World Of Nations

Review of Roman Szporluk's Communism and Nationalism, Karl Marx Versus Friedrich List (1988)

Written before the fall of the Soviet Union, Roman Szporluk’s book on the historical context of the battle of ideas between Friedrich List and Karl Marx remains even today a clarifying analysis. With the rise of China and the battle between nationalism and globalization reemerging in the West, it’s a historical analysis that has become current again in strange ways.

It begins with two quotations.

“The workers have no country” - Karl Marx 1848

“Between the individual and humanity stands the nation” - Friedrich List 1841

Marx’s “List Critique” was written in 1845, a few years after the publication of Friedrich List’s The National System of Political Economy but it didn’t become circulated until it was published in a Soviet Union journal as late as 1971. It is significant however because it is Marx’s most explicit theory of nationalism and direct response to List, which is often only implied or alluded to in other writings.

List’s goal had been to use economic development of industry, infrastructure and tariffs to build up the national economy so that it could rival English dominance at the time when less developed economies were being flooded with English goods. List believed that Adam Smith and the English cosmopolitan school were using free trade ideas to “kick away the ladder” to developing nations. Szporluk writes:

List considered free trade a cover-up for unequal relations among nations, just as Marx thought political liberty was an ideological cover for class oppression. The most urgent and significant item on Marx’s political agenda was the call for a revolution of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. What was he to do when List came along with his absurd assertion that the most important task for the Germans was to unite against England so that their nation might equal and surpass her rival economically, culturally and politically?

In it Marx dismissed List as reactionary in wanting to develop a theory that addressed the needs of less developed nations. He considered the proletariat to be “universal, supranational and cosmopolitan” and viewed List as a representative of the German bourgeoisie. There was nothing in the List critique, Szporluk says, about the progressive potential of industrial development of a country “still mostly dominated by feudalism” though he did slightly moderate this position later, keeping the fundamental critique of List.

But as Szporluk argues, wherever nominally Marxist projects have been able to hold out against their enemies and rivals, it has usually been as a consequence of their adoption of the ideas or strategies advised by List - a tactical alliance with the national bourgeoisie in the infant stage of industrial development and the deliberate use of protectionism against free trade and state nurtured development to address the problem of uneven development. All this to rapidly catch up with and seek to surpass the productive capacities of economic rival system nations. Marx once said:

Generally speaking the Protective system in these days is conservative, while the free trade system works destructively. It breaks up old nationalities and carries antagonism of proletariat and bourgeoisie to the uttermost point. In a word, the free trade system hastens the social revolution. In the revolutionary sense alone gentlemen I am in favor of free trade.

In the 1880s Russian Minister of Finance, Witte, became a Listian but while List believed industrialization planted the seeds of liberty, Witte wanted to keep autocracy intact. By the time List’s ideas began to spread the educated Russians were already familiar with Marx’s ideas and so you could say those had a head start. “Lenin translated List into the language of Marx” Szporluk wrote but the Soviets “did not transcend the Listian dialectic of a world of nations.” Explicitly in Stalin but more subtly in Lenin and in the underdeveloped world “Marxism-Leninism was reformatted as a doctrine of national liberation.”

The Soviet regime’s greatest domestic achievement became industrialization, not a new social and political order. Marxism won in Russia, it would seem, but it did so only by becoming a nationalism… The new nationalism was an amalgam of three rather diverse components: Marxism, Listianism, and an indigenous Russian political tradition that recognized… the superiority of the state…

The GDR honored List, even adding that Marx’s critique of List had been “one sided” because List’s vision of development was to them progressive. National political economy, whether expressed in its List or nominally Marxian forms, was ultimately a rejection, Szporluk says, of the “historical inevitability of classical Marxism.”

List himself valued freedom and scientific openness to the world. The Listian stages of history have lasted today as categorizations of underdeveloped, developing and developed and his critique of imperial and dominant nations who advocate free trade never practicing what they preach has been taken up by Chinese, Japanese and Indian thinkers, among others.

Szporluk ends the book by saying that while the working class never quite lived up to Marx’s vision, the scientists of today satisfy all of his requirements for a “world-historical” truly international class. It’s funny to read that today when we’re right in the middle of a rivalry of two major world powers being played out through a clash of scientists with different national allegiances or at least contexts. In America Chinese scientists are accused of smuggling research back to China, discussion of the Chinese lab coronavirus theory is entirely dominated by a broader national economic rivalry question, and most importantly, after years of America preaching free trade around the world, the Listian success of China and other once developing nations has forced the US government to return explicitly to greater economic nationalism itself. Both of these nations developed their geopolitical power through protective infant industrial national development, though at different stages. The Listian dialectic of a world of nations is still with us.