given the nature of the revolutionary tumult to which they were responding, they were of course well aware of the mobilizational power and popular appeal of the category of the “nation,” of its links to struggles for the establishment of bourgeois freedoms in bourgeois republics. Indeed, their document makes explicit appeal across national boundaries to all workers of the world. In their call for all workers to unite, justified by their claim that “workers have nothing to lose but their chains,” Marx and Engels are deliberately attempting to counter the emergent hegemony of the category of “nation.” They do so by articulating an alternative discourse, one that advocates and foresees a more fundamental revolutionary rupture, a transformation of social-property relations, to be protagonized by the toilers of humanity themselves, destined to unite across national boundaries to struggle against their common lot of misery and exploitation.

It is not fair to consider Marx and Engels naïve on the national question. For starters, especially in the longer term, as Eric Hobsbawm not so long ago reminded us, the expansion of capitalist social-property relations across the globe has indeed created something approximating the “world culture” prophesied in the Manifesto by the founding prophets of the faith in communism. However, the emergence of this “world culture” has only on rare occasions entailed a transcendence of “national” modes of identification, perhaps even especially among the working class. But Marx and Engels then believed the onset of global revolution to be imminent; and they believed as well that along with the imminent realization of human emancipation would come the transcendence of the national “webs of mystification,” as well as the religious ones, in which the consciousness of the workers remained for the time being, unfortunately all too often enmeshed.

Because Marx and Engels were confident that such national and religious webs of mystification were destined to soon be washed away by the rising tide of human emancipation and the wave of global communist revolution, they spent little time inquiring into the institutional mechanisms of entrenchment and reification of sometimes conflicting, always ethno-fetishized and particularistic, national modes of consciousness. But alas, the global revolutionary rupture that Marx and Engels thought was imminent never arrived. Instead, the revolutionary tumult of mid-century Europe would soon give way to a quarter century of political stability underpinned by unprecedented capitalist expansion, and then increasing competition among rival capitalist powers, culminating in an Imperial scramble for Africa and ultimately the outbreak of World War.

Moreover, when communist revolution finally broke out, nearly seventy years after Marx and Engels had declared its arrival imminent, it erupted not in the capitalist core of Europe but instead in the Eurasian periphery, when the Bolsheviks seized power in defeated Czarist Russia. The coming to power of revolutionary forces in Russia was immediately hailed by many Marxists in the West as harbinger and trigger of imminent world revolution, and indeed was theorized as such by the Bolshevik leaders Lenin and Trotsky as well. But alas, again, the imminent world revolution never came. The revolution failed to spread from the periphery to the capitalist core, and with this failure, the strategy of “socialism in one country” was over-determined, as perhaps was even the tragic denouement of Stalinist tyranny that ended up extinguishing the emancipatory flame lit in October of 1917.

Though the founding fathers of historical materialism did not spend much time inquiring into the mechanisms of entrenchment and reification of national modes of consciousness, it is a mistake to claim that they were “theoretically unconcerned” with the phenomenon of nationalism. However, to understand their theoretical posture towards the phenomenon requires coming to grips with their critique of “political emancipation” as such. In this regard, it must be recalled that Marx developed his unique approach to social analysis originally as an internal critique of liberalism: indeed, Marxism grew out of, was born of, such an exercise of ruthless but immanent critique. In two important early writings from the mid-1840’s, on the eve of his decisive break with the categories of liberal philosophy and classical political economy, Marx would elaborate a set of weighty theoretical considerations sufficient (1) to conclude that the legal and political theories of liberalism were inadequate for understanding social reality, and (2) to dismiss the conflation between “political emancipation” and “human emancipation” upon which any project of “national liberation” ultimately depends.
The Continuing Relevance of Marx on the Jewish Question

In a word, by the mid-1840s, Marx had come to believe that socialism would necessarily entail “the full emancipation of the individual from the web of mystification which turned community life into a world of estrangement presided over by an alienated bureaucracy.” Furthermore, among this “web of mystifications” that needed to be destroyed, Marx had surmised, were situated “not only those bonds rising out of class division and exploitation, but also religious and national ties.”

In “On the Jewish Question,” Marx confronted head-on a question that is intimately related to debates about the “nation” and “national liberation”: that of the extension of the franchise in Germany to a minority, a religious-cum-ethnic minority. The essay takes the form of a critique of Bruno Bauer’s analysis of the problem, in which Bauer had urged that the franchise be extended to the Jews. Bauer had advanced a classic liberal argument: the problem defined as some group being denied its rights; the solution, an extension of equality. In fact, Bauer had gone one step further than this classic liberal argument – he maintained that the Jewish question posed the larger problem of the relations between religion and the state, both exposing the hypocrisy of the “so-called Christian state” while demanding “that the Jew should renounce Judaism, and in general that man should renounce religion, in order to be emancipated as a citizen.” However, Bauer continued to think the problem could be solved from within the existing political institutions. By contrast, Marx expands the problem further, posing a third question, above and beyond the questions, ‘Who should emancipate?’ and ‘Who should be emancipated?’. Marx asks: What kind of emancipation is involved?

It is at this point where the distinction between “political emancipation” and “human emancipation” comes to the foreground. Marx insists: “To be politically emancipated from religion is not to be finally and completely emancipated from religion, because political emancipation is not the final and absolute form of human emancipation.” He adds that “one should have no illusions about the scope of political emancipation,” and proceeds to elaborate a sophisticated denunciation of the alienated, bifurcated double-consciousness and indeed double-existence that almost inevitably permeates the subjectivities and configures the concretely unfree life-circumstances of politically emancipated but actually subjugated citizens. Indeed, Marx describes the contradiction between formal freedom and actual subjugation in nothing short of biblical terms:

“Where the political state has attained its true development, man – not only in thought, in consciousness, but in reality, in life – leads a twofold life, a heavenly and an earthly life: life in the political community, in which he considers himself a communal being, and life in civil society, in which he acts as a private individual, regards other men as a means, degrades himself into a means, and becomes the plaything of alien powers.”

The subject of Marx’s criticism, Bruno Bauer, as a liberal, cannot understand the difference between political emancipation and human emancipation. He cannot see why Jews must be emancipated from the kind of society that brings about such an injustice in the first place. Furthermore, Marx points out, not only the Jewish minority but also the Christian majority need to be emancipated. Indeed, Marx insists, human emancipation cannot be attained for anyone within a civil society founded upon radical material inequalities. Everybody is alienated in “civil society,” and the extension of the suffrage cannot solve such problems.

Marx here diagnoses a fundamental contradiction at the very core of liberal social relations: the distinction between the public and the private, along with the contradictory set of values enshrined for each distinctly-imagined sphere. As if in passing, he adds that, far from being part of the solution, the bourgeois state is actually part of the problem.

In Marx’s critique of the limits of “political emancipation” there is embedded a critique of the category of nation as a mystified, illusory basis for political community. The unity of the nation always fictive, masking and transfiguring the profane power of the few into sacred form, even tans-substantiating it into the general will. Or more evocatively still, the nation as sacred vestment in which the profane naked power exercised by the agents of the bourgeois state is cloaked.

At the same time, and perhaps more centrally, the critique of the limits of “political emancipation” entails a critique of the limits of representative democracy. A critique only occasionally recalled by post-Marxists these days, though further elaborated and forcefully articulated by Perry Anderson, who has argued in no uncertain terms:

“Parliament, elected every four or five years as the sovereign expression of popular will, reflects the fictive unity of the nation back to the masses as if it were their own self-government. The economic divisions within the ‘citizenry’ are masked by the juridical parity between exploiters and exploited, and with them the complete separation and non-participation of the masses in the work of parliament.”

Faith in the nation, faith in the bourgeois state, faith in juridical equality, faith in representative democracy, all exposed as mystifications and as irrational delusions. Marx’s critique of the category of the nation is thus subsumed under the rubric of a more comprehensive critique of mystification. Belief in “political emancipation,” like belief in other ethereal myths and abstractions, equally vulnerable to Marx’s general critique of religious consciousness. In Marx’s own formulation:

“The members of the political state are religious owing to the dualism between individual life and species-life, between the life of civil society and political life. They are religious because men treat the political life of the state, an area beyond their real individuality, as if it were their true life. They are religious insofar as religion here is the spirit of civil society, expressing the separation and remoteness of man from man.”

If the project of “political emancipation” necessarily entails the consummation of alienation and the perpetuation of webs of mystified consciousness, the project of human emancipation to which Marx was committed requires precisely the opposite: a thoroughgoing process of demystification. A reverse inversion of the social world. The myths and fables long told to justify and manufacture consent to the looting, the wars, and the lies, mystifications which insidiously invade the consciousness of victimizers and victimized alike – these myths and fables need to come crashing down, Marx insists.

How to precipitate the crash? By subjecting all dominant worldviews and interpretations to “ruthless criticism” – in Marx’s words “ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” Ironically enough, given the subsequent conversion of Marxism-Leninism into one of the great political religions of the twentieth century, Marx himself stressed that such a ruthlessly critical posture demanded opposition to “raising any dogmatic banner” whatsoever. According to Marx, the task of critical theory was largely deconstructive in spirit. Its main purpose not the propagation of a new dogma; to the contrary, Marx prescribes, “we must try to help the dogmatists to clarify their propositions for themselves.”

Marx’s Critique of Religion and the Problem of Secular Dogmatism

Marx himself was not altogether free of the sin of dogmatism. Indeed, in his critique of religious consciousness there is a clear hint of atheist dogmatism, evident in his diction and analogy of ruthless criticism with “demystification.”

Marx’s critique of religion was part of his broader critique of ideology. He critiqued religion as a form of ideology. His account of religious consciousness explicitly built upon Feuerbach’s “critique of religion as projection.” James Marsh reminds us of the main features or “layers” of the account of religion as projection:

“There are several distinct layers to this account, a Hegelian, a Freudian, and a political-economic… When Feuerbach says that the idea of God is simply the idea of the human species as individual, he is saying that we project onto God perfections belonging to the human species. When he says that in religion consciousness and self-consciousness coincide, we are conscious of God as related to our consciousness, but not as projected. The next step to be taken is to realize that we have simply created God in our own image and likeness. The Freudian element occurs when Feuerbach says that religion is a dream or dreamlike. Unlike Freud, he says that we project what is best of ourselves onto God. When he says that we project a god rich in human attributes because of our human material poverty, Feuerbach is stumbling onto a political-economic dimension that Marx will pick up and develop … For Feuerbach the projection of a god motivated by poverty is metaphysical, universal, eternal; for Marx the projection of such a god is rooted in specific conditions of poverty in our time caused by capitalism.”

In the Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx argues that religious consciousness is best understood as a coping mechanism for bearing tyrannical social relations, exploitation and oppression. According to Marx, in fact such conditions “produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world.” Indeed, he insists, with considerable rhetorical flourish:

“Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality.”
Marx is willing to admit that religious suffering is “the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.” Indeed, he goes so far as to label religion “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions,” before quickly turning to denounce it nevertheless as “the opium of the people.” But this denunciation of religion as opiate does not, strictly speaking, follow. At least in so far as the consumption of opiates is understood to produce pacifying effects, a lulling into acquiescence, an undermining of the will to struggle, the analogy between religion and opiates seems an overgeneralization, at best. After all, the jihadi’s of Islamic State can be plausibly criticised for many things, but quiescence is not one of them. Religious consciousness as such evidently does not determine a penchant for quiescence in the face of injustice. Much depends on the content and interpretation of the religious convictions in question.

In Christianity, the millenarian tradition including the Puritan revolutionaries or, more recently, liberation theology are sufficient to demonstrate the relative autonomy of the theological and metaphysical from the ethical and political. As Alysdair MacIntyre reminds us, all robust cultural traditions are malleable and characterised by conflict and competition among multiple, competing, even radically opposed, interpretations of their core metaphysical messages and implications for conduct in this world. In other words, religious traditions, like all traditions, are always susceptible to multiple interpretations with very different ethical and political implications, some revolutionary, others status quo, others reactionary.

Revolutionary consciousness and praxis need not take the form of a struggle against religion; for these can also take shape in a struggle for the heart and soul of a religion. That is, they can be born out of immanent critique.

Nor does Marx’s denunciation of religion as an “opiate” follow from a second meaning of the reference – probably the one Marx had in mind – namely, insofar as the consumption of opiates is understood to produce merely “illusory” rather than “real” happiness. For starters, this juxtaposition between “illusory” and “real” is an oversimplification, at best, perhaps especially when it comes to the consumption of opiates or other narcotics. The claims of those who profess the capacity of certain mind-altering substances to open the doors to alternative perceptions and perspectives, much less the practices of shamanic rituals, should not be dismissed tout court – lest ruthless criticism of everything existing be rendered and reduced to a petty posture of post-protestant prudishness. But perhaps more importantly, with respect to religious consciousness proper, Marx’s certainty that it can be dismissed as merely “illusory” seems epistemologically unfounded, even reflective of a certain secular dogmatism, a certain atheist fundamentalism – which, like all dogmatisms, actually stands in sharp tension with Marx’s simultaneous commitment to ruthless criticism.

As Benedict Anderson has cogently argued, the secular dogmatism espoused by Marx reflects a weakness shared by all “evolutionary/progressive styles of thought.” In a word, such secular dogmatism grossly underestimates a “great merit of traditional religious world-views,” which Anderson rightly insists must “naturally must be distinguished from their role in the legitimation of specific systems of domination and exploitation.” The merit in question – “their concern with man-in-the cosmos, man as species-being, and the contingency of life.” According to Anderson:

“The extraordinary survival over thousands of years of Buddhism, Christianity or Islam in dozens of different social formations attests to their imaginative response to the overwhelming burden of human suffering – disease, mutilation, grief, and death. Why was I born blind? Why is my best friend paralysed? Why is my daughter retarded? The religions attempt to explain. The great weakness of all evolutionary/progressive styles of thought, not excluding Marxism, is that such questions are answered with impatient silence” (Imagined Communities, p.10).

Nevertheless, Marx’s criticism of religious consciousness is still powerful and largely accurate as a critique of the dominant interpretations of Christianity in the Europe of his day, and indeed dominant throughout most of Christian history. Interpretations propagated by hierarchical official Churches closely allied with the wealthy and the powerful. Interpretations that preach obedience and servility, acceptance of one’s lot in this life, indifference and quiescence in the face of injustice. In this regard, Marx’s “secular dogmatism,” like that of so many European radicals of his time and up through the present, can be understood and even empathized with as a posture induced in response to the sanctimonious hypocrisy of the established Christian churches. Motivated by the same kind of righteous indignation that led Jesus to denounce the Pharisees and to throw the moneylenders out of the temple. Though closer in praxis to the conclusion reached by the Spanish anarchists – that the temple itself needed to be burned to the ground.

Marx advocates that working people should give up their religious “illusions” not simply out of commitment to the harsh, sobering proposition that there is no God; nor, certainly, does he want to induce despair. Rather, he wants to stir working people to thought and to revolutionary action. In his words, “to call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.” For this reason, he insists, the criticism of religion “is in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.” Marx likens engaging in religious criticism to plucking imaginary flowers from our chain, the purpose of which is not so “that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.”
Marx’s commitment to actively disillusioning working people from their religious faith was linked to his confidence that such religious disillusionment would lead them to “regain their senses” and “think, act, and fashion [their] reality.” But revolutionary struggle and praxis are not born of disillusion. They require faith. Faith in a viable and desirable alternative to the existing social order: faith that resistance is not futile, faith that resistance will not make things even worse. Marx was a prophet who preached that the last shall be first and the first shall be last, that inequity and injustice would be redressed and overcome. Indeed, the core of his message was quite similar to that of so many prophets in the Abrahamic tradition, especially those with apocalyptic visions; the main difference – Marx promised redemption and salvation in this earthly realm, human emancipation in this material world.

Yet faith in a socialist future does not emerge spontaneously out of religious disillusionment, certainly not in our post-Stalinist, Orwellian world. Marx can be forgiven for failing to foresee the hypnotic powers of the false idols of consumer society – the cult of celebrity, of bling and of fame. He was wrong to believe that when humans come to revolve around themselves, they automatically “come to their senses,” or that “mystifications” and “idolatry” are diminished in the least. Madonna replaced with Madonna, now living in our material world, now worshipping our material girl.

In sum, not only can religious consciousness not be reduced to mere projection, coping mechanism, or illusion; nor are religious delusions the only form that mystified and “inverted consciousness” can take. Marx’s critique of religion is thus simultaneously too broad and too narrow – too broad for its reduction of all religious consciousness to alienated delusion; too narrow, for its failure to recognize that secular worldviews are susceptible to dogmatism, projected fantasies, and even idol worship as well.

Religious Community versus National Community?

But what of the relation between religious and national consciousness. Marx treated the categories of nation and religion as two symptomatic inversions of a social world, both effective smokescreens concealing the brutal reality of material inequities in a world ultimately determined and divided by class. In a word, for Marx, nation and religion were two dominant myths perpetuated to manufacture consent to an unjust order, thus in urgent need of deconstruction. Is Marx’s account of national consciousness and, by extension, of mere political freedom, equally susceptible to the charges of reductionism and dogmatism as his critique of religion?

The young Marx tended to treat the categories of religion and nation as two ideologies – two webs of mystification – equally destined to the dustbin of history, certain to be washed away by the rising tide of imminent world revolution. But that revolution never arrived, with inevitable consequences for his prediction about the fate of the two categories. Ironically, despite the continuing tyranny and alienation of capitalism throughout Marx’s life across the Western European societies with which he was most familiar, the “dusk of religious modes of thought” that he predicted nevertheless took place. Not so for the category of the nation.

To the contrary, as Benedict Anderson points out, the “dusk of religious modes of thoughts” coincided with the veritable “dawn of the age of nationalism” in Western Europe. In fact, the relation between these two tendencies in Western Europe has frequently been posited, with Anderson, as one of functional equivalence. The “[d]isintegration of paradise” and “the absurdity of salvation” brought on by the secular assault on the realm of the transcendental and the supernatural, issuing in the need for “a secular transformation of fatality into continuity, contingency into meaning,” capable of turning “chance into destiny.” Thus the simultaneous surge in support for the secular creed and the national creed, so the story goes.

Of course, the triumph of the secular creed should not be overestimated. It certainly remains fiercely contested throughout most of the globe, including even in the world’s richest country. What’s more, there is, of course, a crucial difference between the categories of religion and nation, since membership in the former are largely “universal by definition, and therefore designed to fudge ethnic, linguistic, political and other differences.” Even so, as Hobsbawm has argued, because “universal truths are often in competition … peoples on the borders of one can sometimes choose another as an ethnic badge.” Thus the convergence, and sometimes outright conflation, in the dynamics of sectarian and nationalist strife.
Dr. Thomas Jeffrey Miley is a Lecturer of Political Sociology at the University of Cambridge. He is a member of the executive board of the European Union Turkey Civic Commission (EUTCC) and is a patron of Peace in Kurdistan. His scholarship focuses on comparative nationalisms, religion and politics, and empirical democratic theory. He has published broadly on the dynamics of nationalist conflict and accommodation in Spain and, increasingly, in Turkey. He is co-editor, with Federico Venturini, of Your Freedom and Mine: Abdullah Ocalan and the Kurdish Question in Erdogan’s Turkey (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2018). He is currently working on a project on struggles for self-determination in the twenty-first century.

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