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Nationalism, Socialism, and Violent Revolution

Marxian doctrine doesn’t deny the possibility of absolute truth, but it maintains that absolute truth can be attained only in the classless society. Or in the proletarian class society.

Lenin’s main book1 , or at least his most voluminous book (now available in the Collected Works of Lenin), led some people to call him a philosopher. Most of Lenin’s critique of the ideas of his adversaries consists of calling them “bourgeois.” Lenin’s philosophy is merely a restatement of the philosophical ideas of Marx; to some extent it is not even up to the level of other Russian writers on Marxism.

Marxist theory or philosophy had no development in countries where there were Communist parties. Persons whom we call Marxians consider themselves merely interpreters of Marx; they never tried to change anything in Marx. However, there are contradictions in Marx. So it is possible to quote passages from his writings from all points of view. The influence of Marx on all authors and writers who have lived since Marx died has been considerable, even though it is not usually admitted that these authors were influenced by Marx.

Although Marxians considered themselves solely interpreters of Marx, one Marxian, one writer, added something and had a strong influence, not only on the small group of his followers, but also on other authors. Georges Sorel [1847–1922]—not to be confused with Albert Sorel [1842–1906]—an important historian, developed a philosophy in many respects different from the Marxian philosophy. And it influenced political action and philosophic thinking. Sorel was a timid bourgeois intellectual, an engineer. He retired to discuss these things with his friends at a bookshop owned by Charles Péguy [1873–1914], a revolutionary socialist. In the course of the years, Péguy changed his opinions and at the end of his life he was a very ardent Catholic author. Péguy had serious conflicts with his family. Péguy was remarkable for his intercourse with Sorel. Péguy was a man of action; he died in action in 1914 in the first weeks of the war.

Sorel belonged psychologically to the group of people who dream of action but never act; he didn’t fight. As a writer, however, Sorel was very aggressive. He praised cruelty and deplored the fact that cruelty is more and more disappearing from our life. In one of his books, Reflections on Violence, he considered it a manifestation of decay that Marxian parties, calling themselves revolutionary, had degenerated into parliamentary parties. Where is the revolution if you are in Parliament? He also didn’t like labor unions. He thought the labor unions should abandon the hopeless venture of seeking higher wage rates and should adopt, instead of this conservative pattern, the revolutionary process.

Sorel saw clearly the contradiction in the system of Marx who spoke of revolution on the one hand and then said, “The coming of socialism is inevitable, and you cannot accelerate its coming because socialism cannot come before the material productive forces have achieved all that is possible within the frame of the old society.” Sorel saw that this idea of inevitability was contradictory to the idea of revolution. This is the contradiction all socialists ask themselves about—Kautsky, for one. Sorel completely adopted the idea of revolution.

Sorel asked of the labor unions a new tactic, action directe—attack, destroy, sabotage. He considered these aggressive policies only preliminary to the great day when the unions would declare a “general strike.” That is the day when the unions will declare “Now we don’t work at all. We want to destroy the life of the nation completely.” General strike is only a synonym for the live revolution. The idea of action directe is called “syndicalism.”

Syndicalism can mean ownership of the industry by the workers. Socialists mean by this term ownership by the state and operation for the account of the people. Sorel wanted to attain this by revolution. He didn’t question the idea that history leads toward socialism. There is a kind of instinct that pushes men toward socialism, but Sorel accepted this as superstition, an inner urge that cannot be analyzed. For this reason his philosophy has been compared with that of Henri Bergson’s élan vital (myths, fairy stories, fables, legends). However, in the doctrine of Sorel, “myth” means something else—a statement which cannot be criticized by reason.

1. Socialism is an end.

2. The general strike is the great means.

Most of Sorel’s writings date from 1890 to 1910. They had an enormous influence on the world, not only on the revolutionary socialists, but also on the royalists, supporters of the restoration of the House of Orange, the “Action française,” and in other countries the “Action nationale.” But all these parties gradually became a little bit more “civilized” than Sorel thought they should be.

It was the idea of French Syndicalism that influenced the most important movement of the twentieth century. Lenin, Mussolini, and Hitler were all influenced by Sorel, by the idea of action, by the idea not to talk but to kill. Sorel’s influence on Mussolini and Lenin has not been questioned. For his influence on Nazism, see the book by Alfred Rosenberg2 titled The Myth of the 20th Century. The fundamental idea of racism was borrowed from Frenchmen. The only man who really contributed something to the Marxian idea was Sorel, along with a group of syndicalists—a comparatively small group composed exclusively of intellectuals and even of idle rich and intellectuals, like the “penthouse Bolshevists” of New York. They repeated again and again that only the workers have enough vigor and enough class consciousness in order to search out and to destroy the bourgeois system.

The center of Marxian activity shifted from Germany to France. The greatest portion of Marxian writings are in French. Sorel’s work was done in France. Outside of Russia, there are more Marxians in France than in any other country; there is, however, more discussion of communism in France than in Russia. The École Normale Supérieure in Paris was an important center of Marxian teachings. Lucien Herr [1864–1926], the librarian, had a great deal of influence. He was the father of French Marxism. As former students of École Normale Supérieure became more and more important, the school spread Marxism all over France.

By and large, the same condition prevailed in most European countries. When the universities seemed slow to accept Marxism, special schools were endowed to educate the rising generations in orthodox socialism. This was the goal of the London School of Economics, a Fabian institution founded by the Webbs. But it couldn’t avoid being invaded by persons of other ideas. For instance, [Friedrich A.] Hayek [1899–1992] taught for some years at the London School of Economics. This was the case in all countries—European countries had state universities. People generally ignored the fact that Marxians, not free traders, were appointed by the Tsar at the imperial universities in Russia. These professors were called legal, or better “loyal,” Marxians. When the Bolshevists came to power in Russia, it was not necessary to fire the professors.

Marx didn’t see any differences between the various parts of the world. One of his doctrines was that capitalism is one stage in the development of socialism. In this regard, there are some nations that are more backward than others. But capitalism was destroying the trade barriers and migration barriers that once prevented the unification of the world. Therefore, the differences in the evolution of the various countries with regard to their maturity toward socialism will disappear.

In the Communist Manifesto in 1848, Marx declared that capitalism was destroying all national peculiarities and unifying into one economic system all the countries of the world. The cheap prices of products were the means capitalism used to destroy nationalism. But in 1848, the average person didn’t know anything about Asia or Africa. Marx was even less informed than the average English businessman who knew something about business relations with China and India. The only attention Marx gave to this problem was his remark, later published by Vera Zasulich, to the effect that it might be possible for a country to skip the capitalist stage and proceed directly to socialism. Marx saw no distinction between various nations. Capitalism, feudalism, brings about progressive impoverishment everywhere. Everywhere there will be mature economies. And when the age of mature capitalism comes, the whole world will have reached socialism.

Marx lacked the ability to learn by observing political events and the political literature being published around him. For him practically nothing existed but the books of the classical economists, which he found in the library of the British Museum, and the hearings of the British Parliamentary Commissions. He didn’t even see what was going on in his own neighborhood. He didn’t see that many people were fighting, not for the interests of the proletariat, but for the principles of nationality.

Marx completely ignored this principle of nationality. The principle of nationality asked that every linguistic group form an independent state and that all the members of such a group should be recognized and unified. This was the principle which brought about the European conflicts, led to the complete destruction of the European system, and created the present-day chaos in Europe. The principle of nationality doesn’t take into account that there are large territories in which linguistic populations are mixed. Consequently there were struggles between the various linguistic groups which finally resulted in the situation we have today in Europe. I mention this because it is a principle of government which was unknown up to now.

According to this principle there is no such nation as India. It is possible that this principle of nationality will break India up into many independent states fighting one another. The Indian Parliament uses the English language. The members of the various states cannot communicate with one another, other than by employing the language of the government, a language which they have practically expelled from their country. But this situation will not last forever.

In 1848, when the Slavs of Europe met for a Panslavist Congress in Moscow, they had to speak with one another in German. But this didn’t prevent later developments in a different way.

Karl Marx and Engels didn’t like the nationalistic movement and never took notice of it. It didn’t fit into their plans or schemes. If, on account of the unfriendly remarks Marx and Engels made about various linguistic groups of Austria-Hungary and the Balkans, some authors, especially French authors, think Marx was a forerunner of National Socialism—Nazism—they are wrong. Marx said that what he wanted was to create a one-world state. And that was Lenin’s idea too.

By 1848 Marx had already assumed that socialism was just around the corner. Given such a theory, there was no reason to form a separate linguistic state. Such a state could only be very temporary. Marx simply assumed that the age of nationalities would come to an end, and that we were on the eve of an age in which there would no longer be differences between various types, classes, nations, linguistic groups, etc. Marx absolutely denied any differences among men. Men would all be of the same type. There was never any answer in Marx as to what language the people in his one-world state would use, or what the nationality of the dictator would be.

Marx was furious when someone said there were differences between men in the same nation, the same city, the same branch of business, just as all Marxists became furious when someone told them there were differences between Englishmen and Eskimos. According to Marx, the only difference was due to education. If an idiot and Dante had been educated in the same way, there would have been no difference between them. This idea influenced Marx’s followers, and it is still one of the guiding principles of American education. Why is not everybody equally intelligent? Many Marxians assume that in the future socialist commonwealth the average person will be equal in talents, gifts, intelligence, artistic attainments, to the greatest men of the past, such as Trotsky, Aristotle, Marx, and Goethe, although there will still be some more gifted people.

It never occurred to Marx that, in the best case, education can only transfer to the pupil what the teacher already knows. In the case of Marx, it wouldn’t have been enough for him to have been educated in a school by perfect Hegelian teachers because then everything he would have produced would have only been Hegelianism again. By educating people in the knowledge of the generation preceding motor cars, it wouldn’t have been possible to produce motor cars. Education can never bring about progress as such. That some people, thanks to their positions, inheritance, education, and so on, have the gift to go one step farther than preceding generations cannot be explained simply by education.

Similarly, it is impossible to explain great things and the great acts of some men simply by referring to their national affiliation. The problem is, why were these people different from their brothers and sisters? Marx simply assumed, without any reason, that we are now living in the age of internationalism and that all national traits will disappear. In the same way that he assumed that specialization would disappear, because machines can be operated by unskilled workers, he assumed there would no longer be any differences between various parts of the world and various nations. Every kind of conflict between nations was interpreted as the consequence of the machinations of the bourgeoisie. Why do Frenchmen and Germans fight? Why did they fight in 1870? Because the ruling classes of Prussia and the ruling classes of France wanted to fight. But this had nothing to do with the interests of nations.

In regard to his attitude toward war, Marx was, of course, influenced by the idea of the Manchester laissez-faire liberals. In using the term “Manchester liberalism” always as an insult, we tend to forget the essential statement in that famous declaration of the Manchester Congress where the term originated. It was said there that in the world of free trade there is no longer any reason for nations to fight one another. If there is free trade and every nation can enjoy the products of every other nation, the most important cause of war disappears. The princes are interested in increasing the territorial size of their princely province to get greater income and power, but nations as such are not interested, because it doesn’t make any difference under free trade. And in the absence of immigration barriers it doesn’t matter to the individual citizen whether his country is large or small. Therefore, according to the Manchester Liberals, war will disappear under popular democratic rule. The people will not then be in favor of war because they have nothing to win—they have only to pay and to die in the war.

It was this idea that was in the mind of President [Woodrow] Wilson [1856–1924] when he went to war against Germany. What President Wilson didn’t see was that all this about the uselessness of war is true only in a world when there is free trade between the nations. It is not true in a world of interventionism.

Sir Norman Angell [1872–1967] still argues in the same way. What did the individual Germans gain in 1870? This was almost true then, because there was comparatively free trade. But today the situation is different. Italy’s own policies made it impossible for Italians, in the world of interventionism, to get the raw materials they needed. It is not true in today’s interventionist world that the individual person does not gain something from war.

The League of Nations is one of the great failures in world history—and there have been many failures in world history. During the League’s 20 years the trade barriers had been more and more intensified. Tariffs became unimportant as trade barriers because embargoes were established.

Because the liberals said war was no longer economically advantageous because the people will not gain anything from it, therefore, a democratic nation will no longer be eager to fight wars. Marx assumed that this was true even in the interventionist world which was developing under his very eyes. This was one of the fundamental errors of Marxism. Marx was not a pacifist. He didn’t say war was bad. He only said—because the liberals said so—that war between nations had no importance or meaning at all. He said war—i.e., revolution, by which he meant civil war—was necessary. Nor was Friedrich Engels a pacifist; he studied military science day in and day out in order to prepare himself for the position he had assigned himself as commander-in-chief of all nations, as commander-in-chief for the proletarians of all countries united. Remember that he participated in fox hunting in a red coat, which he told Marx this was the best exercise for a future general.

Because of this idea of revolution—civil war, not international war—the Marxian International began to discuss peace. In 1864 Marx founded in London the First International. A group of persons who had very little to do with the people and the masses met together. There was a secretary for every country. The secretary for Italy was Friedrich Engels and many of the other countries were represented by persons who only knew the countries they represented as tourists. Arguments between the members disrupted the whole International. Finally it was moved to the United States and then fell apart in 1876.

The Second International was formed in Paris in 1869. But this Second International didn’t know what to deal with. The unions had arisen and the unions were opposed to free trade and free migration. Under such conditions, how could you find subjects to be discussed at an international congress? Then they decided to discuss peace and war, but only on a national level. They said they were all proletarians and they agreed they would never fight the wars of the bourgeoisie. The Germans included Engels and Karl Kautsky. There were some “bad” Frenchmen in the group who asked, “What do you mean when you say we can’t defend our own country? We don’t like the Hohenzollerns.” The French at this time made an agreement with the Russians and the Germans didn’t like that. Every few years there was such an international congress and each time the newspapers said it heralded the end of war. But these “nice fellows” didn’t discuss the real causes of friction, migration barriers, etc. The outbreak of World War I disrupted the International Congresses.

What Marx planned was a revolution. But what really happened was that he created a bureaucratic organization in the European countries which was, by and large, innocent because it lacked the power to execute its theories. Then there developed in the East a Communist organization that unfortunately has the power to execute people and to threaten the whole world. And all this was started in the Reading Room of the British Museum in London by a man, who was not in this regard a man of action, but who was able to bring about violent action. It was the timid bourgeois characters, Karl Marx and Georges Sorel, who created all this mischief. Most of the violent ideas of our times have come from men who themselves wouldn’t have been able to resist any aggression.

Wilson accepted the doctrine of the Manchester Liberals, namely that so far as war was concerned, democracies don’t like to fight wars; democracies fight only wars of defense because the individual citizen cannot expect any improvement of his conditions from war, not even if his country is victorious. But Wilson didn’t see that this was true only in a world of free trade. He didn’t see that this was quite different already in the age in which he lived, which was an age of interventionism. He didn’t realize that an enormous change in economic policies had deprived this theory of the Manchester Liberals of its practicability. Trade barriers were comparatively innocent in 1914. But they were very much worsened during the years of the League of Nations. While free traders were meeting with the League in Geneva and talking about reducing trade barriers, people at home were increasing them. In 1933, there was a meeting in London to bring about cooperation among the nations. And precisely at this time the richest country, the United States, nullified the whole thing with monetary and financial regulations. After this the whole apparatus was absolutely useless.

Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage is that it is to the advantage to a nation to have free trade even if all other nations cling to their trade barriers. If the United States alone today adopted free trade there would be certain changes. But if all other countries clung to protectionism with import barriers, it would not be possible for the United States to buy more goods from other countries.

There are isolationists not only in this country; there are also isolationists in other countries. Imports must be paid for by exports and exports have no other purpose than to pay for imports. Thus the establishment of free trade by the richest and most powerful nation only would not change the situation for the Italians, for instance, if they retained their trade barriers. It would not make any difference for other countries either. It is advantageous for any country to have free trade even if all other countries do not, but the problem is to remove the barriers of the other countries.

The term “socialism,” when it was new in the second part of the 1830s, meant exactly the same as “communism”—i.e., the nationalization of the means of production. “Communism” was the more popular term in the beginning. Slowly the term “communism” fell into oblivion and the term “socialism” came into use almost exclusively.

Socialist parties, social democratic parties, were formed and their fundamental dogma was the Communist Manifesto. In 1918, Lenin needed a new term to distinguish his group of socialists from those groups which he called “social traitors.” So he gave to the term “communism” a new meaning; he used it to refer, not to the final goal of socialism and communism, but only to the tactical means for attaining them. Until Stalin, communist meant simply a better method—the revolutionary method—as against the peaceful, socialist, method of the “socialist traitors.” At the end of the 1920s, without great success, Stalin in the Third International tried to give a different meaning to the term “communism.” However, Russia is still called the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

In a letter, Karl Marx distinguished between two stages of socialism—the lower preliminary stage and the higher stage. But Marx didn’t give different names to these two stages. At the higher stage, he said, there will be such an abundance of everything that it will be possible to establish the principle “to everybody according to his needs.” Because foreign critics noticed differences in the standards of living of various members of the Russian Soviets, Stalin made a distinction. At the end of the 1920s he declared that the lower stage was “socialism” and the higher stage was “communism.” The difference was that at the lower socialist stage there was inequality in the rations of the various members of the Russian Soviets; equality will be attained only in the later, communist, stage.

Excerpted from Marxism Unmasked

  • 1V.I. Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy (Moscow: Zveno Publishers, 1909).—Ed.
  • 2Rosenberg [1893–1946] was a Nazi ideologist condemned to death for war crimes at Nuremberg on October 1, 1946. He was executed on October 16, 1946.—Ed.
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