View from
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Marxism Has Been No Deliverer from Ethnic Strife

(Polish Voluntary II Death Squad in Lviv 1920, Polish National Digital Archive)

Any utopian project that tolerates humanity’s diverse values and identities only to the extent that they help advance a narrowly defined vision of progress can only end in indiscriminate violence.”

Marxism, as it was originally conceived by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, rejected the nation-state as deserving of its citizens’ allegiance. Section II of The Communist Manifesto, which was published in 1848, stated that the proletariat was, “reproached with desiring to abolish countries and nationality.” Nationalism was anachronistic since, “national differences, and antagonisms between peoples, 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.”

If a homogenization of the global economy along capitalist lines had already diluted national identification, the “workers of the world” needed only to strike the death blow. They must abandon any attachment to their respective nations, uniting as one to overthrow the global bourgeoisie. “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains,” Marx wrote. He continued: “They have a world to win. Working men of all countries unite!”

But despite his internationalist outlook, Marx never disavowed nationalism as long as it was understood in terms of self-determination. He supported Polish independence from the Russian Empire, likening the cause to an “‘external’ thermometer” that could measure “the intensity and viability of all revolutions since 1789.” A free Poland would weaken the Tsarist regime, a reactionary behemoth that devoted its forces to putting down numerous European revolutions in 1848, and bring about, in the words of Hal Draper and Stephen F. Diamond, an “agrarian movement which would transform the tribute-paying peasants into free property-owners.”

Poland was proof that ethnic nationalism was, in fact, compatible with class struggle. The two reinforced each other and shared a common goal: the creation of an egalitarian new order. Marx affirmed this intersection in his 1864 inaugural address to the International Working Men’s Association. Referring to Polish independence, he said, “the fight for such a foreign policy forms part of the general struggle for the emancipation of the working classes.”

Marx again compromised on his internationalism on the Irish question. He briefly supported the Chartist Movement in Great Britain, expecting that Ireland would gain more autonomy once Anglo-British workers defeated the bourgeoisie, which had among its ranks Protestant landowners who lorded over Catholic Irishmen. Marx later withdrew his endorsement as he witnessed entrenched discrimination against the Irish. “The average English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers wages and the standard of life,” Marx observed, “[and] he feels national and religious antipathies for him.” 

Ireland must, therefore, fight its own battles. Throughout the 1860s, Marx appealed for amnesty for the Fenian Brotherhood, an organization that sought to further Irish independence by carrying out terrorist attacks on British and Canadian soil. Marx explained his drift toward nationalism by saying that the Irish would contribute to international class struggle simply by standing up to their British masters: “If England is the bulwark of landlordism and European capitalism, the only point where one can hit official England really hard is Ireland.”

Nationalism’s popularity among Marxists only grew in the latter half of the 19th century. Breaking with contemporaries such as Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, Vladimir Lenin opposed the idea that the independence movements of Russia’s ethnic minorities were a distraction from international class struggle. “Complete freedom to secede,” Lenin predicted, “will serve as a basis for developing the practical elimination of even the slightest national friction and the least national mistrust, for an accelerated drawing together and fusion of nations that will be completed when the state withers away.” In other words, the proletarians of the world could only unite once each gained the right to rule themselves, which allowed them to cooperate as sovereign equals. 

National Waste

But nationalism was rarely the fairy tale that many Marxists had conceived, one in which oppressed peoples celebrated mutual friendship as they broke away from their foreign overlords. After the First World War, Hungary, a member of the defeated Central Powers, had to cede over 70% of its territory to new nation-states created as part of President Woodrow Wilson’s push for self-determination in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. The 1920 Treaty of Trianon turned one third of ethnic Hungarians into minorities at the mercy of various hostile non-Hungarian governments. Yugoslavia, another successor state to the ethnically-mixed Austria-Hungary, became a monarchy ruled by the Serbian Karađorđević dynasty, much to the ire of Croat nationalists. Prime Minister Winston Churchill feared that, “The war of the giants is over. The war of the pygmies is about to begin.”

Even Lenin renounced his support for nationalism, leading Russia into a war in 1920 against a newly independent Poland, a country created from lands that the Bolsheviks had previously ceded to Germany through the Brest-Litovsk Treaty in 1918. The Polish-Soviet War and the establishment of Soviet Socialist Republics in Ukraine, Central Asia, and the Caucasus revealed that the Soviet leadership had no real intention of letting non-Russian minorities secede and pursue socialism on their own terms. Lenin’s earlier proclamations to the contrary may have been but a strategic move to elicit minority support for the Bolsheviks.

During the interwar period, Marxism-Leninism, the tenets of which were increasingly dictated from Moscow, displayed a rather narrow support for nationalism. Some nations became undeserving of liberation. Such ideological developments likely had deeper roots than a mere reflection of Soviet geopolitical aims or Stalin’s desire to eliminate rival socialist factions like the Trotskyites and “fascist” social democrats. Georg Wilhelm Hegel, a major influence on Marx, wrote that “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.” Because these peoples purportedly lacked the capacity for civilization, they must eke out an existence by serving reactionary higher powers.

Engels, in turn, applied Hegel’s idea of the Völkerabfälle, or “national waste,” to various Slavic groups in the Habsburg-dominated Austrian Empire: the Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. Engels accused Slavs of enlisting en masse in the Austrian Army to help crush the revolting Magyars in 1848. The demise of Hungary’s national revolution, which did nevertheless set off liberal reforms in Austria, called for the destruction of Slavs. “These residual fragments of peoples,” wrote Engels, “always become fanatical standard-bearers of counter-revolution and remain so until their complete extirpation or loss of their national character, just as their whole existence in general is itself a protest against a great historical revolution.”

Similarly, in his 1844 essay, “On the Jewish Question,” Marx described Jews as embodying the perverse values that underpinned capitalism. “What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money.” If so, “[e]mancipation from huckstering and money, consequently from practical, real Judaism, would be the self-emancipation of our time.” The solution was “[a]n organization of society which would abolish the preconditions for huckstering, and therefore the possibility of huckstering, [and] would make the Jew impossible.” Alternatively, the Jew was to be given the option to “abolish” himself. “If the Jew recognizes that this practical nature of his is futile and works to abolish it, he extricates himself from his previous development and works for human emancipation.” 

Ascribing a reactionary quality to entire ethnic groups meant that ethnic cleansing and other indiscriminate forms of violence became necessary instruments of revolutionary progress. In the 20th century, such ideas were cited to justify atrocities against ethnic groups in the Soviet Union suspected of harboring anti-Soviet sentiments, including the organized starvation of Ukrainians. After all, the Soviet Union proclaimed itself the one true vessel of socialism, meaning that Soviet citizens of all ethnicities must submit to its benign rule.

Proletarian Nationalism

As Marxism evolved to become the intellectual foundation for a Soviet empire in Europe, it simultaneously availed itself to colonized non-Europeans agitating for national self-determination. China’s Mao Zedong said that, “Marxism must take on a national form before it can be applied.” Mao, wrote British economist Nigel Harris, “[was] not for the common interest of the Chinese working class and foreign working classes against their own and each others’ ruling classes,” for he believed the only struggle that mattered was between the whole Chinese nation and its foreign adversaries. 

Mao’s nationalized Marxism may have been influenced by Li Dazhao, a Marxist educator and founding member of the Chinese Communist Party. In 1919, Li and his students were part of a movement to protest the Treaty of Versailles for ceding to Japan Chinese territory which Germany had formerly occupied. China’s weakness against foreign incursions convinced Li that she was a “proletarian” nation, and the white West, owing to its wealth and military might, was a global ruling class much like the bourgeoisie. Given the widespread racism at the time—African American sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois was reminded of Jim Crow Mississippi after witnessing in Shanghai a white child bark orders at terrified Chinese men—Marxists like Li and Mao abandoned international class unity. After all, Anglo disdain for Irish Catholics had led Marx himself to dismiss the prospect of a proletarian alliance spanning the British Isles.

Ironically, the fascists that Marx’s disciples frequently condemned also shared the man’s epiphany regarding the inevitability of ethnic conflict. Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, an early proponent of German national socialism, wrote in his 1923 book Das Dritte Reich (“The Third Empire”) that working class Britons fought against Germany during the First World War because to do so was in their very nature. “It was the English working classes who made it possible for their government to prepare the War, to declare the War, and to win the War. That was very English.” “[The German worker] must realize that the proletarians of each country thought only of their own country,” and he must, therefore, build a “socialism” that prioritizes nationalist values over class warfare. 

In Das Recht der Jungen Völker (“The Right of Young Peoples”), Moeller van den Bruck presented history as a struggle between “young,” fledging nations and “old,” hegemonic powers. Such a struggle played out during the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. When Britain declined to support Italy’s annexation of formerly Austro-Hungarian cities on the Adriatic coast, then-socialist activist Benito Mussolini denounced Britain as, “the fattest and most bourgeois nation in the world,” a reference to London’s hypocrisy of holding a vast overseas empire while denying Rome its own aspirations for one. 

Twenty years later, Italy would declare war on the Western Allies. In his “Speech to the People of Rome” in June 1940, Mussolini urged his countrymen to “take the field against plutocratic and reactionary democracies who always have blocked the march and frequently plotted against the existence of the Italian people.” The former Marxist made no appeals to the British or French proletariat, treating them instead as one with their bourgeois masters on account of national origin. 

Unlike Mussolini, Hitler refrained from smearing the Allies as “bourgeois.” But his hatred of these nations stemmed no less from a sense of grievance, for they were the principal authors of the interwar status quo, one which imposed disarmament and reparations on a defeated Germany. Hitler also envisioned a Volksgemeinschaft, a united “people’s community” that would nullify capitalism’s excesses and advance the struggle against racial enemies. Citing Marx’s “On the Jewish Question,” economist and Nazi sympathizer Werner Sombart wrote that, “[b]ills of exchange, securities, the bourse, the warehouse, the bank, capitalistic finance to a greater or lesser extent, may have been the creation of Jews.” As such, “to free ourselves from the Jewish spirit—said to be the chief task of the German people and, above all, of Socialism…It will be far better to so transform the institutional culture that it will no longer serve as a bulwark for the Jewish spirit.”


Any utopian project that tolerates humanity’s diverse values and identities only to the extent that they help advance a narrowly defined vision of progress can only end in indiscriminate violence. To transform the human condition, Marxism has sought to flatten all identities that perpetuate “the existing social and political order of things.” Therefore, the revolution so prophesied could only point toward the erasure of those ethnic groups who, in their benighted state, lacked sufficient enthusiasm for change and accordingly refuse to appreciate the virtue in their demise.

Guzi He is a J.D. candidate at the American University Washington College of Law. He holds a B.A. in Government from the College of William and Mary and is fluent in Mandarin Chinese.

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