The Austro-Hungarian empire contained many nationalities. The problem was that the workers’ movement allowed itself to be disorganised along national lines

Nationalist dreams and nightmares

Mike Macnair reviews 'Workers and nationalism: Czech and German Social Democracy in Habsburg Austria, 1890-1918' by JS Beneš and 'The Fiume crisis: life in the wake of the Habsburg empire' by DK Reill

Both these books are about nationalism and the break-up of a larger multinational state regime. Reviewing Jakub Beneš’s book, published in 2017, is perhaps rather belated, but it provides fundamental background to that of Dominique Kirchner Reill: Beneš’s book is about the growth of nationalism in the late 19th-early 20th century workers’ movement in Austria-Hungary; Reill’s is a microcosm-study of the disastrous consequences of the implementation of nationalist programmes.

Today the Brexiteers argue that the ‘European project’ is and was unrealistic because of its supra-national character. Its failure can thus be analogised to that of the Habsburg multinational empire. But what is this ‘nation’ which is, in Brexiteers’ view, the foundation of all possible ‘democracy’? Reill’s narrative of Fiume elitist attempts in 1918-21 to attach their city to Italy illustrates both the role of states in promoting national identifications and the complexities of what they did. Fiume elites had in the middle 19th century identified with Hungary to hold off the claims of Croatia;1 in Reill’s narrative they were trying to play the same game with Italy in 1919-21.

Conversely, present-day Britain could be analogised to late-Habsburg Austria-Hungary - and has been so analogised, for example by Tom Nairn.2 Just as Austria-Hungary remained a state identified by its dynasty down to its breakup in 1918-19, so the British state remains identified as the ‘United Kingdom’. And the Habsburg Austrian empire, once its larger claims in Germany and the ‘Austrian Netherlands’ (Belgium) had been lost, was, in essence, a German-dominated collection of territories (several originally non-German), which had been partially Germanised through medieval and early modern German expansion driven by landlord and peasant land hunger and by immigrant and imitative town-building. The UK is, similarly, a collection of territories (England, Wales, Scotland, part of Ireland) which have been to a considerable extent Anglicised in the late medieval and early modern periods through the same dynamics. It is thus not completely unrealistic to imagine the UK ending in the same way as the Habsburg empire - breaking up along national lines.

I stress ‘completely’ because there are profound differences between the UK and the later 19th-early 20th century Habsburg empire. German Austria was and is a fragment of Germany, while England in the UK is the whole medieval nation-state. Wales, Ireland and Scotland have all been far more deeply Anglicised than Hungary, the Czech lands, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia and Ruthenia had been Germanised in the later 1800s.

In Britain, the peasantry as a class was liquidated long ago, and at the same period (16th to 18th centuries) the landlord class became bourgeoisified as a rentier-financial-capitalist superstructure to capitalist agriculture and industry, while the clerisy was radically subordinated to the state by the Reformation. In late Habsburg Austria-Hungary, in contrast, these classes persisted as important political actors.

Austria-Hungary was rapidly industrialising in the late 19th-early 20th century. The UK, from 19th century industrial ascendancy, has now long been (like 17th century Venice and Genoa, or the 18th century Netherlands) a country which lives mainly by financial operations, and, indeed, has in recent decades begun to move into the next phase of decline (like 18th century Venice) of depending to a significant extent on the tourist trade.

Nonetheless, something like the ‘break-up of Britain’, which Nairn has been predicting since the 1960s, is by no means unimaginable. And for thinking about the dynamics and consequences of such a break-up, that of the Austro-Hungarian empire may serve as an indicator of the likely general shape of the gradual paralysis of workers’ movement politics through subordination to nationalism, and the likely results of breaking up the larger unified economy into smaller national territories - whether in the form of the collapse of the EU or of Scots, Welsh and Ulster independence (or, for that matter, of ‘northern independence’3). And the same is true - perhaps even more strongly - for the collapse of the ‘European project’, hoped for and predicted by Brexiteers.


Workers and nationalism recounts the relationship between the Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei Österreichs (Social Democratic Workers Party of Austria - SDAPÖ or just SPÖ) and Czech and Austrian-German nationalist trends - between 1890 (the party was founded by a unification process in 1889) and the fall of the Habsburg regime in 1918. This is a subject which has been studied fairly extensively in German-language writing, and more superficially in English. Beneš’s particular ‘take’ on it is that he focuses on the experiences of workers who participated in the SPÖ and its constituent organisations through published and unpublished autobiographies, and on socialist cultural production (novels, poems and so on).

The book has an irritating ‘tic’ of presuming, without ever explicitly arguing, the falsity of socialist projects, by way of characterising worker aspirations to radical change as “utopian” or “millenarian” and the SPÖ’s project as “religious”, “redemptive” or “chiliastic”. Given that the Habsburg regime was actually overthrown in 1918, this ‘spin’ is merely irritating rather than being even slightly rationally persuasive. Its function is, rather, not dissimilar to that of the ‘fnords’, which are inserted in news stories in Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus conspiracy-theory fantasy trilogy - to produce unreasoned generic aversion by repetitive reinforcement of fear. Here the point is to enable Beneš to write about the late 19th and early 20th century workers’ movement in a way which recognises its strengths, without risking being identified by critics as a communist.

Beneš also displays some confusions about Marxism - for example, he characterises the demand for universal suffrage as Lassallean (when it was the view of a much broader 19th century left - including Marx and Engels, who generalised it from Chartism) and as “reformist” (p22), which was not anybody’s view until a late stage of the history. Or, Beneš says, Karl Kautsky promoted “the orthodox Marxist popular wisdom that nationality was purely ‘superstructural’ - that is, disconnected from the largely economic material realities of the ‘base’ and thus false” (p150) - which both shows a stunning degree of failure to understand the way the base-superstructure metaphor was used in late 19th-early 20th century Marxism, and also flatly ignores Kautsky’s actual intervention in the debate on the national question in ‘Nationality and internationality’ in 1907-08.4

Nonetheless, Beneš’s actual research is highly illuminating. It draws out brilliantly the way in which the SPÖ as a formation which became a mass party (and which won general male suffrage in 1907) developed as a mass movement in ground-level engagement, cultural as well as political, with working class experience and with rival political trends. And one of his eventual conclusions - that “The conviction that wage-earning people possessed the right to determine the character of national politics and culture was … a major achievement” - reflects his research better than the gestures throughout the book towards neoliberal orthodoxy through the talk of “utopianism” and “millenarianism” does.

A main lesson of Beneš’s study for the left is, in fact, the opposite of his gestures to neoliberal orthodoxy. It is that the maximum programme - that is, thinking the possibility of a radical alternative to the existing world order, and developing it through literature and artistic and cultural operations, as well as formal programmes and so on - is essential. It is, in fact, indispensable to the working class developing class-political independence in relation to the minimum programme - of what to seek right now in the domain of politics. The loss of that ‘Second International utopianism’ (by way of the Soviet dystopia, on the one hand, and the Trotskyists’ ‘transitional programme’ delusion, on the other) leaves the ‘post-utopian left’ unable to be more than a political tail to either the liberals (lesser-evil US Democrat supporters, left remainers) or to the nationalist-authoritarians (Lexiteers, and so on).

These issues are not, however, central to the argument of Beneš’s book. Rather, he tells the story of how the SPÖ’s engagement with mass working class culture, in the context of Habsburg Austria-Hungary’s political discourse of national contradictions, produced in the end division in the party - which in turn fed into the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian state at the end of World War I. Chapter 1, ‘Narrating socialism in Habsburg Austria’, focuses on the sources used and the roles of socialist cultural production and of worker self-education. The ‘utopian’ and ‘religious’ ‘fnords’ are particularly thick on the ground here.

Chapter 2, ‘Exclusion from the nation’, takes us to worker activists’ responses to allegations from the German and Czech nationalists in the 1890s that the social democrats were “indifferentist” towards the nation - by pointing to the nationalists’ complicity in the exclusion of the workers from the ‘nation’. Beneš starts with the physical basis of this claim - the sharp differentiation between class spaces in Vienna and Prague alike - and to the considerable ethnic diversity of workplaces and working class areas - before showing how social democrat poets and other writers dramatised the idea of exclusion, both among the German-speakers and among the Czech-speakers. 1897 saw both a suffrage reform, which allowed some workers to vote in the February-March parliamentary elections, with the Social Democrats winning 14 seats; and, in April, a violent controversy triggered by the government ‘conceding’ to the Czech nationalists (by decree) a requirement of bilingualism for civil service jobs in Bohemia and Moravia. The pressure of national conflicts led to the SPÖ officially federalising its organisational form.

Chapter 3, ‘Storms of November’, takes us to Austria 1905, when there was a tumultuous campaign for universal suffrage - more tumultuous in Prague than in Vienna. The context of the campaign was unequivocally international: Beneš draws attention in more than one place to the influence of the Russian revolution of that year on the SPÖ’s aggressive suffrage campaign.5 Mass demonstrations took large numbers of workers into parts of the capitals from which they were normally excluded; in Prague, the result was significant street fighting. The size of SPÖ-led contingents tended to marginalise the ‘social nationals’ in Prague and the Catholic-clericalist and anti-Semitic ‘Christian Socials’ in Vienna. Manhood suffrage was, in fact, adopted; and the first elections under the new regime saw considerable successes for the SPÖ.

The result, in both German Austria and the Czech lands, was that the SPÖ organisations and their supporters began to see the working class as the natural leaders of the nation. Chapter 4, ‘Socialist Hussites, Marxist Wagnerians’, addresses the consequences of this, as German-speaking and Czech-speaking SPÖ publicists appealed increasingly to the national culture as such - in tension with each other. This in turn leads into chapter 5, ‘The logics of separatism’, which recounts the increasing nationalism and separatism of the Czech SPÖ organisation, ending in a split in 1911. But it shows that this was not only driven by simple Czech nationalism, but also by several other factors: by the belief that the Czech workers had shown, by their more combative action in 1905, that they were to the left of and more militant than the German Austrians; by the practical difficulties of bilingual meetings; by struggles over minority-language education, especially for Czech migrant workers in Vienna; and by the “vices of large nations” - meaning the German-speakers thinking of the Czechs as coming from “rural idiocy”.

Chapter 6, ‘War and revolution’, sees the terminus of the development in 1914-18.The German-speaking SPÖ leadership’s support for the war effort was shared by a significant part of the Czech leadership - but as the Habsburg regime was seen to be facing defeat (earlier than Germany, since the Habsburgs’ army turned out to be less effective than the Hohenzollerns’), this increased the conflict between the ranks and the leadership. From late 1916, the Czech SPÖ participated in the Czech nationalist ‘united front’, which began to look to the Entente powers for support for independence. In the result, the Habsburg regime was smashed - and all of its component parts radically impoverished by the dislocation of the material divisions of labour which had developed under the economy of the Habsburg regime.

Beneš’s ‘Conclusion’ is titled ‘Ideology and utopia’ and reasserts the neoliberal fnords - but also the contradictory point, that there was a real emancipatory impact of the working class masses’ engagement with the SPÖ’s ideas and organisation to assert their own right to participate in the nation.

Beneš started with the Austro-Marxists’ arguments about the national question, and then with the varying views in the existing academic literature about why successively the SPÖ and the Habsburg state fell apart. Hans Mommsen had argued back in 1963 that the rising Austro-German, Czech, etc bourgeoisies, competing with each other, drew the workers’ movement into their orbit; a central role in studies of this kind was given to the SPÖ leaders. Beneš turns instead to ‘discourse theories’ of both class identification and national identification - though thankfully he does not follow the disastrous logic of these theories towards intellectual closure against competing views and adverse evidence. Instead, this approach does not exclude the active role of worker-autodidacts and militants at the base in constructing the national culture turns of the SPÖ German and Czech organisations - which can tell us important things about the evolution of the SPÖ.

Nonetheless, there is a missing element here, which was, in fact, already missing from the accounts of earlier historians which Beneš discusses. This is the place of the active management of politics by the state core and - related - geopolitical factors. The Habsburg monarchy had, in the revolutionary crisis of 1848-50, called upon the nationalism of the smaller nationalities in aid against the German and Hungarian liberals.6 After its position was restabilised, it had shifted its posture and held Hungary down by military force, but governed in alliance with a section of the German liberals, with an aspiration to taking the leadership of the whole of disunited Germany. This project was destroyed by a succession of military defeats: in the Franco-Austrian war over Italy or ‘second Italian war of independence’ in 1859; and in the Austro-Prussian war in 1866, which was simultaneously a ‘third Italian war of independence’, in which the Austrians lost the Veneto.

Behind the Austrian defeats is British relative decline. Britain, as the world-hegemon power in the early 19th century, pursued a policy of keeping Europe divided, including keeping the several German states strong enough to fight France if necessary - but not united enough for fully independent action. This meant British support for the continued existence of the Habsburg regime. Louis Bonaparte’s 1851 coup restored France’s capability of independent military action, and this in turn directly led to Austrian defeat in 1859, and stimulated other efforts at national unification at the expense of British control: thus the American civil war of 1861-65 against the Anglophile free-trader slave-owners - and thus the Austro-Prussian war of 1866, Franco-Prussian war of 1870, and the creation of the Hohenzollern German Second Reich.

The 1866 defeats made it impossible for the Habsburgs to maintain military rule in Hungary, and led to the ‘Compromise of 1867’, which produced the ‘dual monarchy’ Austria-Hungary: there was German Austria or ‘Cisleithania’ west of the Leitha, also including the Czech lands of Bohemia-Moravia, Polish-Ukrainian Galicia and Bukovina, what is now Slovenia, and the former Venetian colonial possession of Dalmatia (currently Croatian coast); and there was Magyar Hungary or ‘Transleithania’ east of the Leitha, also including Slovakia, Romanian-speaking Transylvania, Serb-speaking Vojvodina, and Croatia (with Fiume/Rijeka, which gave Hungary a northern Adriatic port independent of Cisleithania’s Trieste). The choices made by the Habsburg state thus set up the conditions for national contradictions, which would become central to late 19th-early 20th century politics. In Hungary, the liberals and nationalists pursued ‘Magyarisation’ at the expense of the smaller nationalities; in Austria, the liberals and nationalists pursued Germanisation. When in 1878 the liberals failed to pass the military budget for Habsburg intervention in Bosnia, the king-emperor, Franz Joseph, turned to creating a coalition of the clericals and nationalist groups against the liberals - a return to the policy of 1848-50.7

The SPÖ was attempting to intervene in this constitutional set-up, which was designed to preserve the Habsburg monarchy and its freedom of action by setting the nationalities against each other - just as, in Britain in the 17th century, Charles I, Charles II and James II endeavoured to improve the monarchy’s freedom of action by setting England, Scotland and Ireland against each other.

It would inevitably be difficult for the SPÖ to fight against the stream of the Habsburg state’s use of nationality issues to manipulate politics. It would have to be harder for a party which began as one mainly of German workers, with the Czechs only slightly later organising large numbers (as Beneš points out): since the regime was one which preserved a German-language army, and had in Cisleithania pursued Germanisation until the liberals fell, the defence of state unity by the German left could appear merely as the defence of their own ‘privileged’ position.

But the internal limits of the SPÖ project also have to be recognised. It was not an ‘all-state’ party, but primarily a party of the Austrian Germans, Czechs and Galicians, which acquired a Trieste affiliate in 1897. Hungary had a separate social democratic party founded in 1890, which also organised the Slovaks; Croatia had the Social Democratic Party of Croatia and Slavonia, founded in 1894; when the Trieste group affiliated to the SPÖ in 1897, a separate ‘Yugoslav social democratic party’ was founded in Slovenia.

The SPÖ was thus never a ‘little International’, even if SPÖ leader Victor Adler claimed that title for it.8 It still thought in national terms - unlike those visionaries among the Balkan left, who envisaged not a Yugoslav, but a Balkan federation.9 An analogous, explicit ‘Danubianism’ might have had more success than the SPÖ’s limited Cisleithanian ‘inter-nationalism’ in posing a real working class alternative to the nationalists.

Finally, when we come back to the actual collapse, we come back to geopolitics. The Czechs went over to the side of the Entente and were rewarded with generous borders, at the expense of the Sudeten Germans and the Slovaks. The Serbs were similarly given ‘Yugoslavia’ as an enlarged kingdom. The Romanians got the whole of Transylvania, not just the Romanian-speaking parts. The Austrians and Hungarians, in contrast, were enemies, and received inter alia a determination that their countries must be made landlocked. This determination, which handed Trieste to Italy, also set up the conditions for the ‘Fiume crisis’ studied by Reill.


The Fiume crisis covers a much shorter period (1918-21) and a much smaller geographical space (a port in the northern part of the east coast of the Adriatic, alternatively called Rijeka). But it shares with Beneš’s book close attention to ground-level detail. As Reill argues, the ‘Fiume crisis’ is chiefly famous in western historiography as a precursor to Mussolini’s fascism, as the Italian nationalist poet and self-publicist, Gabriele d’Annunzio, in September 1919 mobilised a group of veterans and youth to take over the city, and in September 1920 set himself up as Duce of the city, using language and imagery which was associated shortly afterwards with Mussolini’s Fascisti. But she makes the point that the story ‘on the ground’ is, in fact, a good deal more interesting and ambiguous. D’Annunzio responded to the efforts of Fiume’s own political elite to obtain annexation to Italy: a choice which they pursued in the effort to preserve what they had had under the Habsburg regime.

Fiume/Rijeka had been an independent city-state loosely associated with the medieval kingdom of Croatia, which in turn became in the late Middle Ages attached to Hungary, and which, after the fall of Hungary to the Ottomans, joined Habsburg Austria. Unlike Trieste, there was no historical basis for any Italian claim that Fiume/Rijeka was part of Italia irredenta; it had never been part of Roman, Lombard or Carolingian Italy, or even a colonial possession of late medieval-early modern Venice. But it did have a large Italian-speaking resident population (as was generally true of port towns in the region - see p26). After 1850, Fiume had been added to Croatia; but under the ‘1867 Compromise’ in Austria-Hungary, it was reinstated as a corpus separatum (‘separate body’) independent of Croatia, but under Hungary. Between 1867 and 1914 the city grew rapidly as the Mediterranean port for the Hungarian part of Austria-Hungary.

During October 1918 the Habsburg regime collapsed, as a result of plain military defeat and financial crisis, and the demands of the USA and Entente powers that there would be no peace without the regime conceding ‘self-determination’ to its nationalities. On October 29 the provisional council of the Croats, Slovenes and Serbs claimed Fiume. The next day the Fiume municipal authorities handed over power to an ‘Italian National Council of Fiume’ - in spite of rival projects, including a Fiume workers’ council’s demand for a universal-suffrage plebiscite of the city's inhabitants, about which state to join or independence (pp41-44). The ‘Italian National Council’ turned out to be backed by the Entente naval forces, which arrived shortly afterwards (p44).

However, the USA, and in particular president Woodrow Wilson, was unwilling to concede Fiume to Italy. Wilson’s ‘expert’ advisors had argued for giving Fiume to the ‘Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes’, which became Yugoslavia; his ostensible ‘self-determination’ principle should arguably have led to accepting transfer to Italy, but Wilson obstinately refused. Reill argues that Wilson stuck fast over Fiume because he could pose as ‘anti-imperialist’ on this issue (Italy being a weak power), while conceding the imperialist annexation demands of Britain, France and Japan (pp29-41). The resulting deadlock at Versailles was ‘solved’ in 1920 by the great power negotiators declaring Fiume independent (p38).

Meanwhile, the Fiumean ‘Italian National Council’ was running an effective press campaign to promote the ‘Italian’ character of the city - including, for example, giving women the right to vote (which they did not have in Italy itself) because women voters’ enthusiasm made good press (pp48-54). This press campaign formed the background to the ability of D’Annunzio and his supporters to invade Fiume without a shot fired, in spite of the orders of the Italian government (pp55-57). The USA retained the whip hand due to Italy’s war debts, and would not agree to annexation; D’Annunzio blocked a compromise under which Fiume would become an ‘independent’ Italian protectorate in December 1919, and in summer 1920 made a coup against the ‘Italian National Council’; finally, at Christmas 1920 (a date chosen in order to keep the story out of the papers) the Italian government shelled and invaded the city in order to oust D’Annunzio and force acceptance of independence (pp1-8). Italian fascists subsequently (1922) made a coup against the Fiume government, and Mussolini annexed the town in 1924 (pp225-26): by now the USA under Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge was no longer interested in the detail of European affairs. It was to be taken by Yugoslav forces in 1945 and formally annexed, as Rijeka, in 1947.

The bulk of Reill’s book is not the narrative I have outlined here from her first and last chapters, but a thematic treatment of aspects of the experiences of the local inhabitants and the local government in 1919-20. Chapter 2, ‘Follow the money’, tells us the story of the consequences for the Habsburg state for the money it had, until 1918, issued. What was to be used for money? It had to be ‘overstamped’ Habsburg money, but how much was to be produced? The government tried to create the conditions for ‘Fiume crowns’ to be exchanged for Italian lire 1:1, thereby squeezing the money supply. The inhabitants of Fiume used a variety of expedients - among them extensive counterfeiting, which went on throughout the former Habsburg lands (pp94-103) - and had to engage in everyday currency speculation to keep abreast.

Chapter 3, ‘Legal ins and outs’, addresses the attempts of the Fiume authorities to deal with legal issues, the problem being that Hungarian law, as modified by the special status of Fiume as a corpus separatum, had applied before 1918, but now in theory applied only insofar as the new authorities continued its use. The claim to adhere to Italy implied the application of the Italian civil and penal codes - and the penal code was declared to apply in May 1919 (p125) but not retrospectively. And, in civil law, the Hungarian liberal divorce law, not the Italian prohibition of divorce, continued to be applied (pp126-29). The Fiume authorities were, Reill argues, trying to carry on as if they were still a corpus separatum, but in relation to Italy. The D’Annunzio regime of September-December 1920 proposed in the alternative a revolutionary corporatist constitution - which was never brought into force (p132). The problem is not unique, since every revolutionary regime faces it - and for Brexit, our own government has taken arbitrary powers under ‘Henry VIII clauses’ to change the inherited EU law.

Chapter 4, ‘Between city and state’, addresses the thorny problem of citizenship. Who could vote? Who had the right to reside, and who, in contrast, could be deported? Equally important, who could access welfare provision? I say ‘equally important’, because the break-up of pre-1918 Hungary entailed wrecking the economy of Fiume, which, as already mentioned, had been built up as the Adriatic terminus for Hungarian trade. A large part of the inhabitants were thus dependent on welfare support, which, in turn, depended on relief provision from Entente powers.

Reill shows that the Fiume authorities elected to base citizenship on the Habsburg-regime category of ‘pertinency’. This was parallel to the status of Habsburg subject, and of Hungarian citizen; it was an institution parallel to ‘settlement’ under the old English Poor Law, which gave the right to receive welfare benefits from the parish if you had it - but, if not, liability to be deported to your place of original ‘settlement’. A more modern analogy is the Chinese hukou, which allows employers to treat workers of rural origin as illegal immigrants to the cities. But there was difficulty in using and revising the categories (given the break-up of Austria-Hungary), and tension between the use of ‘pertinency’ and the Fiume authorities’ (claim to) aim to become a part of Italy. Should Italians be able to easily acquire pertinency? In this context, there were issues about the Italian soldiers’ relationships with local women, and so on (pp167-69), and soldiers’ effective impunity in relation to crimes (pp169-74). These are, again, symptoms of economic dislocation, as well as (Reill’s point) of the ambiguities of the local regime’s wish to identify with Italy.

Chapter 5, ‘A sense of self’, addresses local government’s efforts to promote Italian identification, and the ways in which the city’s inhabitants responded. For example: displaying Italian flags became compulsory for government offices, and a way of showing loyalism for others; individuals changed their names to Italianise them; school-teachers were retrained to teach in Italian rather than Hungarian. But Italian geography did not replace Danubian: rather, geography lessons centred on Fiume itself and its immediate environs. Reill argues that many inhabitants accommodated what the local statelet wanted of them; and this in turn, she argues, was a sort of ‘Italianisation’ which would preserve what the city’s notables had had before 1914 under a different brand. Reill’s conclusion is that Fiume can be seen as a microcosm of the difficulties experienced by all the components of the former Habsburg empire after its dissolution.


There were difficulties for all classes, as Reill points out, but particularly disastrous consequences for the proletariat. Under capitalism, access to everything is rationed by access to money. The proletariat as a class is the propertyless class, which is forced to work for wages for others, because it lacks assets of its own, and is paid enough to live - which is adaptable by class struggle - but not enough to accumulate.

Radical dislocation of the economy therefore particularly savages the proletariat. If money holdings are liquidated (as opposed to being ‘bailed out’), the upper and middle classes are affected; but the dislocation of the material order of production, leading to no wages coming in or wages becoming worthless, immediately threatens workers with starvation. Hence the fact that the Fiume workers’ council makes only an ephemeral appearance in Reill’s story. The point is also visible in the partial deproletarianisation of the immediate post-revolutionary period in Russia, due to economic dislocation. The issue has been developed as a theoretical problem by Marcel van der Linden, discussing the ‘transition dip’ as an obstacle to the idea of workers’ revolution.10

But trying to avoid a ‘transition dip’ turns out not to work, either. The Fiumean notables tried to preserve what they had - and got Italian fascism and three rounds of ethnic cleansing: first against the Slavs, then against the Jews, then after 1945 against the Italians. The leaderships of the German Majority SPD and of the Austro-German part of the SPÖ, and of the Italian Socialist Party, similarly endeavoured to avoid civil war. The Italians got Mussolini for their pains; the Germans, after a delay, Hitler; the Austrians Dollfuss and then Hitler; and at the end of the day the enormous destruction of the 1939-45 war.

After 1945, nationalism was widely discredited. It took a while for anti-revolutionism to be made plausible - by the combination of Stalinist dystopia and concessions through both social democracy and Christian-democracy in Europe, and through left versions of nationalism (actually linked to Soviet support) in the ‘third world’. Full-bore nationalism has revived in response to the collapse of Stalinism and the class war on the working class waged by liberalism. Both the early dreams of nationalism and its disastrous consequences for the working class are worth remembering.

Mike Macnair

  1. M Maritan, ‘National indeterminacies at the periphery of the Habsburg monarchy: nationalisms versus multi-ethnic identities in Fiume/Rijeka and Trieste, 1848-1867’ Nations and nationalism 2020, Vol 27, pp174-88.↩︎

  2. For example. The enchanted glass Verso 1988; ‘Ukania under Blair’ New Left Review January-February 2000.↩︎

  3. freethenorth.co.uk; redpepper.org.uk/the-case-for-northern-independence.↩︎

  4. Translated by Ben Lewis in Critique Vol 37, pp371-89 and Vol 38, pp143-63.↩︎

  5. In Hungary the monarchy threatened the liberals and nationalists with universal suffrage, but backed down on this threat when they capitulated on other issues: see N Stone. ‘Constitutional crises in Hungary, 1903-1906’ Slavonic and East European Review Vol 45(1967), pp163-82, pp172-81.↩︎

  6. H Draper and E Haberkern Karl Marx’s theory of revolution V: war and revolution New York 2005, chapter 2.↩︎

  7. There is a convenient summary in AG Whiteside The Socialism of fools: Georg ritter von Schoenerer and Austrian Pan-Germanism Berkeley 1975, pp12-24.↩︎

  8. G Eley Forging democracy: the history of the left in Europe, 1850-2000 Oxford 2002, pp92-93.↩︎

  9. ‘The Balkan socialist tradition: Balkan socialism and the Balkan federation, 1871-1915’ (2003) Revolutionary History Vol 8, No 3.↩︎

  10. ‘Deproletarianisation’ - debated in S Pirani The Russian revolution in retreat 1920-24 Abingdon 2008, pp20-23. ‘Transition dip’ - van der Linden, ‘Workers and revolution’ in P Brandon et al (ed) Worlds of labour turned upside down: revolutions and labour relations in global historical perspective Leiden 1920, chapter 1.↩︎