Postmodernism, Part 35: Nationalism and Internationalism

What is postmodernism? Is it a problem?  The following continues a series of posts explaining postmodernism.  It is inspired by the excellent Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, by Prof. Stephen Hicks.  (Additional support includes Trotsky on World War One, by Leon Trotsky; The Red Flag: A History of Communism; Mussolini, by Nicholas Farrell.)

Red Star Rising

The Franco-Prussian War united victorious Germany.  Defeated France divided in civil war.  Marx exploited the bloody Paris Commune.  Marx’s First International split.  The anarchist Bakunin warned against Marx’s authoritarianism, dictatorship, and slavery.  Nietzsche hinted of looming twentieth century catastrophe, likening Socialists to poisonous spiders, bent on vengeance and weaving webs of deception.

The First World War would see Marx’s Second International split, this time over nationalism.

Nationalism and Internationalism

The twentieth century saw nationalism blamed for the world wars.  Was nationalism to blame?  Who ascribed blame?  Why?  What were nationalism’s alternatives?  Imperialism? International Communism?  When the First World War broke out, nationalism faced Communism with an existential crisis.

Earlier, in 1872, the First International had fallen apart, riven by divisions between Marx’s state socialism (“authoritarian communism”) and Bakunin’s anarchism (“revolutionary collectivism”).  They shared goals (a new social order, collective ownership of the means of production), but disagreed over the means.  Bakunin warned that Marx’s corrupt “cult of the state” would conquer and enslave.

International Communism was an inevitable fact of history, Marx and Engels had espoused.  However, the anarchist Bakunin had questioned Marx’s internationalism.  He accused Marx of being a German nationalist.  Marx’s international communism, Bakunin warned, would be a “great Pan-German State” dictatorship.  So, the First International collapsed.  Marx’s state socialists split from the anarchists.

The Communists organized “Social Democrat” parties to represent workers within the bourgeois political system until the inevitable (international) proletarian revolution and “dictatorship of the proletariat”. (Communists then identified as Social Democrats, with the terms “Communist”, “Social Democrat”, and “Democratic Socialist” being generally interchangeable.)  “Socialism”, they said, would follow until the “withering of the state” and true Communism.


The German Social Democrats showed their nationalist stripes when war began in 1914.  Germany was the capital of Communism.  The German Social Democrats were the largest member of the Second International.  All nations furthered bourgeois interests and all war was bourgeois war.  The Second International collapsed when the Germans chose nation over class.

Leon Trotsky

As war broke out, Russian Social Democrats took strong anti-war positions. “Revolution has no real interest in war,” argued Leon Trotsky, in his anti-war booklet, The War and the International.  The proletariat should not shed blood for bourgeois war.  He blasted German Social Democrats for their nationalist war support.

Trotsky condemned German Social Democrats for “hysterical nationalism” and abandoning “the standpoint of international Socialism”.  He blamed the Germans for the collapse of the Second International (but also blamed the Austrian, French, English, and Polish socialists for their nationalism).  “The German party was the strongest, most influential, and in principle the most basic member of the Socialist world,” he said, “Its historic capitulation reveals most clearly the causes of the downfall of the Second International.”

Nevertheless, Trotsky believed the War marked the end of nations.  “All talk of the present bloody clash being a work of national defense is either hypocrisy or blindness,” he argued, the war was “at bottom a revolt of the forces of production against the political form of nation and state” that meant “the collapse of the national state as an independent economic union.”

The war would spark revolution, Trotsky claimed.  “When the people, deafened by the thunder of the cannon, realize the meaning of the events now taking place in all their truth and frightfulness,” he wrote, “The revolutionary reaction of the masses will be all the more powerful the more prodigious the cataclysm which history is now bringing upon them.”

Trotsky scoffed at German Social Democrats’ promises to “liberate” Russia from czarism.  Russian Social Democrats “stand so firmly on the ground of internationalism, that we cannot … entertain the idea of purchasing the doubtful liberation of Russia,” he wrote, “which German imperialism offers us in a … munitions box, with the blessing, alas! of German Socialism.”  This was not liberation, but the “unlimited mastery of German militarism in all Europe … which began with the capitulation of [German Social Democrats] to nationalistic militarism,” he wrote, “the cause of the Social Revolution would have received a mortal blow.”

The nationalism crisis did not shake Trotsky’s faith that proletariat victory was near.  “Why should we have faith in the future of the Socialist movement?” Trotsky asked, when the “the [bankruptcy] of the old Socialist parties has become catastrophically apparent”?  His faith was unshaken.  “It is not Socialism that has gone down, but its temporary historical external form,” he claimed, “The revolutionary idea begins its life anew as it casts off its rigid shell.”  It is “the old Socialist parties [that] have become the main hindrance to the revolutionary movement of the working class,” Trotsky argued, “The New International … must rise up out of the present world cataclysm, the International of the last conflict and the final victory.”

Seeds of Fascism
Benito Mussolini

The nationalism crisis did shake the faith of another Communist, Italy’s Benito Mussolini.  He would forsake international Communism, but remain a Socialist to his dying day.

Benito Mussolini followed the socialist politics of his father, Alessandro Mussolini.  Alessandro was a revolutionary Socialist agitator, who had joined the First International.  Alessandro participated in local politics until his death in 1910.

By 1910, Benito was a revolutionary Socialist agitator and journalist.  In the preceding years, he was tutored by Angelica Balabanoff, a Ukrainian revolutionary Socialist.  After deserting from the army, Mussolini fled to Switzerland (where he attended lectures by Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto) before returning to complete his military service after the king granted amnesty to deserters. By 1908, he had begun his career in Socialist journalism.

In 1912, Mussolini rose to leadership in the Italian Socialists.  To Lenin’s approval, Mussolini ousted the “reformist” (democratic) leadership and replaced them with revolutionaries.  (Lenin later remarked, “Mussolini was the only one among you [Italian Socialists] with the mind and temperament to make a revolution.”) Mussolini awaited unrest that he might use to stir up revolution.  Then, in June 1914, came “Red Week”, a general strike and uprising that was quickly crushed.

Months later, the War broke out. Italy remained neutral (disregarding its treaty obligations to Germany and Austria).  Italian Socialists advocated neutrality because “any war between nations was a bourgeois war”.  Mussolini demanded neutrality, “or else the proletariat will know how to impose [neutrality] on [Italy] with all its means”.

Then, the Second International collapsed.  Classical revolutionary socialist theory was dead.  The proletariat did not rise up in general strikes and refuse to fight.  German, then British, then French socialists supported their governments.  The governments did not collapse.  The Second International collapsed, instead.  Mussolini contemplated a different Marxian theory: that bloody war would cause the proletariat to rise in revolution (a theory shared by Italy’s revolutionary syndicalists).

The nationalism issue remained. Mussolini considered the power of nationalism. Nationalism had prevailed over class for Germany’s devout Social Democrats.  Why not nationalism? And why not national war against foreign class enemies?  The Italian Mussolini favored neutrality, while the Socialist favored war.

Finally, Mussolini renounced neutrality and joined support for the War.  After Italy joined the war, he joined the fight.  Nationalism had collapsed the Second International and brought his own incipient nationalism to the fore.  The War, its aftermath, and the plight of its veterans would lead Mussolini and Italy further to Fascism.


Marxist theory failed, causing a crisis for the faithful.  The socialists had chosen nation over class.  This crisis was especially hard on “reformist” socialists (who favored gaining power through democratic means).  Revolutionary socialists (like Lenin and Mussolini) were more adaptable because they had little faith in democracy.  Trotsky and Lenin clung to international Communism, while Mussolini parted company.  He embraced nationalism but clung to revolutionary socialism.

Mussolini was far from alone in Italian nationalism.  Italy was a young nation.  National unity was still recent.  (The Risorgimento had culminated a few decades earlier, in 1870.)  Nationalist feeling was shared across the political spectrum.  For a revolutionary socialist, like Mussolini, nationalism appeared a means to revolution.  And why not?

Bakunin was proved prophetic (and, awfully, would be again).  The German Social Democrats had chosen nationalism.  They had betrayed international Communist ideals.  Bakunin was right that Marxism anticipated a “great Pan-German State”.

By and large, Marxist theory would continue to fail.  The major failures would cause new existential crises.  Each crisis would spawn mutations that bring us ever closer to postmodernism.


Marx’s theory is taking too long.  So, the Communists get tired of waiting and come up with a new plan.  Next: Part 36, What Is To Be Done?.


Postmodernism, Part 32: The Commune and Communism

What is postmodernism? Is it a problem?  The following continues a series of posts explaining postmodernism.  It is based on the excellent Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, by Prof. Stephen Hicks.  (Additional support includes The Fall of Paris, by Alistair Horne; The Red Flag: A History of Communism, by David Priestland; Civil War in France: The Paris Commune, by Karl Marx and V. I. Lenin; The Paris Commune, by Ernest Bax; Socialism by Ludwig von Mises.)


Enlightenment and Darkness

Marxist postmodernism seeks to overthrow modernism.  Modernism’s political philosophy proposes reason, individualism, liberal democracy, and free markets.  Postmodernist philosophy is based on the metaphysical nihilism of (Nazi) Martin Heidegger.  Postmodernist radical left politics don’t flow from Heidegger’s philosophy, but from twentieth century Marxists’ crisis of faith (in the face of undeniable Marxist catastrophe).

Rousseau’s Revolutionary Politics

The postmodernists took refuge in the totalitarian collectivist Rousseau.  Rousseau’s ideas inflamed the French Revolution and Reign of Terror, leading to Napoleon’s beatdown of Germany.

Right Collectivism

Right Collectivism morphed out of the German Counter-Enlightenment (Kant, Herder, Fichte, Hegel), Rousseau, and Napoleonic stress disorder.  The Germans gave Rousseau their own twist: hero worship, state worship, and dialectical history (plus German supremacy).

Left Collectivism

Left Collectivism also came from the German Counter-Enlightenment, plus passion: disgust and romanticism (that valued passion, violence, radicalism, and revolution, but not morality).  Marx and Engels (disgusted at industrial working conditions) mated Hegel with Darwin to concoct “scientific socialism” (revealed history, Communist prophecy, and pseudo-science).  In 1847, the Communist League published their Communist Manifesto.

Revolutionary Disappointment

Marx and Engels were frustrated with the Revolutions of 1848.  The French Second Republic’s socialist experiments flopped (triggering leftist uprisings – crushed).  German Communism flopped.  (Exit Marx, stage left.  Enter Bismarck, stage right.)  In Italy, Mazzini and Garibaldi were failed and returned to exile.  Bismarck united northern Germany using “blood and iron”.

Red Star Rising

The Franco-Prussian War united victorious Germany, but divided defeated France (triggering insurrection, civil war, and the Paris Commune – brutally crushed), setting the stage for the World Wars, Soviets, and Nazis.

The Commune and Communism

Marx used the Paris Commune of 1871 as a “teachable moment”.  Marx penned his dire “lessons learned”, The Civil War in France (his most influential work after The Communist Manifesto).  Lenin and Stalin expanded on his ideas and put them into action (terribly).

Marx’s Teachable Moment

In London, Marx and Engels (frustrated by proletariat intransigence) were busily making Communism “scientific” by grafting Darwinian notions onto their sketchy Hegelian metaphysics.  Their rosy dreams of a Workers Paradise were mutating into a grimy Dictatorship of the Proletariat with industrial schemes of central planning.

karl-marxKarl Marx

The Paris Commune took Marx quite by surprise.  Marx’s “First International” (an organization of socialist parties of different nations) was (predictably) fractious, split between authoritarians (like Marx) and anarchists (like Mikhail Bakunin).

The Commune gave Marx notoriety as the “Red-Terrorist Doctor” and gave Bakunin a shot at some action.  In France, Marx’s International was sprouting, spreading propaganda, and fomenting insurrections in the French provinces.  Bakunin, himself, went to Lyon to foment insurrection.

Marx’s spin on the Commune was propagandist and polemical, but he got much right:

  • Class struggle.  Marx correctly identifies a powerful class element in the Commune.  Paris suffered the sort of “third world” industrial misery described by Engels.  The Paris slums of Belleville and Montemarte were fetid breeding grounds of unrest.
  • Revolution betrayed.  Marx was correct that the bourgeois betrayed the working class in previous revolutions (1815, 1830, 1848).  Working class mobs fruitlessly manned the barricades and shed blood.  The Second Republic and Empire were thoroughly corrupt and decadent.  (Marxist revolutions are treacherous, as well, as Bakunin warned and Trotsky showed.  Bastiat argued that the revolutions were shams that made impossible promises.)
  • Turning point.  Marx was correct that the Paris Commune marked a new phase in the Marxist battle.  (Marx’s usual wishful-thinking became a self-fulfilling prophecy when taken up by his adherents.)

Marx claimed that the Commune had promised a new (Communist) political form:

  • Good government.  The Commune would have delivered “cheap” (efficient and ethical) government (free of corruption), abolishing and replacing oppression with self rule.
  • Emancipation of labor.  The Commune would have appropriated the means of production (“changing the character of labor”).  (This is the “joy of labor” idea that, under socialism, “labor awakens feelings of satisfaction, not of pain,” wrote economist Ludwig von Mises.  Yet, he said, if labor and its rewards are disconnected, we will always feel like we are doing more than our share.)
  • Enlightenment.  The Commune  freed the workers from (politically oppressive) religious education.
  • Abolition of debt.  The Commune would have freed the poor from their debts, including rural peasants (who opposed Paris radicalism).
  • Civic virtue. The Commune  ended crime (murder, robbery, assault).  (People rarely ventured out after dark.)
leninEmancipation of Labor

Marx justified the acts committed by the Paris Commune:

  • Arson.  The Communards were justified in setting Paris ablaze, he argued, because this was war.  (C’est la guerre.)
  • Murder.  The Communards were justified in murdering the hostages, he argued, because the Government had executed Communard prisoners (in violation of the laws of war).  (This is a matter of perspective, of course.  To the Government, the insurrectionists were mutineers or treasonous rebels.)
Lessons Learned

Marx criticized the Communards’ mistakes:

  • The Communards should have taken up arms and destroyed their enemies (before they could rebuild).
  • The military command (the Central Committee) surrendered power too soon (to the elected Commune) and should have retained it to destroy their enemies.  (Of course, “enemies” is a fluid concept, as demonstrated by the Reign of Terror and the Russian Revolution’s Red Terror.)

As with the Communist Manifesto, Marx closed in dramatic style:

  • “There can be neither peace nor truce between the working men of France and the appropriators of their produce,” Marx declared, “The battle must break out again and again”.
  • “The French working class is the only advance guard of the proletariat”, he stated.
  • “The Commune will forever be celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society,” Marx said.

The history of the Commune’s exterminators, Marx thundered, “has already been nailed to that eternal pillory from which all the prayers of their priest will not avail to redeem them.”  (Drops mic.)

Lenin’s Lessons Learned

After the failed Russian Revolution of 1905, Lenin expanded on Marx’s lessons learned:

  • Go big or go home.  “The proletariat stopped half-way,” Lenin wrote, and were misled by “dreams of establishing a higher justice”.  The Communards should have seized property and taken over the banks, he said.
  • Ruthlessness.  “The second mistake was excessive magnanimity,” Lenin wrote, “instead of destroying its enemies, it sought to exert moral influence on them.”  (Lenin would practice what he preached.)

The proletariat will not forget the lessons of the Commune, wrote Lenin:

  • By any means necessary.  “The proletariat should not ignore peaceful methods of struggle,” Lenin wrote, “but it must never forget that … the class struggle assumes the form of armed conflict and civil war”.
  • Purges.  “There are times when the interests of the proletariat will call for ruthless extermination of its enemies,” said Lenin.

The British Marxist Ernest Bax, a contemporary of Lenin, offered his own lessons learned:

  • War.  The Communards were too scrupulous, wrote Bax, they “did not appreciate the ethics of insurrection … [and] should have been guided by the French maxim a la guerre, comme a la guerre (in war, as in war).”  The Government was the rebel power and should have been crushed. (C’est la guerre.)
  • Amorality.  The Communards were too sensitive “to bourgeois public opinion.  The first thing for [a revolutionary leader] to learn is a healthy contempt for the official public opinion of the ‘civilized world’.  He must … harden his heart against … its ‘indignation’, its ‘abomination’ … and must learn to smile at all the [name-calling].”
  • Big Lie.  The tool for controlling public opinion, wrote Bax, is media control because “public opinion possessed of wavering or of no definite principles … takes the impress of any statement that it finds repeated a few times without very decisive and publicly-made contradiction”.  (“A lie told often enough becomes the truth,” said Lenin, more succinctly.)

Lenin and Stalin logically extended Marx.  Their ideas infused the Red Terror and Stalinist purges.  As we’ll see, the Red Terror bears the indelible stamp of the earlier Reign of Terror, further linking Marx and Rousseau.


Marx’s stand on the Paris Commune split the International.  One of Marx’s fiercest critics was Mikhail Bakunin (whose baleful warnings against Marx came all too true).  Next: Part 33, The Anarchist Bakunin.