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Roman Rosdolsky, Engels and the Nonhistoric Peoples:

the National Question in the Revolution of 1848, Critique,

Glasgow, 1987, pp 220, 8.00
But at the first victorious uprising of the French proletariat ... the Austrian
Germans and the Magyars will gain their freedom and take a bloody revenge
on the Slav barbarians. The general war which will then break out will
scatter the Slav Sonderbund [alliance], and annihilate all these small
pigheaded nations even to their very names. The next world war will not
only cause reactionary classes and dynasties to disappear from the face of
the earth, but also entire reactionary peoples. And that too is an advance.'
(F. Engels, The Magyar Struggle, January 1849)

Rosdolsky correctly notes that Engels position on the Austrian

Slavs has been irrevocably refuted by the severest critic of all
critics history. The reactionary peoples condemned by Engels
are the Czechs and Slovaks that today populate Czechoslovakia, the
Serbs and Croats who help make up Yugoslavia, and the Galician
Ukrainians who now live in the Western Ukraine. These peoples
have recently emerged from the collapsing Stalinist Eastern Bloc
only to be thrown once again into the cauldron of insurrection and
ethnic conflict. For that reason, the recent publication in English of
this 40-year-old study of Engels peculiar attitude towards the
nationalities of Eastern Europe in 1849 is timely, and to be
Engels article assessing the lessons of the 1848 revolution in the
Habsburg empire was written exactly one year after he had joined
Marx in their ringing appeal published in the Communist
Manifesto: Workers of the world, Unite! But his writings on the
Austrian Slavs have thereafter been used to undermine the claim
of the fathers of scientific Socialism to be consistent
internationalists. Since they never publicly repudiated the 1849
articles, anti-Communist Slavs have repeatedly accused Marx and
Engels of anti-Slavic chauvinism. This is despite their untiring
efforts to win international support for the liberation of the Slavic
Poles from Russia. Others have hinted chat Engels never really
abandoned his youthful attachment to German nationalism,
ignoring his noted attempt to smuggle a strategic plan to the
Communards to cripple Bismarcks army in occupied France in
Working at the onset of the Cold War in 1948, isolated among
the Ukrainian exile community in Detroit, the veteran Ukrainian
Bolshevik Roman Rosdolsky (1898-1967) subjected Engels
position on the national question to a materialist analysis.
Typically, in writing his polemic, Rosdolsky was not interested in

placing a tick or a cross against 100-year-old positions, no matter

how controversial. He was concerned to answer charges from other
Ukrainian exiles that the Soviet Army, in seizing Czechoslovakia
that year, was simply carrying out Engels call to annihilate those
reactionary peoples, the former Austrian Slavs.
Rosdolsky makes use of the opportunity provided by his debate
with the Ukrainian exiles to try to re-establish the Marxist
tradition on the national question. Yet the left recoiled from his
effort in horror. In a short preface, the translator John-Paul Himka
recounts how Rosdolskys attempt to get the Yugoslav authorities
to publish the article was sabotaged, and how it was only after he
had acquired a reputation in European left circles with his most
famous work, The Making of Marxs Capital, that he was able
to find a German publisher for his critique of Engels in 1964, 16
years after it was written. Himka himself alludes to his long battle
to find an English publisher. The spirit in which Rosdolsky wrote
his inquiry in 1948 is in even more need of revival today:
There are two ways to look at Marx and Engels: as the creators of a
brilliant, but in its deepest essence, thoroughly critical, scientific method; or
as church fathers of some sort, the bronzed figures of a monument. Those
who have the latter vision will not have found this study to their taste. We,
however, prefer to see them as they were in reality. (p.185)

In his book, Rosdolsky sets out Engels justification for his

position at length. Briefly, both Marx and Engels supported the
bourgeois revolutions that broke out from February 1848
throughout Europe as the necessary precursors to the Socialist
revolution, which they erroneously expected to be imminent.
However, the revolutionary fervour of the bourgeoisie soon
evaporated, and the forces of reaction rallied, particularly in
Metternichs Austria. In October 1848 the bloody suppression of
the Vienna rising marked the turning point of the insurrections,
and the revolutionary forces were thrown back everywhere from
then onwards. What motivated Engels to write his vituperative
articles was the Austrian Slavs rejection of their chance to win
freedom from the oppressive rule of the Habsburgs, and their
enthusiastic participation in Metternichs counter-revolution.
Rosdolsky divides Engels 1849 position into two parts his
realistic, materialist side; and his idealistic, Hegelian side. On the
realistic side, Rosdolsky recognises that part of the reason for
Engels position was due to his enthusiasm for the eastward spread
of German industry and culture. He thought that German
capitalism would be the vehicle that would destroy the old system,

and quickly lay the basis for a revolutionary society where there
would be no relations of exploitation.
Marx and Engels support for German capitalism was not
because they were German nationalists, but was due to the
profound weakness of capitalism elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
That meant that any other nationalism except German nationalism
was a rare phenomenon, and national revolts even rarer. The
necessary preconditions for the outbreak of a national revolt the
unity of town and country, the bourgeoisie and the peasantry
barely existed anywhere in Eastern Europe, either because a
national bourgeoisie was absent, or because it was German and
therefore had little in common with the mainly Slav peasantry. As
a result, the endemic struggles that peasants conducted against
their landlords usually remained sporadic, local affairs that rarely
acquired a national focus. That the mainly peasant Austrian Slavs
sided with their landlords against the German revolutionaries
suggests that, for all their agrarian conflicts, feudal relations
remained largely intact in the region. Engels position was
realistic in that he believed that the only hope for lifting the
Austrian Slavs out of their stagnant existence was their rapid
assimilation into the German nation (and hence the `annihilation'
of themselves as a people separate from Germans).
Rosdolsky subjects Engels false prognosis his adoption of
the theory of non-historic peoples to a devastating polemic.
While he accepts that the Austrian Slavs had to be fought, insofar
as they did eventually line up with the Habsburgs and Romanovs,
Rosdolsky shows that at no stage were they ever offered freedom
by the German revolutionaries of 1848, who, as capitalists, desired
to suppress them anew. Rosdolsky believes that Marx and Engels
should have led a campaign to back the liberation of the Austrian
Slavs, since they could have at least expected to neutralise a
number of those who subsequently threw in their lot with
Metternich and reaction.
Instead Engels, as an editor of Colognes radical Neue
Rheinische Zeitung, argued that the Austrian Slavs had
betrayed the revolution because they had no history:
Peoples which have never had a history of their own, which come under
foreign domination the moment they have achieved the first, crudest level of
civilisation ... have no capacity for survival and will never be able to attain
any kind of independence. And that has been the fate of the Austrian Slavs.
(Democratic Pan-Slavism, February 1849)

Rosdolsky links Engels adoption of this conception directly to

Hegels theory of non-historic people. In his Philosophy of
Mind, the German philosopher held that only those peoples that
could thanks to inherent natural and spiritual abilities
establish a state were to be the bearers of historical progress: A
nation with no state formation ... has, strictly speaking, no history
like the nations which existed before the rise of states and others
which still exist in a condition of savagery. As a result, those who
were indifferent about possessing their own state would soon stop
being a people. The reactionary implications of Hegels theory are
clear: he thought that some peoples will always be uncivilised, no
matter what. For instance, in 1830 Hegel wrote off Africa in
his Lectures on the Philosophy of World History: Anyone
who wishes to study the most terrible manifestations of human
nature will find them in Africa ... it is an unhistorical continent,
with no movement or development of its own.
Rosdolsky believes Engels adopted Hegels theory of nonhistoric peoples to describe the Austrian Slavs in order to justify
his reluctance to jeopardise the democratic alliance against the
Habsburgs and the Tsar. Though Engels had jointly written The
German Ideology with Marx in 1844, in which Hegels idealistic
understanding of history was overturned, Rosdolsky argues that
Engels felt compelled by the practical politics of the situation to
revive Hegel five years later.
Rosdolskys criticism of Engels for his use of the theory of
historic nations is correct, but his assessment of the reasons why
Engels resorted to that theory is weak. The implication is that the
Austrian Slav issue is the sole example of either Marx or Engels
compromising on their political method though, of course, they
were not adverse to flexibility in the presentation of their politics.
Rosdolsky was aware that in 1848-49 Marx and Engels had just
graduated from university and were only embarking on their long
political careers. They were both upset to say the least at the
collapse of the 1848 revolution. They spent much time in the early
1850s in exile in London reassessing and revising the positions
they had both adopted during the revolutionary period though
not on the Austrian Slav issue. But these are all mitigating
circumstances. There is a more substantial answer.
The reason why Engels adopted the attitude that he did towards
the Austrian Slavs can only be discovered by bringing together
Rosdolskys two separate parts, Engels realistic side and his false
prognosis, and considering them as part of a contradictory whole.

On the one hand, Engels backed the democratic tradition that

supported liberation struggles against reaction. For instance, he
backed the struggles of both the Irish and the Poles against the
twin bastions of European reaction, Britain and Russia. On the
other hand, as a strict centralist, he was committed to uniting all
nations in a single centralised world economy. As such, he was
reluctant to support any struggle conducted against the more
advanced countries that did not accelerate the capitalist
transformation of the world. This was because, at that time, only
capitalism could develop the material basis for a world economy,
even though it accomplished this in a barbaric. fashion. Because
struggles for national liberation were then the exception rather
than the rule, this contradiction necessarily remained unresolved.
It was the product of the level of development of capitalism at that
The best explanation Marx and Engels could offer was that, with
the virtual absence of liberation movements, at least barbaric
capitalism created the possibility of transforming society in a
progressive direction, whilst pre-capitalist society meant
barbarism without end. Nobody could produce any better answer
than that, until there had been a further development of capitalist
social relations. Given that the Austrian Slavs didnt develop any
national movements until some time after Engels was dead, it is
perhaps understandable why he didnt feel the need to repudiate
his 1849 position.
Nevertheless, there is much evidence to suggest that Marx and
Engels began to change their position on the national question
towards the end of the nineteenth century. Lenin, certainly,
studied their Irish work closely in developing his own position. But
in the end Lenin was able to solve the problem of the national
question where his predecessors had necessarily failed because the
development of imperialism itself had by his time provided the
answer to the conundrum.
Imperialisms arrival on the worlds stage announced the fact
that capitalism was historically bankrupt, and the economic
(though not political) basis for a centrally planned world economy
had been laid. At the same tithe, imperialism had carved up the
whole world into oppressor and oppressed nations. As a result,
from being an issue of merely episodic concern, the national
question became the burning question of the day for Socialist
revolutionaries in the period around the First World War when
Lenin developed his position.

Lenin's position on the national question was that the imperialist

epoch has made all nationalism reactionary, abstractly speaking,
since only an internationally planned economy could bring
progress. However, imperialisms division of the world into
oppressor and oppressed nations posed a political problem the
international division of the working class, the only force which
could provide the basis for such a fully centralised world economy,
The form this political problem took was the struggle between the
Great Powers and the colonies over the democratic demand for the
right of all nations to self-determination. The Balkans, for
example, where many of the Austrian Slavs lived, became the focus
of intense inter-imperialist rivalries which fuelled the nationalist
aspirations that sparked off the First World War.
Lenin argued that the international working class could never
break politically from their own bourgeoisies, imperialist or
otherwise, unless they championed the national question. Working
class unity could therefore only be achieved internationally when,
in the oppressor countries, the labour movement opposed Great
Power nationalism and backed all anti-imperialist struggles
unconditionally. It also required that, in a nation oppressed by
imperialism, its labour movement should back the nationalist
struggle insofar as it was directed against imperialism. This is
because, in fighting Great Power oppression, small nation
nationalism acquires a progressive content that it would not
otherwise have in the imperialist epoch. In such conditions, it is by
being the most consistent anti-imperialists that revolutionaries
assert the separate interests of the working class, which are always
independent of the more narrow concerns of the nationalists.
Consequently, although revolutionaries do not aim to create
myriads of small nations dotting the globe, if that is what is
required to defeat imperialism and to secure a voluntary union of
the international working class, then so be it. Such union would
consolidate the single world economy, and so lay the basis for the
mixing of national cultures, and therefore the eventual withering
away of separate nations.
Rosdolsky formally praised Lenins approach to the national
question in several places in his book, yet he never gave any
indication that he understood how imperialism had fundamentally
altered the character of the national question. Indeed, he only
polemicised against Hegels categorisation of some nations as
non-historic. This left open the issue whether all nations should
be considered historic. This is probably why Rosdolsky found that

he cannot help but like [the Pan-Slav nationalist] Mikhail

Bakunins nationality programme better than Engels. (p.179)
Moreover, Rosdolsky made no distinction between capitalist
nations and the new Stalinist ones. No doubt influenced by his
isolation among Detroits Ukrainian exile community, Rosdolsky
argues in his book that, under the Stalinist regime:
The [Ukrainian] question cannot be solved as long as the Ukrainians have
not achieved full and not merely formal independence with or without
federation with the Russians. (p.165)

This hint of pro-nationalist sentiments indicates that, while

Rosdolsky formally accepted Lenins approach, he retained
reservations in practice.
Just as Rosdolsky in 1948 wasnt motivated by a concern to
correct Engels 1849 position, so we must draw out the lessons for
the national question in Eastern Europe today. Engels diatribes
against the Austrian Slavic people can now be put into perspective.
He called for them to be removed from the stage of history
because, by backing reaction, they acted as a barrier to progress in
the region. His mistake lay in assuming that this would always be
In a time of Stalinist collapse and capitalist decline, however,
Engels 1849 call has a diametrically opposite result. Today the
mainly Slavic working class is the only force for progress in
Eastern Europe. Through the deft manipulation of ethnic conflicts,
the imperialists, the nationalists and the former Stalinist
bureaucrats hope to paralyse them by keeping them divided. Even
Rosdolskys 1948 call for full Ukrainian independence is requiring
a reactionary content now that the Stalinist regimes are
degenerating. In a situation where there is ethnic conflict but no
national oppression, the working class can only achieve social
liberation through a struggle against all nationalisms.
Reading Rosdolskys Engels and the Nonhistoric
Peoples is a useful exercise in reinforcing the lesson that there is
no general theory of nationalism. On the contrary, every national
question has to be located in its own historical and social
specificity. That is the Marxist approach to the national question.
Andy Clarkson