Otto Bauer’s Theory of Nationalism Is One of Marxism’s Lost Treasures

Critics of Marxism say it cannot explain why nationalism is such a powerful force in the modern world. But the Austrian socialist thinker Otto Bauer developed a sophisticated, illuminating theory of nationalism in the 1900s that is ripe for rediscovery today.

The Austro-Marxist philosopher and social democratic politician Otto Bauer circa 1920. (Imagno / Getty Images)

If we look around the world today, we can see the critical importance of nationalism, whether ethnic or cultural, from Spain to Nagorno-Karabakh, the Uyghur question in China, or the unwinding of the formerly United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

One might have expected Marxism, as the self-proclaimed “science of history,” to play a major role in analyzing — if not intervening in — such situations, which are bound to multiply as globalization unravels and its contradictions increase. Yet Marxists seem to be torn between Eric Hobsbawm’s admonition not to “paint nationalism red” and the somewhat wooden and not exactly operational Leninist principle of “the right of nations to self-determination.”

Could Otto Bauer’s forgotten work The Question of Nationalities and Social Democracy — written in German in 1907, translated into English in 2000, and then promptly ignored — help us develop a theory of nationalism?

Bauer’s understanding of nationalism was subtle and sophisticated, and fully deserves to be rescued from obscurity. But we can only make sense of Bauer’s contribution by setting it within its complex historical context, instead of seeing it as disembodied political theory.


Otto Bauer was born in Vienna, in 1881, to a wealthy Jewish factory-owning merchant family in a rapidly industrializing Austria. This was a multicultural and multiethnic environment with a thriving labor and socialist movement, made famous in the Red Vienna period of 1918–34. Bauer became active in the framework of that movement, representing the Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SDAP) in the imperial parliament and editing its monthly magazine, The Struggle.

When the Habsburg empire joined the Central Powers during World War I, Bauer served as an Austrian army officer and became a prisoner of war in Russia before he was allowed to return home in 1917. Before and after the war, he was a leading figure in the political current known as Austro-Marxism. In the wake of the October Revolution, the Austro-Marxists sought to develop a “third way” between the Communist International launched by the Bolsheviks and social democracy.

Bauer’s stint as Austria’s foreign minister in 1918–19 after the collapse of the Habsburg Empire, with his SDAP colleague Karl Renner as chancellor, was followed by a period of futile compromise with the rising forces of reaction. His life ended in political defeat. The rise of Austro-Fascism and the outbreak of civil war in 1933–34 prompted him to leave Austria, and he died in Parisian exile in 1938.

While the counterrevolution won out in Austria in the 1930s, Bauer’s theory and practice is a fragment of the history of Marxism that should not be ignored. It remains a fundamental part of the Marxist legacy that warrants attention today.

Although it is sometimes compared to the Frankfurt School, Austro-Marxism was a philosophy of practice, not one of contemplation. It included major figures in Marxist economics (Rudolf Hilferding), philosophy (Max Adler), and law (Karl Renner), as well as Bauer himself. Bauer’s own definition of Austro-Marxism saw it as a synthesis between day-to-day realpolitik and the revolutionary will to attain the ultimate goal: the seizure of power by the working class.

The National Question

The context in which Bauer wrote The Question of Nationalities and Social Democracy, which was originally his PhD thesis, was the outbreak of national questions and conflicts throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the development of capitalism had generated great social turmoil. The population of Vienna quadrupled due to internal migration in the fifty years leading up to 1917, with a multinational working class emerging.

The burgeoning SDAP and the trade unions affiliated to it were in danger of being torn apart between their dominant German-speaking core and members from the peripheral nations. We should recall that before its breakup after 1918, the empire contained fifteen nationalities in a territory the size of the Iberian Peninsula.

Faced with this situation, Bauer sought to develop a complex and sophisticated theory of nationalism — one that was not at all colored by sympathy towards his subject, we might add. For Bauer, modern nations can be understood as communities of character (Charakter gemeinschaften) that have emerged out of communities of fate (Schicksals gemeinschaften).

This is a much more subtle and nonreductionist approach when compared to the orthodox Marxist theory of nationalism, as codified by Joseph Stalin and propagated throughout the world by the pro-Soviet communist movement. Stalin defined a nation 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.” This does not help us in a multinational context.

Bauer saw the main strength of his work as being its description of the derivation of nationalism from the process of economic development, changes in the social structure, and the articulation of classes in society. However, much of his work and the debates to which it gave rise centered on his definition of a “nation” as the totality of human beings bound together through a common destiny into a community of character.

Bauer viewed the nation as a “community of fate” whose character resulted from the long history of the conditions under which people labored to survive and divided the products of their work through the social division of labor. Before dismissing this conception of the nation as merely a form of idealism, as many critics have, we should note that Bauer repeatedly criticized forms of “national spiritualism” that depicted the nation as “a mysterious spirit of the people.” He also explicitly rejected psychological theories of the nation.

A Product of History

Bauer’s working definition of the nation was a methodological postulate that posed “the task of understanding the phenomenon of the nation” as

explaining on the basis of the uniqueness of its history all that constitutes the peculiarity, the individuality of each nation, and which differentiates it from other nations, that is, showing the nationality of each individual as the historical with respect to him, and the historical within him.

For Bauer, it was only by pursuing this task of uncovering the national components that we could dissolve the false appearance of the nation’s substantiality, to which nationalist conceptions of history always succumb.

In Bauer’s perspective, the nation is above all a product of history. This is true in two respects: firstly, “in terms of its material content it is a historical phenomenon, since the living national character which operates in every one of its members is the residue of a historical development.” Secondly, “from the point of view of its formal structure it is a historical phenomenon, because diverse broad circles are bound together in a nation by different means and in different ways at the various stages of historical development.”

In short, the ways in which the “community of character” is engendered are historically conditioned. It follows that this “community of character” is not a timeless abstraction but is continually modified over time. For Bauer, the different forms of “national character” are specific to a particular period and thus cannot be traced back to the origins of time, as nationalist mythology might suggest.

He does not see national character as an explanation in itself, but rather as something that needs to be explained. In this framework, we cannot simply take internationalism for granted as a given, nor can we ignore national characteristics in the name of such internationalism. We must rather show how those characteristics are the result of historical processes.

While Bauer’s theory of nationalism suffers from almost total oblivion today, even — or perhaps especially — amongst Marxists, in its day it was the subject of intense polemics. His thinking was rejected by both the Second (social-democratic) and the Third (communist) Internationals between which the Austro-Marxists fell.

The End of Non-History

One of Bauer’s major innovations was to openly reject the view of Frederick Engels that Slavic nations like the Czechs were “non-historic,” in contrast with what he saw as the great “historic” nations such as Germany, Poland, and France. For Engels, the “non-historic” nations were incapable of forming a state of their own and could only serve as tools of counterrevolution if they attempted to do so.

Bauer agreed that there were peoples in Central and Eastern Europe who one might refer to as “non-historic,” but he disagreed with Engels on the question of their future prospects:

The nations without history are revolutionary, they also struggle for constitutional rights and for their independence, for peasant emancipation: the revolution of 1848 is also their revolution.

For Bauer, the category of “nations without history” did not refer to a structural incapacity of the nation to develop. Rather, it referred to a particular situation in which a people that had lost its ruling class in a previous phase had therefore not experienced its own cultural and historical development.

He showed in detail how the “awakening of the nations without history” was one of the major revolutionary changes at the turn of the century. According to Bauer, it was one of the progressive features of capitalist development to have reawakened the national self-consciousness of these peoples and confronted the state with the “national question.”

At the beginning of the twentieth century, he saw peoples such as the Czechs going through a process of capitalist and state development, which in turn led to the emergence of a cultural community, in which the ties of a once omnipotent traditional society were broken. The masses were thus being called on to collaborate in the transformation of the national culture.

Bauer also carried out a detailed consideration of the relationship between class struggle and nationalism. In a striking phrase, he wrote that “nationalist hatred is a transformed class hatred.” He was referring specifically in this context to the reactions of the petty bourgeoisie in an oppressed nation as it was affected by shifts in population and other convulsions engendered by capitalist development. But the point is a more general one, and Bauer shows clearly how class and national struggles are intertwined.

He gave the following example in the case of the Czech worker:

The state which enslaved him [or her] was German; German too were the courts which protected property owners and threw the dispossessed into jail; each death sentence was written in German; and orders in the army sent against each strike of the hungry and defenceless workers were given in German.

According to Bauer, the workers of the “non-historic” nations adopted in the first instance a “naive nationalism” to match the “naive cosmopolitanism” of the proletariat of larger nations. Only gradually in such cases does a genuinely internationalist policy develop that overcomes both “deviations” and recognizes the particularity of the proletarians of all nations.

Although Bauer preached the need for working-class autonomy in the struggle for socialism as the best means for seizing power, he argued that “within capitalist society, national autonomy is the necessary demand of a working class that is compelled to carry out its class struggle within a multinational state.” This was not merely a “state-preserving” response, he argued, but rather a necessary aim for a proletariat that sought to make the whole people into a nation.

Bauer in Our Time

Bauer’s work represents a major break with economic determinism. In his interpretation, politics and ideology no longer appear as mere “reflections” of rigid economic processes. The very context in which Austrian social democracy operated made it particularly sensitive to cultural diversity and to the complex social processes of economic development.

Bauer’s treatise on the national question implicitly rejected the economic determinism and basic evolutionism of Second International Marxism. In terms of its substantial contribution, Bauer advanced a concept of the nation as historical process, in pages of rich and subtle historical analysis. The nation was no longer seen as a natural phenomenon, but as a relative and historical one.

This allowed Bauer to break decisively with the Engels position on “non-historic” nations. As with Antonio Gramsci’s much more influential work on the national-popular, we can find in Bauer’s work a welcome move beyond the (mis)understanding of the nation and of nationalism as “problems” — and not just an integral element of social organization — that has characterized so much Marxist theorizing on the subject.

A modern-day reader of Bauer’s book might find some of its case studies obscure and its language archaic. However, critical engagement with Bauer can help us develop a more adequate Marxist theoretical practice with regard to nationalism. Can we really sustain the idea, as many Marxists did in Bauer’s time, that the advent of socialism will resolve the national question?

Does Bauer’s rejection of the Bolshevik path to power make him simply a failed reformist or does it situate him, like Gramsci, as a theorist of revolution in the Western democracies? Can his “constructivist” theory of the nation provide us with a starting point for understanding the national question in the era of late globalization?

Today, Bauer’s work is immediately relevant to our thinking on multiculturalism, of which it can be seen as a precursor. To be clear, Bauer’s central argument is to reject any essentialist principle in the conceptualization of the national question. For Bauer, we cannot think of modern nations in terms of “metaphysical theories” (such as notions of national spiritualism) or “voluntaristic theories” (as in Ernest Renan’s theory of the nation as a “daily plebiscite”). National identities are not “naturally given” and invariable but are rather culturally changeable.

However, Bauer’s approach to the nation-state is very different from the dominant liberal one today. In the liberal nation-state, it is the cultural practice of the dominant national group that prevails. Multiculturalism is thus always limited by this hegemony and multicultural states cannot easily be constructed. Any commitment to cultural pluralism can amount to little more than a token commitment to diversity within overwhelmingly assimilationist structures.

Bauer criticized the attitude of the early 1900s “German Austrian” workers’ movement as a “naïve cosmopolitanism” which rejected national struggles as diversionary and advocated a humanistic world citizenship as its alternative. There were clear echoes of this attitude in the promotion of “global cosmopolitanism” during the early 2000s. In that sense, we very much need a Bauer 2.0 to move beyond such naïve and complacent indifference to the national question today.

Bauer fundamentally disagreed with the idea that the national movements were simply an obstacle for the class struggle and that internationalism was the only way forward. He was convinced that it was only the working class that could create the conditions for the development of a nation, proclaiming that “the international struggle is the means that we must use to realize our national ideal.”

In his view, it was socialism that would consolidate a national culture for the benefit of all. In brief — and I realize this is a controversial statement — working-class consciousness has a class character but also, at the same time, a national character.

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Ronaldo Munck is head of civic engagement at Dublin City University and the author of several books including The Difficult Dialogue: Marxism and Nationalism, Rethinking Global Labour: After Neoliberalism, and Social Movements in Latin America: Mapping the Mosaic.

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