Nationalism and the International Labor Movement: The Idea of the Nation in Socialist and Anarchist Theory is a review of the ideas that some primary socialist thinkers developed about the ideas of “nation” and “nationalism.” Divided into an introduction and four chapters, the book offers interesting and coherent perspectives on the subjects “nation” and “nationalism.” Each of the first three chapters presents the views of the main figures of the First, Second and Third International, while the last chapter formulates Forman’s conclusions about the place and role which the two concepts (“nation” and “nationalism”) have had within socialist theory and how some present political developments in Eastern Europe can be interpreted in light of such a theory.
Ideas about the origin of the nation seem to divide socialist thinkers into two groups. From one point of view, the idea of “nation” has developed from historical communities and refers to many of the community’s characteristics. From the second point of view, the concept of “nation” is a political creation of the capitalist order and does not have many linkages to ancient small communities. Those who shared the former standpoint considered the state as responsible for the conflicts between nations; among them, Mikhail Aleksandrovich Bakunin’s was perhaps the most important voice. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels are the main figures advocating the second idea; they discussed the notion of “nation” as important for the dominant class and less relevant for the working people. As they said, the workers have no country, and have to put aside any ideas about nationalism, focusing instead on the class struggle.
Marx, Engels and Bakunin were the major figures of the First International; as for the Second International period, Forman analyzes Vladimir I. Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, and Otto Bauer (68). Properly, Lenin never developed a concept of “nation;” his concepts of “nation” and “national” were rooted in Karl Kautsky’s ideas. Lenin’s ideas changed after the Bolshevik revolution succeeded, but he continuously advocated nations’ right to self- determination (79). He extended Kautsky’s arguments, claiming that the support for the national liberation movements has to take into account the developing stage of the country or nationality that needs to be helped to realize the right to self-determination (81).
In opposition to Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg did not consider the autonomy of various ethnicities coexisting within the same state as a solution to ethnic problems. Her position “was antinationalist but not anti-nationality” (84); she distinguished between support for nationalism and opposition to persecution. She advocated administrative autonomy for Congress Poland in terms of “rational purposive action” not in terms of “nation” and “nationality.” She thought that “nation,” “nationality,” and “national interests” were political constructions and only served capitalist interests.
The nation, in Bauer’s formulation, was not a collection of “empirical characteristics such as language, territory and customs” or a “vague set of peculiarities.” There are two important notions in Bauer’s concept of “nation”: community and national character. Community is a derivate of Kantian philosophy, and represents a force that binds people internally, the result of a “shared experience of living the same fate” (98). Kant considered a nation as being a “relative community of character” and the formation of a “national character” as resulting from ongoing interaction within the cultural communities (99). National character is, for Bauer, the set of the intellectual and cultural tastes characterizing people belonging to a nation when they are compared with people belonging to another nation. The explanation he gives for the nationalism of Southern Slavic nations seems to be important especially in view of the present revival of nationalism in Eastern Europe, especially in the Yugoslavian area. He thought that those nations who lived for a long time under the domination of others had not developed a consciousness of their being national communities. For them, nationality is “an instrument of class struggle in the hands of the dominant-nation bourgeoisie.”
Forman suggests that for the Third International the emergence of Bolshevik Russia was a very important fact. Internationalism changed its meaning, and began to be closely related to Russia as a nation within a “hostile system of states” (120). Within this part of the book, Forman analyzes two bodies of ideas about “nation” and “nationalism,” namely, Josef Stalin’s and Antonio Gramsci’s. Gramsci’s original understanding of the civil society and of the role of culture and ideology is the chief reason for which Forman chooses him as representative of this period. In contrast, Stalin is included here for his political role rather than for the importance of his ideas.
Stalin was pragmatic in his outlook; his thought generally developed as a practical response to real political facts, events and situations, and his approach was openly an anti- theoretical one. He wrote about “nationality” and “nation” only in addressing Russia’s specific condition as a multinational state, underdeveloped economically and politically. Stalin considered international solidarity as reducible to loyalty to the USSR, and claimed that the substance of ethnic conflicts disappeared in the new Bolshevik state as a result of the Communist revolution.
Forman understands Gramsci’s notion of “nation” in close relation to the Italian context. Gramsci studied the relationship between state and civil society, trying to see how a nation could be built. This aspect was important for the Italy of those years: a rather poor country, lacking linguistic unity, with an intellectual elite who had no understanding of ordinary people’s cultural horizons.
Easy to read and agreeable, Forman’s book offers a well-documented overview of the concepts of “nation” and “nationalism” deployed by the thinkers of the international labor movement. The roots and developments of the ideas presented are explained in each chapter, giving coherence to the discourse. Importantly, Forman believes that the concepts of the socialist theoreticians could be related to the present revival of nationalism in some of the former Communist countries.
Forman’s suggestion that concepts of “nation” and “nationalism,” as developed by the International labor movement, underlie present political developments in Eastern Europe is both interesting and potentially illuminating of those developments. This can be considered as an excellent argument for reading a book about socialist thinkers long after Communism collapsed. There are some insights developed in this book that could be employed successfully in understanding the evolution of events in the contemporary Balkans. Forman, for example, explains the revival of nationalism in Yugoslavia after 1990 as a result of “segmented structure of the state” (175) and of the adoption (by the participants in these events) of the “Leninist language of national rights and self-determination” (176). However, these evolutions (the war among the various ethnicities of the Yugoslavian Federation) can be explained from other perspectives too. Bauer’s ideas are a good example of this. Bauer argued that, because in Eastern Europe the process of nation formation was related to the fight against a foreign bourgeoisie, nationality was “a weapon in commercial competition” (105). From this perspective, what happened in Yugoslavia after 1990 could be viewed also as a result of some major economic discrepancies among the republics of the Yugoslavian Federation, as well as of the general decrease in the standard of living. Both were transformed into national hate, and the “others,” those who did not share the same ethnicity, became viewed as responsible for the economic problems. They were “oppressors” and had to be fought. (It is worth noticing that many forms of anti-Semitism have been explained as having similar economic roots.)
Consequently, Forman’s book could be read not only as a review of some interesting historical perspectives on “nation” and “nationalism,” but also as a valuable source of ideas helping us understand some contemporary political developments. Even if this line of thought is present only in the book’s introduction and conclusions, and although Forman does not systematically follow up on this fascinating possibility, his book can be considered a good starting point for future approaches to understanding nationalism and current affairs in Eastern Europe.