• Luxemburg, Lenin, Bauer – The Left and the National

  • By Walter Baier | 17 Apr 19
  • With bitterness and incomprehension Rosa Luxemburg observed the nationalist upsurge accompanying the disintegration of the European multinational states in the wake of the First World War: ‘Right now nationalism is a trump card […].’ ‘Mouldered corpses from hundred-year- old graves, filled with new spring fever – today is Walpurgis Night on the nationalist Bald Mountain’,[1] she wrote, while a European order emerged from the rubble of the war, which twenty years later would fall apart in a still greater catastrophe.
       After 1945 the magic formula for restraining wars and nationalisms was integration (at first in the framework of two competing social models, but after 1991 on the basis of victorious capitalism). Yet, all optimistic rhetoric invoking a ‘post-national age’[2] to the contrary, we can see today that Europe is by no means done with the ‘national question’. In fact, the financial and economic crisis, and still more the neoliberal and authoritarian policies with which governments and the European institutions confront them, have resulted in a loss of legitimacy for integration. Since these phenomena were not expressed in a Europeanisation of the ‘social conflict’ they were articulated in the growth of nationalism.
       Every generation has to work with its own concepts to deal with the problems confronting it. But in doing so there is a risk of the historical dimension being lost to view, as when the term racism becomes naturalised in Europe to characterise the tendency of societies to seal themselves off and exclude others, although the fact that the decrease in family aid for Eastern European EU citizens enacted by Austria’s right-wing government has met with broad approval from the electorate shows that people who see the welfare state threatened by Afghan, Syrian, and Iraqi refugees are also not inclined to share it with Slovak, Bulgarian, or Romanian labour immigrants.
       Racist prejudice, colonial arrogance, and nationalist egotism comprise the symbiotic sides of a social pathology. In order to understand it in its different expressions from country to country it is not enough to subsume it under a general term; what is required is an analysis of the specifics.
       Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012), the British historian with old Austrian roots, deemed it appropriate to recall at the beginning of his study on Nations and Nationalisms ‘the first noteworthy attempt to subject the issue to a dispassionate analysis’: ‘the important and under-appreciated debates among the Marxists of the Second International on what they called the “national question”’ involving ‘the best minds of the international socialist movement  –  and they could boast some of the most brilliant thinkers – [who] tackled this problem: Kautsky and Luxemburg, Otto Bauer and Lenin, to name only a few’.[3]
       But the historical context was different then. Europe’s crisis today is not the result of a war but of the adjustment stress that societies are experiencing. The arrival on Europe’s shores of people fleeing miserable conditions of life is a symptom of a worldwide upheaval perceived in our countries as if through a camera obscura. While the EU with its 500 million inhabitants appears to be overstrained with the integration of 4 million refugees, the real problem is that after centuries of colonialism and neocolonialism the 500 million have to integrate themselves in a world that will soon be inhabited by 10 billion people whose basis of life are threatened by climate change and who are demanding their share of prosperity.
       One can imagine Rosa Luxemburg’s incomprehension in the face of today’s debates on immigration restriction and closed borders. What would she think, hearing the word ‘cosmopolitanism’ once again being used disparagingly in connection with adjectives like ‘elitist’ and ‘privileged’?

    The two extremes in the debate

    Certainly, Rosa Luxemburg’s position in the contemporary debates was particular and represented one extreme among the possible answers to the ‘national question’. To the young socialist movement of her native country Poland, partitioned among three reactionary great powers, she gave this advice in 1908: ‘Social Democracy is therefore called upon not to realise the right of nations to self-determination but only the right to self-determination of the working class, of the exploited and oppressed class: of the proletariat.’[4] Rosa Luxemburg’s socialist-cosmopolitan vision went even further. She objected to the concept of ‘national-cultural autonomy’ in which Austro- Marxists saw the solution of the national antagonisms of the Danube Monarchy, by approvingly quoting Kautsky: ‘When socialist society provides the masses with an education, it also gives them the ability to speak several languages, the universal languages, and therefore to take part in the entire international civilisation and not only in the separate culture of a certain linguistic community.’[5]
       Rosa Luxemburg was no moralising dreamer. She derived her position from the economic tendency of development she discerned in contemporary capitalism. Certainly, her vision of a ‘final amalgamation of the whole of civilised humanity within one language and nationality’[6] can be taxed with utopianism, but not without recognising the great credit she deserves for having indicated a universally united humanity as the direction in which socialists think of the future.
       Rosa Luxemburg’s cosmopolitanism clashed with V. I. Lenin who, hoping to use the national question as a crowbar to demolish Tsarist autocracy, formulated the counterposition according to which the core of a socialist understanding of equal national rights was ‘the freedom to secede, the freedom to form an independent national state’.[7]
       Luxemburg and Lenin – cosmopolitanism and the unconditional right to form a state made up the two extreme points of an axis around which all theoretical and practical attempts at a solution of the national problems, regardless of the vocabulary they used or use, turned up to the present day.
       In this regard, with his concept of ‘national-cultural autonomy’ aimed at realising equal national rights while maintaining a multinational state, the Austrian Otto Bauer occupied a middle position. To Luxemburg, with whom he politically agreed in rejecting a Polish national movement and whose economic arguments he even viewed as fundamental for a scientific consideration of the Polish question’, he objected that ‘there is a good deal more that scholarship has to say on the Polish question.[8] […] What should rather be investigated is how the intellectual being of the people, their opinions, desires, and ideas, have been altered by the changed conditions of production.’[9]
       Theintensityofthepolemicsbetweenthegreatsofthesocialist International can easily distract us from their common theoretical foundation. They recognised, for one thing, that nations represented more than ideological mirages for legitimising an existing state or the struggle for such a state and that they were elements of the historically given social and political reality.
       But what is a nation?[10] For Karl Kautsky, the nation was essentially based on a linguistic community. Stalin, in his work published in 1913, Marxism and the National Question, undertook to ‘exhaustively’ define the complex phenomenon in two lines, namely as ‘a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture. […] It is only when all these characteristics are present together that we have a nation’.[11] As the antithesis of Stalin’s scheme, Otto Bauer’s definition is often cited, according to which the nation can be ‘defined as a community of character that has grown not out of a similarity of fate, but out of a community of fate’.[12] Much has been written on the merits and weaknesses of this definition. Remarkably, hardly any attention has been paid to Bauer’s own relativisation of it in the preface to the 1924 edition of The Question of Nationalities and Social Democracy, according to which: ‘The focus of my theory of the nation in fact lies not in the definition of the nation, but in the description of the process of integration out of which the modern nation has developed.’[13]
       The second point on which the socialist theoreticians agreed is on giving precedence, following Marx and Engels, to the class struggle above the national struggles. In Rosa Luxemburg this results from the overall system of her thinking, as was clear from the above-quoted passage in which the only right of self-determination that counted for her was that of the working class. Lenin, in hundreds of remarks and in revolutionary practice, demonstrated that the right of nations to self-determination written into the programme of his party was something to which he only accorded an instrumental role in the power struggle with Tsarism.

    ‘The Nationalities Programme of the Left’

    For the Austro-Marxists, the most complex relationship was that between the national and social questions; in Otto Bauer’s words, they viewed national antagonisms as ‘transformed class hatred’. For Bauer it came down, as Norbert Leser accurately writes, to ‘clearing away the national struggle in order to create room for the class struggle’.[14] However, if the nation was not a chimera but a social reality, clearing it out of the way could not be limited to illuminating or deconstructing something that was illusory; rather it demanded practical solutions to institutionally regulate the coexistence of diverse nations.
       With this in mind Austrian Social Democracy established its own nationalities programme in 1899, about which Rosa Luxemburg noted with satisfaction that in it ‘the clearly laid out plan for state policy’ provides ‘a test for the practical solution applied by the party of the proletariat to these difficulties’.[15]
       The Nationalities Programme decided in Brno is identified with the concept of ‘national-cultural autonomy’ developed by Bauer and Karl Renner, according to which each nation should have the right to regulate its cultural, linguistic, and religious concerns in self-governing bodies to be created.
       This is not the place to exhaustively describe Austro-Hungary’s complex national relationships. Their complexity is comparable to today’s European problems. The paradox was that the nationalities whose conflicts dominated domestic politics ever since 1848 did not exist as constitutional subjects.[16] The multinational state was composed of a conglomerate of dynastic acquisitions (‘Crown Lands’), which in turn were inhabited by nationally intermixed populations. Consequently, any democratic reform, the introduction of universal, direct, and equal suffrage as well as the attempted or successful realisation of equal national rights on the basis of the territorial principle (‘one nation – one territory’), gave rise to very destructive quarrels between    the nations and, in the Crown Lands, between majority and minority populations.
       The Social Democrats reacted to this obstacle with two innovative ideas for democratising the state. One, the personality principle, as a substitute for the territorial principle, was to anchor national rights as rights existing regardless of place of residence. National self-governing bodies, which would exist alongside a parliament elected by universal, direct, and equal suffrage, were to represent all communities of one and the same nation scattered throughout the different Crown Lands. This was the federal state of nationalities. To put national-cultural autonomy into practice, Renner provided for decentralising the Empire, which would transfer the power  of the Crown Lands to largely autonomous districts with populations as nationally homogeneous as possible, which he assumed would considerably defuse the debilitating strife around school languages and administrative posts.[17]
       But this finely chiselled plan to save the supranational state became obsolete the moment the Emperor decided in 1914 to force the cohesion of his Empire through war. While Renner continued to work on his concept until the end of the war, by 1917 Bauer brought himself to the realisation that a democratic solution of the nationalities problem by now was only possible by recognising the right of what had been Austrian nationalities to now found independent states.[18] On this basis he wrote the Nationalities Programme of the Left – still in opposition to the party directorate but which was adopted by the party shortly thereafter. The recognition of the right of the nationalities to self-determination by Social Democracy, which emerged as the strongest party in German-speaking Austria, arrived too late to permit Austro-Hungary’s transformation into a federation of independent states, though it was a precondition for the relatively peaceful manner in which the Empire disintegrated. But the late revenge of the Habsburgs was such that, as Bauer and Renner had predicted, the nationalities question was not solved by the formation of nation-states but only displaced, and the problem of majorities and minorities in the new states further smouldered and then exploded in the conflagration of the Second World War.
       The fact that Luxemburg, Lenin, and finally also Renner and Bauer, started from more or less identical theoretical premises but derived very different strategic implications from them suggests that their differences, even if formulated ideologically, were mostly motivated by the differing contexts of their activity. Lenin, who wanted to smash an autocratic state, and Bauer, Renner, and Luxemburg who despite the differences among them wanted to come to power in their states through a democratic road.

    The old dilemma in a new form

    It is apparent that our left is facing the dilemma of deciding between the capitalist integration of Europe and the capitalist nation-state. Some parties prefer to address this issue citing Rosa Luxemburg’s logic of a socialist cosmopolitanism while others cling to an absolute claim to national self- determination and independence based on the right Lenin espoused in the specific context of the Russian Revolution.
       In his 2011 article for transform the Greek political scientist Gerassimos Moschonas called for ‘elementary strategic coherence’. ‘Either the left opts for a European strategy and manages the political consequences; or else   it opts for an anti-Union strategy (leaving the Union, restoring national sovereignty) and copes with the resulting consequences. […] What is incoherent (in fact: deprived of strategic reason) is to opt for a “European” strategy (meaning seeking solutions at the European level) and continuing to use discursive schemes inspired by the insurrectional model; or to opt for a “return to the nation” and claim to be representative of universalism and the world proletariat.’[19]
       Moschonas is right in demanding honesty and consistency in the political debate. Nevertheless, the problem is more complicated, and it is not easy to meet the difficult challenge of the Sermon on the Mount, ‘You should say “yes! yes!” or “no! no!”; everything beyond this is evil’.
       Today the political consequences of the failure of the governments and EU institutions to deal with the capitalist crisis are evident; and clearer and more serious still is their strategy of using the situation to make austerity policy yet more authoritarian. Neither trade unions nor social movements were able to impede this. At the political level Syriza’s attempt to realise a democratically legitimated, anti-neoliberal alternative in the framework of the nation-state was smothered. With this, the illusion that Europe’s rudder could be made to change course by the coming to power of a left party in a small, economically overpowered country was brought down to earth, onto the cold terrain of the facts, that is, of the economic and political relation of forces.
       The neoliberal elites are paying for the betrayed hopes of integration with the rise of the nationalist right, and the left is paying for its illusions with the growth of Eurosceptic tendencies. Can it be that there is a connection between the two?
       To make oneself into a defender of the current European Union is impossible. Changing it within the framework of its treaties and institutions does not look promising. But neither is the counter-proposal credible of renationalising the handling of European problems, that is, delegating them to the 27 national governments that are still the main perpetrators of the failure of EU institutions. What is to be done?

    To begin with, it is useful to review the actual intricacy of the problems that can be seen as national.

    ·         The rivalry between Germany and France for hegemony that is flaring up due to Germany’s export-driven growth model;

    ·         but also conversely: Germany’s and France’s dysfunctional claim to a common leadership role in the Europe of 27;

    ·         the chasm opened up by the financial and economic crisis between the economic centre of Europe and the regions, which are degraded to being a periphery;

    ·         the economic, political, and cultural differences between Western and Eastern Europe;

    ·         the intensified disintegrative phenomena in several multinational states of Europe;

    ·         the integration of new national communities that have formed due to immigration and the rightward drift of the indigenous populations.

    How can we then prevent national conflicts from once again becoming ways of displacing unresolved social problems?

    A couple of conclusions

    The first conclusion is that respect for national sovereignty does not stand in opposition to a democratic integration but is its precondition. Although the welfare states, tax systems, labour laws, consumer protection, and the educational and health systems depend on the global contexts, they are  still constituted on the level of the nation-state. Any progress in raising European standards and every European initiative for shutting down tax havens should be welcomed. But this is not the EU’s essential vector. With the Treaty of Lisbon neoliberalism was anchored as the basic norm for the European Union. Fighting off the resultant reshaping of states by using all means available through a nationally constituted democracy is neither anti- European nor nationalistic.
       The financial waterboarding that brought the Greek government to its knees in July 2015 not only contradicted European solidarity but was at the same time a massive intervention into the national sovereignty of an EU Member State.
       It is understandable that socialist parties can decide to weigh the strategic option of exiting the euro or the EU. No one has the right to object to this as long as parties who propose exit for their own country accept the fact that other parties may regard the opposite strategy as being correct for their countries.
       Self-determination is not a metaphysical abstraction. It is one thing when Cypriots, Greeks, and the Portuguese defend their right to self- determination, and it is another thing when in France and Germany the  cry of national sovereignty is raised. What in the first case is an act of self- defence is in the second a chauvinistic slogan. This of course does not mean that chauvinistic claims only arise in large states, as the nationalist right-wing governments of Central Europe show.
       The second and most important conclusion is that we  in  large and small countries alike have to prohibit any borrowing from nationalism and populism. Just as one cannot initiate alcohol withdrawal by visiting Munich’s Oktoberfest, so too we cannot talk ourselves into believing we can defend the solidary social state by desolidarising with refugees and immigrants.
       Viewed realistically, the influence of left parties on the continued existence of the euro and the EU should not be overestimated. But we should also abandon any illusion that the left could draw benefits from the disintegration of the EU. From today’s vantage point a plausible scenario would not seem to be a dramatic collapse but a torturous, protracted deterioration, such as Austria-Hungary experienced before the First World War. National antagonisms, crippled institutions, ineffectiveness, and above all an obstructed democratisation are not ingredients for a left breakthrough in Europe but for Europe’s relapse into nationalism and authoritarianism.
       Finally, we should critically re-examine our strategy during the economic crisis.
       Initiatives to Europeanise the conflict were certainly begun, but they never took on a dimension that could have relevance for power politics, and the chief responsibility for this lies with the indecisiveness and inner conflicts of the European Trade Union Confederation, which ought to have been at the head of resistance against this major attack on the rights of wage dependents.
       The high point of the political struggle against austerity was reached when Alexis Tsipras took office, which united Europe’s left less through action than in the high expectations created. In reality, Syriza stood alone against the unanimous power of international finance capital, the most powerful state of the EU, and Europe’s mainstream media. Absolutely no social democratic government came to its aid, and in no country was it possible for left pressure to bring about a change of policy.
       There are two opposed interpretations of Syriza’s defeat: One is the betrayal thesis whose defenders apparently do not see that it is only keeping alive the illusions that dominated the left from the very beginning; on the other side is the perception that an assessment of the relation of forces today shows that the proclaimed goal of bringing down the Troika was never realistic and that if there had been a realistic consideration of the opportunities and risks the negotiations might even have had a better outcome. If we take this argument seriously we would still have to explain how it could be that more or less all of Europe’s left took positions that in only six months turned out to be unrealistic.
       But how can we imagine any change at all in the relation of forces in Europe? Nobody disputes the importance of the struggle in the extra- parliamentary, extra-institutional arena in which Europe’s left can develop power beyond its institutional anchoring. But where does European civil society find its institutional counterpart to which it can address its demands? There is also no question that the relation of forces within the states is decisive and that accumulated strength there can at a critical point penetrate the European level. Does this mean that an anti-neoliberal breakthrough has to be delayed to that great day on which there are left majorities in sufficiently many and sufficiently large countries? Is the message then that we have to deliver to Europe’s peoples that until further notice nothing is achievable beyond a variant of ‘neoliberalism with a human face’, which Greece’s and Portugal’s governments are attempting? Is that the gist of the Greek lesson that we have to swallow?
       Obviously, there is a component missing in our strategy, namely the mechanism by means of which extra-institutional pressure and changes in the national relations of forces can be transformed into European policy. This missing piece, indispensable for a transformative strategy, is a functioning democracy. Here the most serious error that many pro-Europeans commit is to imagine that a European democracy can only exist by dismantling nation-state democracies. It is a fatal mistake because the powers that the EU has claimed for itself are not subjected to a parliamentary process at a higher level but disappear into a web of national and European technocracy and thus as a whole lead to a reduction of democracy.
       At the European level, democracy requires that power be relocated: from the meeting rooms, in which the heads of state and ministers trade off alleged national interests behind closed doors, to a parliament in which parties present their differing programmes in full view of the public in competing for government responsibility. This would be a parliament selected through universal, direct, secret, and equal elections and endowed with the power to enact laws, pass budgets, guide monetary policy, and choose an executive. It does not make sense that we whose political grandparents won universal suffrage for the working class in the nation-state through decades of long struggles should now content ourselves in Europe with a half democracy and a half parliament.
       To the launching of a debate on how a European democracy can link national self-determination to transnational democracy the objection is made that precisely this is the bone of contention with those who want to see less Europe and who although they do not want to see less democracy nevertheless do not want to see more democracy. But the argument is unsound, for the demand for democracy can also underlie a left position that opposes any further expansion of the EU’s powers until these are realised under democratic conditions. This would, for example, add an additional dimension to opposition to the militarisation of the European Union, an issue around which the left is united.
       Why then should those who prioritise the national orientation in their strategy see those who are fighting for a democratisation of the European Union primarily as ideological opponents and not political partners? And the same can be asked of the latter’s attitude towards the former.


    Amin, Samir, Eurocentrism. Modernity, Religion, and Democracy: A Critique of Eurocentrism and Culturalism, New York, 1990.

    Bauer, Otto, The Question of Nationalities and Social Democracy (edited by Ephraim J. Nimni, translated by Joseph O’Donnell (Minneapolis and London, 2000).

    Cohn-Bendit, Daniel and Guy Verhofstatt, Für Europa. Ein Manifest, Munich, 2012.

    Hobsbawm, Eric, Nations and Nationalisms Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. German edition: Nationen und Nationalismus. Mythos und Realität seit 1780, Frankfurt am Main.

    Lenin, V. I., The Right of Nations to Self-Determination (1914), Collected Works, vol. 20, pp. 393-454.

    Leser, Norbert ,1968, Zwischen Bolschewismus und Reformismus, Vienna.

    Luxemburg, Rosa, ‘Fragment über Krieg, nationale Frage und Revolution’ (1918), in:

    Gesammelte Werke, vol. 4, pp. 366–373.

    Luxemburg, Rosa, ‘Nationalitätenfrage und Autonomie’ (Abdruck des Artikels von 1908), in idem, Internationalismus und Klassenkampf, Munich, 1971, pp. 220 – 78; ‘The National Question and Autonomy’, in Horace B. Davis (ed.), The National Question – Selected Writings of Rosa Luxemburg, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1976

    Menasse, Robert, Der Europäische Landbote: die Wut der Bürger und der Friede Europas, Vienna, 2013.

    Moschonas, Gerassimos, ‘The European Union and the Dilemmas of the Radical Left’, transform 9/2011, <https://www.transform-network.net/publications/yearbook/overview/article/journal-092011/the-european-union-and-the-dilemmas-of-the-radical-left/>.

    Renner, Karl, Das Selbstbestimmungsrecht der Nationen in besonderer Anwendung auf Österreich, Leizpig; Deuticke, 1918.

    Joseph Stalin, Marxism and the National Question, <https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1913/03a.htm#s1>.


    1. Luxemburg, ‚Fragment über Krieg, nationale Frage und Revolution‘, pp. 367 f.
    2. Typical of this viewpoint are Cohn-Bendit/Verhofstadt, Für Europa Ein Manifest and Menasse, Der Europäische Landbote: die Wut der Bürger und der Friede Europas.
    3. Hobsbawm, Nationen und Nationalismus. Mythos und Realität seit 1780, p. 12.
    4. Luxemburg, 1971, ‘Nationalitätenfrage und Autonomie’, p. 263.
    5. Luxemburg, 1971, p. 248.
    6. Luxemburg, 1971, p. 289.
    7. Lenin, The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, p. 422.
    8. Bauer, The Question of Nationalities and Social Democracy, p.362.
    9. Bauer, p. 362.
    10. For a critique of Euro-centric theories of the nation (including those of Marx and Engels), which cannot be elaborated here, Samir Amin’s study is indispensable: Samir Amin (1990), Eurocentrism: Modernity, Religion, and Democracy – A Critique of Eurocentrism and Culturalism.
    11. Joseph Stalin, Marxism and the National Question, chapter I.
    12. Bauer, p. 101.
    13. Bauer, p. 17.
    14. Leser, Zwischen Bolschewismus und Reformismus, p.254.
    15. Luxemburg, ‘Nationalitätenfrage und Autonomie’, pp.222 f.
    16. Renner, Das Selbstbestimmungsrecht der Nationen in besonderer Anwendung auf Österreich, p. 34.
    17. Renner, p.74.
    18. One aspect of Otto Bauer’s human and political tragedy was that while he had recognised the right to self-determination of all peoples of the Monarchy he could only conceive of this for the German-speaking Austrians as union with Germany. This was prevented in the peace negotiations of St. Germain by the Allies, specifically France but implemented by Hitler’s Germany. Even in this instance Bauer’s position remained ambivalent. Renner even brought himself to the point of greeting the ‘union’. In my view, one of the strangest of the many paradoxes in Austria’s political history is the fact that the most important theorists of the national question twice, as party leaders, failed their own state in the application of their theory.
    19. Moschonas, ‘The European Union and the Dilemmas of the Radical Left’.