The theory of nationalism represents Marxism’s great historical failure. It may have had others as well, and some of these have been more debated: Marxism’s shortcomings over imperialism, the State, the falling rate of profit and the immiseration of the masses are certainly old battlefields. Yet none of these is as important, as fundamental, as the problem of nationalism, either in theory or in political practice. It is true that other traditions of western thought have not done better. Idealism, German historicism, liberalism, social Darwinism and modern sociology have foundered as badly as Marxism here. This is cool comfort for Marxists. The scientific pretensions and the political significance of their ideas are greater than those of such rivals, and no one can help feeling that they ought to have coped better with such a central, inescapable phenomenon of modern history. My thesis is that this failure was inevitable. It was inevitable, but it can now be understood. Furthermore it can be understood in essentially materialist terms. So as a system of thought historical materialism can perfectly well escape from the prolonged and destructive impasse in which it has been
Marxist ‘failures’ over nationalism appear to us in the first instance as philosophical, conceptual ones. The great names from Marx himself to Gramsci did not pay sufficient attention to the subject, dealing with it incidentally or tangentially rather than head-on. Those who did tackle it more directly, the Social-Democrats of Tsardom and the Hapsburg Empire, disagreed wildly among themselves. After the trauma of 1914 Marxists never had the stomach to return to this debate on anything like the same level. Had they desired to after 1925, the complete fetishization of Lenin’s supposed positions on the question made it both politically and psychologically very difficult.
The coup de grâce to their dithering was administered by Stalin’s essay on The National Question (1912). By the most sinister of coincidences, the one text most suitable for canonization in the new creed was by the great dictator himself. That this essay was one of the more modest relics of the great unfinished pre-1914 debate mattered little. Under the new conditions it riveted Stalin’s name to the halo of Lenin. This is why it is still almost universally parroted by every brand of party Marxism. For half a century, organized Marxism has relied almost entirely upon this inadequate instrument in grappling with this most baffling and dangerous historical opponent—whose force seemed set fair to annihilate it altogether until the turning-point of Stalingrad.
This is a sad chapter in the history of ideas. But in itself it explains nothing. If one thinks it does, then the temptation will remain to say that surely, somewhere or other in the prodigious variety of revolutionary talents Marxism assembled, there must be a theory of nationalism. We are not cleverer than Rosa Luxemburg or Otto Bauer. We are not more painfully conscious than them of the critical and devastating nature of this phenomenon for socialism. So if we excavate assiduously enough the theory will surely emerge, like a crock of gold, from between the lines of the classics, maybe even from the scattered remarks and letters of Marx and Engels themselves.
In other words, if one believes that the ‘failure’ was essentially a conceptual, subjective one, the temptation remains to lend a retrospective helping hand. This exercise appeals strongly to the devotional side of Marxists. ‘What so-and-so really meant was of course such-and-such, bearing in mind the following (commonly overlooked) texts . . .’; ‘the insights of Lenin-Stalin or Engels-Marx must be complemented by Luxemburg’s observations on . . .’; and so forth.
Real respect for our forebears demands we recognize the futility of these rituals. Their ‘failure’ was not a simply conceptual or subjective one. No amount of brass-rubbing will compensate for it. The fact is, that if they could not put together a tolerable theory about nationalism, nobody could, or did. Historical development had not at that time produced certain things necessary for such a ‘theory’. The time was not ripe for it, or for them. Nor would it be ripe until two further generations of trauma had followed 1914. There is nothing in the least discreditable to historical materialism in the fact, although it is naturally lethal to ‘Marxism’, in the God’s-eye sense.
The philosophical failings lead us back in turn to real history. They lead us back to the material conditions under which the enigma of modern nationalism presented itself to these past generations. Lacking angelic perspicuity, they had to confront it under very severe limitations. Nationalism is a crucial, fairly central feature of the modern capitalist development of world history. Time-bound like other systems of speculation, Marxism did not possess the power to foresee this development, or the eventual, overall shape which capitalist history would assume. As regards nationalism, the trouble is that not much less than this is required for approaching the problem.