Showing posts with label engels. Show all posts
Showing posts with label engels. Show all posts

Monday, March 10, 2014

Engels Against The Nationalists

A word of caution against those Left Nationalists that evoke the authority of Marx and Engels and cite their sympathy for Irish and Polish independence. All is not so simple.

Engels concluded an article, "The Magyar Struggle,"  (1849),  with these harsh words:
“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 this Slav Sonderbund, and annihilate all these small pig-headed 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”

Was Engels advocating nothing less here than the physical extermination of the Slavic peoples? Not really. What Engels really wished to make "disappear from the face of the earth" were the Slavic national movements, the political parties of the Czechs, Croats, etc., and their leadership.  The peoples themselves would be subjected by the victorious "revolutionary nations" to a (not altogether peaceful) Germanisation, Magyarisation and Polonisation.

Even so,  that attitude of Engels is bad enough to dismiss Left Nationalists hoping that Marxism offers credibility for their independence campaign.

That "no nation can be free if it oppresses other nations" held true, as far as Engels and Marx were concerned, only with respect to the large, viable, historic nations, and not with respect to the "small relics of peoples which, after having figured for a longer or shorter period on the stage of history, were finally absorbed as integral portions into one or the other of those more powerful nations whose greater vitality enabled them to overcome greater obstacles." Engels wrote in "What Have the Working Classes to Do with Poland?" (1866)

Engels' statements of 1849 and 1866 mean the denial of self-determination to the small, "non-historic" peoples. Engels was even more specific.

"There is no country in Europe," Engels wrote, “that does not possess, in some remote corner, one or more ruins of peoples, left over from an earlier population, forced back and subjugated by the nation which later became the repository of historical development. These remnants of a nation, mercilessly crushed, as Hegel said, by the course of history, this national refuse, is always the fanatical representative of the counter revolution and remains so until it is completely exterminated or de-nationalized, as its whole existence is in itself a protest against a great historical revolution.
In Scotland, for example, the Gaels, supporters of the Stuarts from 1640
to 1745.
In France the Bretons, supporters of the Bourbons from 1792 to 1800.
In Spain the Basques, supporters of Don Carlos..
In Austria the pan-Slav South Slavs [in the wider sense], who are nothing more than the national refuse of a thousand years of immensely confused development. It is the most natural thing in the world that this national refuse, itself as entangled as the development which brought it into existence, sees its salvation solely in a reversal of the entire development of Europe, which according to it must proceed not from west to east but from east to west, and that its weapon of liberation, its unifying bond, is the Russian knout.”

He writes “Thus the counter-revolutionary uprisings of the Highland Scots have to be explained in terms of a people still living within the clan organization and therefore opposing capitalist development, which would indeed use them ill in the end.' The counter-revolution in Brittany, just as in neighbouring Vendee, has to be understood above all as a result of the peculiar agrarian structure of this region and of the local peasantry's dissatisfaction (for the most part justified) with the early agrarian legislation of the French revolution. And finally, as for the Basques, they supported Don Carlos because in Spanish absolutism they saw a threat to their "fueros" and to their "altogether democratic"(to quote Mane) organisations of self-government."

Amongst all the nations and nationalities of Austria there are only three bearers of progress,
which have actively intervened in history and are still capable of independent life: Germans, Poles and Magyars. They are therefore revolutionary now. The next mission of all the other great and small peoples is to perish in the universal revolutionary storm. They are therefore now

In November 1847, Engels wrote: "Through its industry, its commerce and its political institutions, the bourgeoisie is already working everywhere to drag the small, self-contained localities which only live for themselves out of their isolation, to bring them into contact with one another, to merge their interests,... and to build up a great nation with common interests, customs and ideas out of the many hitherto independent localities and provinces.  The bourgeoisie is already carrying out considerable centralization The democratic proletariat not only needs the kind of centralisation begun by the bourgeoisie but will have to extend it very much further. During the short time when the proletariat was at the helm of state in the French revolution, during the rule of the Mountain party, it used all means—including grapeshot and the guillotine—to effect centralisation. When the democratic proletariat again comes to power, it will not only have to centralise every country separately but will have to centralize all civilized
countries together as soon as possible." said Engels in "The Civil War in Switzerland,"

Engels is so thoroughly convinced of the finality and irrevocability of this verdict that he even risks offering this statement:
“We repeat: apart from the Poles, the Russians and at most the Slavs of Turkey [not of Austria and Hungary!], no Slav people has a future, for the simple reason that all the other Slavs lack the primary historical, geographical, political and industrial conditions for a viable independence.
And he continues:
“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, or are forced onto the first level of civilization by the yoke of a foreigner, 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.
There is no country in Europe where there are not different nationalities under the same government. The Highland Gaels and the Welsh are undoubtedly of different nationalities to what the English are, although nobody will give to these remnants of peoples long gone by the title of
nations, any more than to the Celtic inhabitants of Brittany in France Here, then, we perceive the difference between the "principle of nationalities" and of the old democratic and working-class tenet as to the right of the great European nations" to separate and independent existence.
The "principle of nationalities" leaves entirely untouched the great question of the right of national existence for the historic peoples of Europe; nay, if it touches it, it is merely to disturb it. The principle of nationalities raises two sorts of questions: first of all, questions of boundary between these great historic peoples; and secondly, questions as to the right to independent national existence of those numerous small relics of peoples which, after having figured for a longer or shorter period on the stage of history, were finally absorbed as integral portions into one or the other of those more powerful nations whose greater vitality enabled them to overcome greater obstacles. The European importance, the vitality of a people is as nothing in the eyes of the principle of nationalities; before it, the Roumans of Wallachia, who never had a history nor the energy required to have one, are of equal importance to the Italians who have a history of 2,000 years, and an unimpaired national vitality; the Welsh and Manxmen, if they desired it, would have an equal right to independent political existence, absurd though it would be, with the English. What is pan-Slavism, but the application, by Russia and Russian interest, of the principle of nationalities to the Serbians, Croats, Ruthenes, Slovaks, Czechs and other remnants of bygone Slavonian peoples in Turkey, Hungary and Germany! ... If people say that to demand the restoration of Poland is to appeal to the principle of nationalities, they merely prove that they do not know what they are talking about, for the restoration of Poland means the re-establishment of a state composed of at least four" different nationalities."

Engels denied the national future of these peoples and counted on their absorption and their assimilation by the great "historic" nations.

For those who call themselves socialists, "the right of peoples to self-determination" has become so self-evident a principle but it is not a principle of Marxism.

Engels and Marx acted and fought in a world very different from that of today and to understand them we must understand the special range of problems posed by that world. Above all, they very obviously misjudged the speed of historical development, from which, for obvious reasons,  they were never able to free themselves completely They were reluctant  to concede to capitalism, which had scarcely reached maturity, a longer lifespan, and they therefore regarded the socialist revolution as the direct, practical task of their generation. On this premise their nationalities' policy is understandable.

It is simply not true (as some would have us believe) that Marx and Engels' negative
attitude towards the non-historic Slavic peoples was only a short-lived passing phase limited to the revolutionary years of 1848 and 1849. And it is also not true that this attitude can be explained completely by the counter revolutionary role of these peoples and by the danger of pan-Slavism. A national-German undertone is sometimes clearly audible in the national policy of Marx and Engels, although for them a united, republican Germany never meant anything else but the most suitable base of operation and the most competent agent of the socialist revolution.

So  the Marx and Engels position is wherever several nationalities are forced together in a single state, the internationalist policy of  Marxists not only strives to make the workers of the oppressed nation recognise the workers in the ruling nation as their comrades-in-arms and subordinate their particular national goals to the interest of the common struggle for socialism, but also above all encourages the workers of the oppressing nations, notwithstanding their national "pride" and  privileges that may benefit some strata of the working class,  to dissociate themselves entirely from all the policies of national oppression pursued by their ruling

 Should workers let themselves be "diverted" from the class struggle by the national question? How can one demand that they support the party of one capitalist against another
in a competition between sections of the ruling classes which given the present social order, every national struggle can be reduced to?

The question arises why oppressed nationalities cannot wait with their emancipation until
the hour of freedom arrives for the working class? And why should the English, German,  and Russian workers have been concerned with the establishment of independent (or even only autonomous) Irish, Polish, South Slavic and Ukrainian states, whereby large political and economic regions would be broken up, whose integrity would facilitate socialist development These are the issues that the theorist Roman Rosdolsky raises in his work on the national problem in regards to the position of Marx and Engels.

Today, we find the debate has not gone away but has in fact heightened in the past decades. What has most definitely changed,  is that many of todays “Marxists” possess little comprehension of where Marx and Engels stood regards the various manifestations of European nationalism.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Marx and Engels on the power of the vote

It's often pointed out that our political system is completely corrupted by money yet history teaches that people's influence on their governments is much more powerful than we usually imagine. It's weakened primarily by people's failure to do anything and the mistaken belief that we don't have the power to shape the world as we wish it to be.

Marx and Engels strongly supported political action in the sense of participating in elections. They stressed the importance of the vote. Engels explains that universal suffrage "in an England two-thirds of whose inhabitants are industrial proletarians means the exclusive political rule of the working class with all the revolutionary changes in social conditions which are inseparable from it." Marx argued along the same lines, for example, in 1855, he stated that "universal suffrage . . . implies the assumption of political power as means of satisfying [the workers'] social means" and, in Britain, "revolution is the direct content of universal suffrage."

In 1852 Marx wrote, concerning the Chartists:

“But universal suffrage is the equivalent of political power for the working class of England, where the proletariat forms the large majority of the population, where, in a long though underground civil war, it has gained a clear consciousness of its position as a class and where even the rural districts know no longer any peasants, but only landlords, industrial capitalists (farmers) and hired labourers. The carrying of universal suffrage in England would, therefore be a far more socialistic measure than anything which has been honoured with that name on the continent. Its inevitable result, here is the political supremacy of the working class.” [Marx emphasis]
His meaning is clear - a working class majority in Parliament, backed by a majority of the population, can bring about the real transfer of power.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Engels on Edinburgh and Glasgow


Dr. Alison describes a similar state of things in Edinburgh, whose superb situation, which has won it the title of the modern Athens, and whose brilliant aristocratic quarter in the New Town, contrast strongly with the foul wretchedness of the poor in the Old Town. Alison asserts that this extensive quarter is as filthy and horrible as the worst districts of Dublin, while the Mendicity Association would have as great a proportion of needy persons to assist in Edinburgh as in the Irish capital. He asserts, indeed, that the poor in Scotland, especially in Edinburgh and Glasgow, are worse off than in any other region of the three kingdoms, and that the poorest are not Irish, but Scotch. The preacher of the Old Church of Edinburgh, Dr. Lee, testified in 1836, before the Commission of Religious Instruction, that:

"I have never seen such a concentration of misery as in this parish," where the people are without furniture, without everything. "I frequently see the same room occupied by two married couples. I have been in one day in seven houses where there was no bed, in some of them not even straw. I found people of eighty years of age lying on the boards. Many sleep in the same clothes which they wear during the day. I may mention the case of two Scotch families living in a cellar, who had come from the country within a few months.... Since they came they had had two children dead, and another apparently dying. There was a little bundle of dirty straw in one corner, for one family, and in another for the other. In the place they inhabit it is impossible at noonday to distinguish the features of the human face without artificial light. – It would almost make a heart of adamant bleed to see such an accumulation of misery in a country like this."

In the Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal, Dr. Hennen reports a similar state of things. From a Parliamentary Report, it is evident that in the dwellings of the poor of Edinburgh a want of cleanliness reigns, such as must be expected under these conditions. On the bed-posts chickens roost at night, dogs and horses share the dwellings of human beings, and the natural consequence is a shocking stench, with filth and swarms of vermin. The prevailing construction of Edinburgh favours these atrocious conditions as far as possible. The Old Town is built upon both slopes of a hill, along the crest of which runs the High Street. Out of the High Street there open downwards multitudes of narrow, crooked alleys, called wynds from their many turnings, and these wynds form the proletarian district of the city. The houses of the Scotch cities, in general, are five or six-storied buildings, like those of Paris, and in contrast with England where, so far as possible, each family has a separate house. The crowding of human beings upon a limited area is thus intensified.

".....the house," says an English journal in an article upon the sanitary condition of the working-people in cities, "are often so close together, that persons may step from the window of one house to that of the house opposite – so high, piled story after story, that the light can scarcely penetrate to the court beneath. In this part of the town there are neither sewers nor any private conveniences whatever belonging to the dwellings; and hence the excrementitious and other refuse of at least 50,000 persons is, during the night, thrown into the gutters, causing (in spite of the scavengers' daily labours) an amount of solid filth and foetid exhalation disgusting to both sight and smell, as well as exceedingly prejudicial to health. Can it be wondered that, in such localities, health, morals, and common decency should be at once neglected? No; all who know the private condition of the inhabitants will bear testimony to the immense amount of their disease, misery, and demoralisation. Society in these quarters has sunk to a state indescribably vile and wretched.... The dwellings of the poorer classes are generally very filthy, apparently never subjected to any cleaning process whatever, consisting, in most cases, of a single room, ill-ventilated and yet cold, owing to broken, ill-fitting windows, sometimes damp and partially underground, and always scantily furnished and altogether comfortless, heaps of straw often serving for beds, in which a whole family – male and female, young and old, are huddled together in revolting confusion. The supplies of water are obtained only from the public pumps, and the trouble of procuring it of course favours the accumulation of all kinds of abominations."


Glasgow is in many respects similar to Edinburgh, possessing the same wynds, the same tall houses. Of this city the Artisan observes:

The working-class forms here some 78 per cent of the whole population (about 300,000), and lives in parts of the city "which, in abject wretchedness, exceed the lowest purlieus of St. Giles' or Whitechapel, the liberties of Dublin, or the wynds of Edinburgh. Such localities exist most abundantly in the heart of the city – south of the Irongate and west of the Saltmarket, as well as in the Calton, off the High Street, etc.– endless labyrinths of narrow lanes or wynds, into which almost at every step debouche courts or closes formed by old, ill-ventilated, towering houses crumbling to decay, destitute of water and crowded with inhabitants, comprising three or four families (perhaps twenty persons) on each flat, and sometimes each flat let out in lodgings that confine – we dare not say accommodate – from fifteen to twenty persons in a single room. These districts are occupied by the poorest, most depraved, and most worthless portion of the population, and they may be considered as the fruitful source of those pestilential fevers which thence spread their destructive ravages over the whole of Glasgow."

Let us hear how J. C. Symons, Government Commissioner for the investigation of the condition of the hand-weavers, describes these portions of the city:

"I have seen human degradation in some of its worst phases, both in England and abroad, but I did not believe until I visited the wynds of Glasgow, that so large an amount of filth, crime, misery, and disease existed in any civilised country. In the lower lodging-houses ten, twelve, and sometimes twenty persons of both sexes and all ages sleep promiscuously on the floor in different degrees of nakedness. These places are, generally, as regards dirt, damp and decay, such as no person would stable his horse in."

And in another place:

"The wynds of Glasgow house a fluctuating population of between 15,000 and 30,000 persons. This district is composed of many narrow streets and square courts and in the middle of each court there is a dung-hill. Although the outward appearance of these places was revolting, I was nevertheless quite unprepared for the filth and misery that were to be found inside. In some of these bedrooms we [i.e. Police Superintendent Captain Miller and Symons] visited at night we found a whole mass of humanity stretched out on the floor. There were often 15 to 20 men and women huddled together, some being clothed and others naked. Their bed was a heap of musty straw mixed with rags. There was hardly any furniture there and the only thing which gave these holes the appearance of a dwelling was fire burning on the hearth. Thieving and prostitution are the main sources of income of these people. No one seems to have taken the trouble to clean out these Augean stables, this pandemonium, this nucleus of crime, filth and pestilence in the second city of the empire. A detailed investigation of the most wretched slums of other towns has never revealed anything half so bad as this concentration of moral iniquity, physical degradation and gross overcrowding.... In this part of Glasgow most of the houses have been condemned by the Court of Guild as dilapidated and uninhabitable – but it is just these dwellings which are filled to overflowing, because, by law no rent can be charged on them."

Condition of the Working Class in England, by Engels, 1845