Rudolf Rocker’s Nationalism and Culture for our times

by David J. Lobina

As I mentioned last month, the first thing one notes when approaching Rudolf Rocker’s 1937 book, Nationalism and Culture, is its impressive combination of breadth and depth, thus making it entirely unpublishable today. Not only that, and what’s worse, the book is also rather modern in outlook as well as original. The originality stems from Rocker’s interest in the practical effects of nationalism on the people that have to undergo the typical processes of becoming a “common people” (not something historians care much about), whilst the relevance of the overall account follows from the prescience of some of the ideas defended in the book.

The book itself is divided into two parts and spans nearly 600 pages. Book I traces the evolution of nationalism and its relationship to the expansion of the state, resulting in the reality of the nation-state, while Book II is a critical analysis of the notion that there is any type of homogeneity to any one national identity or nation. Remarkably, Book I anticipates some features of the modern study on nationalism, and something along these lines is also true of Book II vis-à-vis “the linguistic update of nationalism” I offered so long ago now, with the required modifications and adjustments. So let us deep-dive, as the nerds say nowadays.[i]

Book I starts by emphasising the role of power, and power relations, as a driver of historical processes, complementing, and sometimes subsuming, more purely economic factors (chapter 1). The effects of power relations are ubiquitous in Book I, starting with the parallels Rocker sees between the authority of the Church and the authority of the state – the legitimacy of a state or nation, Rocker argues, is not so dissimilar to the legitimacy of religion, an analogy that has also been noted in more modern works on nationalism (chapter 2).[ii] More generally, Rocker argues that from power relations sprang, on the one hand, the requirement that power be exclusive, as evidenced in Caesarism, and indeed in Church doctrine (chapter 3), and on the other, the inevitable class divisions that arise therefrom, a point Rocker derives from his reading of Plato and Aristotle (chapter 4).

Perhaps curiously, Rocker is most interested in the Middle Ages, an epoch he often takes as a model. According to Rocker, people were rooted in local, fraternal associations at the time and had no need for any national consciousness (p. 92), the latter a phenomenon he traces to the Renaissance more properly. Rocker advances that human relations in the Middle Ages mostly involved ties to family and tribe and further points out that, in these very terms, local revolts against the powers that be – the crown, the aristocracy, the Church (the metropolitan elites of the day!) – were inevitable. As a case in point, Rocker makes much of the numerous “charters” won between the 11th and 15th centuries, which he associates to small revolts from the bottom up (chapter 5).[iii]

So-called “national interests”, as Rocker stresses, did not spring ‘from free association for the protection of common interests, but have been imposed…from above to protect and extend the privileges of small minorities in society’ (p. 96). These were the (small) elites who in the 15th century or so started conceptualising large European societies in terms of differences in language and tradition, though these terms did not reflect the facts on the ground in any way (this would be the cultural nationalism I have discussed here before).

Nevertheless, such ideas were starting to become entrenched in the thinking of the elites during the Enlightenment, and this certainly helped “make” the modern world. Rocker pays special attention to three figures in this respect. One is Johann Gottfried Herder, who even though recognised that the measures necessary to create nation-states were imposed by force (chapter 9), saw much to praise in what such processes yield – the emergence of “the spirit of a people”, or Volkgeist, a term Herder popularised. The active role of the state in directing and organising the lives of citizens received further, more explicit support from Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Georg Wilhelm Hegel. The latter argued that the state was self-justifying in what it does, while Fichte proposed that the state should be heavily involved in educating the masses. And given that by the 18-19th centuries nationalist feelings were cemented into the elites’ psyche and by then they were able to use the tools of the state to promote them, a nationalist agenda was a natural development in itself (chapter 11).

The conclusions Rocker draws from the whirlwind but incisive history he presents in Book I of the events and ideas leading to the emergence of the nation-state are quite wide-ranging. A national consciousness is not born in people, but trained into them (chapter 12), and this is most obvious in the fact that instruments of the state such as ‘legislation, army, public education, press, clubs, assemblies’ are all required to draw people to a national identity (p. 177). Early modern European countries included ‘a whole array of different peoples…who have by more or less violent means been pressed into the frame of a common state’ (p. 201), the latter an outcome of using the ideology of nationalism ‘to enforce on the separate parts of the…human family a definite character according to a preconceived idea’ (p. 213). Thus, national identities are the result of employing state tools to bring them existence, a historical development that took place in the 19th century (p. 202). And in due time there would come some of the common side-effects of nationalism, from recollections of vanished glory and past greatness (p. 202) to the distrust, at the very least, of foreigners (p. 219).[iv]

As advanced, some of the issues I discussed in my series on Language and Nationalism are already present in Book I of Nationalism and Culture, though in somewhat germinal form. There is the artificiality of national identities and their origin in the rarefied discourses of elites; the conflation of the interests of the elites and those of the state; the use of state tools to homogenise large groups of people, forging and shaping national identities; and, of course, the fact that these historical developments are rather modern in the world’s history.

The details regarding how these developments came about, most notably the roles of industrialisation and universal schooling, as well as a more comprehensive discussion of why populations embrace national feelings at all (Rocker’s answer to this question was to draw attention to people’s need for the authority of a father figure, which modern peoples may have found in the idea of the “motherland”), are certainly lacking in Rocker’s account, but he was on the right path overall. Moreover, Rocker couldn’t possibly be faulted for having been troubled by the imposition of any kind of commonality on a large territory, for he believed that the origins of cultural homogeneity ultimately lied in the ever increasing centralisation of the modern state and he viewed centralisation as being incompatible with a certain healthy tendency of the liberal impulse – namely, the desire for self-realisation as well as for wanting to have a say in local affairs, in cooperation with others and for the benefit of all. Such proclivity includes the political as well as the artistic spheres as far as Rocker is concerned, and it is noteworthy that he held the opinion that decentralisation was crucial to the flourishing of culture, the issue he devoted most of Book II to.

Book II starts by identifying the etymology of the word nation, and as Rocker notes its Latin origin and its then main denotation of “place of birth”, he points out that the term was only used for political units in early modern European history (chapter 1). As ever-larger communities increasingly came under the control of ever-more centralised states, the power relations Rocker emphasises throughout the entire book inevitably became ever-more ubiquitous, and this resulted in the internal divisions typical of moderns countries in terms of different classes or castes of people, different ideologies and political parties, etc. (p. 260). Power relations are all-pervasive for Rocker, and nationalist feelings totally secondary; at one point he observes that the German industrialists who so handsomely profited after the first world war ‘had never bothered their brains concerning the alleged community of national interests’ (p. 264), interests that Rocker regards as being based on ‘false facts’ in any case.

The national identities discussed in Book I are certainly among these false facts, and in Book II Rocker further argues, after noting Max Weber’s now-common assertion that language may be the real characteristic of large communities, that there is no obvious connection between a language and a particular people, not least because there is no such thing as a homogenous language (chapter 2) – or indeed homogenous peoples or races (chapter 3). A great number of different linguistic varieties have contributed to what are now called the Italian or French languages, and who can tell when precisely in history did people stop speaking Latin and started speaking Italian or French (pp. 287-8)?

Rocker considers any sort of imposition illegitimate, and linguistic and cultural homogeneity quite contrary to human nature, especially when it comes to artistic creativity (chapter 4), a central topic in Book II. Interestingly, Rocker believed that the quality of artistic creativity was closely related to the prominence and reach of the state in that the more extensive the state is, the less rich culture tends to be. In part this follows from Rocker’s belief that artistic creativity requires freedom of thought and action, and a homogenised society would not be the most apt of environments in this respect.

Rocker’s understanding of freedom respects a common understanding of this concept in the socialist and anarchist literatures, for he takes freedom to be the ‘practical possibility which guarantees to every member of society that [they] may develop to the fullest all those powers, talents and capacities with which nature has endowed [them]’ (p. 344) – a positive account of freedom rather than the negative kind favoured by liberalism. And given that Rocker also believed that cultural activities go ‘hand in hand with the voluntary union and fusion of different human groups’ (p. 350), he naturally concluded that culture could function as a liberating force against the shackles of dogmatism and institutionalisation – culture, that is, could constitute a bulwark against the excesses of nationalist state policies.

Rocker sees much evidence for this take on things in the historical record. He identifies a correlation of sorts between cultural creativity and political disunity by pointing to the examples of Ancient Greece, the early Roman republic (chapters 5-6), and more prominently, the Italian peninsula in medieval times. The Italian Renaissance is especially admired by Rocker, a period he views as the greatest example of art and thought since Ancient Greece, and precisely because of political disunity (chapter 7). Modern history is a completely different matter because of the entrenchment of state institutions and the addition of two further factors, also recent in the history of the world: capitalist models of the economy, and what Rocker terms “mass psychology”.

As Rocker has it, a capitalist order in the economy promotes a fixation on the profit motive and the virtues of competition among different groups of people (in this case power relations would be augmented by economic considerations),[v] while a mass psychology involves the transfer from properties of the psychology of the individual to the psychology of the masses – in the case of nationalism, this would mean the application of the nationalist viewpoint that originates in the minds of the few to a whole population (chapter 8). These two factors together are very harmful to culture, says Rocker, because capitalism and mass psychology promote social conflict and homogenisation, and what culture needs instead is free association, mutual assistance, and solidarity, the requisite preconditions for cultural creativity (chapter 9) – some form of socialism.

Further, towards the end of Book II, and perhaps as a reflection of the times he lived, Rocker devotes plenty of attention to the question of whether there is such a thing as a national art, though he starts from the presumption that there is little connection between national identities and art or culture in general. Nevertheless, Rocker is at pains to stress that trends in art derive from social and historical conditions as well as from personal circumstances rather than from specific national characteristics (chapter 10). There is no ‘national peculiarity’ to an artist (p. 498); an artist is a member of a cultural unity greater than the supposed unity of a given nation (chapter 11), for artistic achievement is above national boundaries and belongs to the whole world instead (Rocker channels Goethe to make this point, and a rather elitist stance to adopt it is; p. 460).[vi]

Thus the bulk of Book II, and in this case too Rocker shows remarkable insight – and not a little foresight, though he hardly ever makes an appearance in the literature on nationalism. There is the report of the origins of the word nation and how it was used in the Middle Ages, turning political in meaning in more modern times. There is much about both the central role of language in recognising national identities as well as the issue of linguistic variability and the parallel between linguistic and cultural varieties.[vii] And finally, there is Rocker’s identification of artistic creativity as a central feature of human psychology, including, naturally, the psychology of nationalism.

It should be stressed that one of Rocker’s main points in Book II is that there is no unified set of national interests. So-called national interests never apply to a population at large but typically only reflect the interests of the small groups of people who are in charge (the damned elites once more). After all, as Rocker points out, for the majority of people who are born and grow up in a particular nation the state of affairs is such that, strictly speaking, they have little say in what type of citizens they become – what national identities they will acquire. The local school system and the overall environment conspire to make one a citizen of a special kind – i.e., of a particular national identity – but there is certainly no choosing involved.[viii]

But to go back to Rocker’s main point in Book II – namely, that there is direct a relationship between artistic output and political structure – I don’t mean to deny that different political systems may well have different effects on the type of art that is produced, though the very idea of discussing art in terms of worth or value, as Rocker does, is perhaps best avoided. Rocker may be right to point out that the modern state, nationalism, and capitalism developed pari passu rather than independently of each other in early modern Europe (Book II, chapter 12), but no state is a monolith and there are all sorts of non-capitalist and non-nationalist currents in modern countries, many of which clearly have an effect on art and culture. All we can say about the matter, I think, is that socialism may provide, to paraphrase Chomsky, the best kind of material and psychological conditions for the free, unburdened self-realisation of people, be this in one’s occupation, artistic output, or else.

Rocker’s insistence that socialism is the ideal to pursue may be justified in these very terms, and his book certainly gives the lie to the supposed justice of nationalism, the modern state, and capitalism. The case against nationalism is especially compelling because promoters of nationalist policies can often pervert otherwise just causes. As Rocker himself puts it in the epilogue to Nationalism and Culture, nationalism is often associated to such fundamental human rights as the self-determination of a people, often in combination with socialist aims, and when the focus of attention falls upon small nationalist movements regarded as being oppressed, usually by a greater nationalist movement, it is easy to sympathise with the objectives of such movements and forget all that is in fact reactionary to nationalism – the imposition of a language and a culture, the enforced contrast with other peoples, etc.

Rocker did but intuit the general state of affairs, and though he lacked the theoretical tools to ascertain it properly, he was on the money, as Americans say, in his twofold claim that national identities foster divisions and discord in humanity, and that nationalism may well be incompatible to human development and freedom. There are always outsiders when identity conditions of the kind nationalism imposes and normalises are in place, and such a regrettable and unfortunate situation is possibly another of the perennial side-effects that capitalism and the nation-state bestow upon a world in which such systems dominate and organise people’s lives so thoroughly.

All in all, Nationalism and Culture should certainly be read more often. In fact, everything Rocker wrote should be read more often, and it is a shame to think that most of his production remains unpublished in any language. What’s more, many of Rocker’s writings may even be unavailable now, especially the material he published in Yiddish periodicals during his time in London. And speaking of Rocker’s life in London, his memoirs are exceedingly hard to find in either Spanish or Yiddish, the only full versions ever published in any language, and this is something else to regret, considering how insightful the memoirs are, as I can attest. What is also needed is critical editions of Rocker’s works, something that this short piece, modest as it is, has tried to remedy a little bit. More is needed, and as ever, I offer my services to this endeavour. I do have to make a living somehow, after all!


[i] I shall cite individual chapters from Rocker’s book when referencing a global topic, and page numbers when quoting actual text or referencing a more specific point. The overall book itself is composed of 27 short chapters, 15 in Book I and 12 in Book II, each devoted to a fairly narrow subject. It is also rather old-fashioned in style, as each chapter is headed by a succinct summary of its contents, as was the custom in olden times. Rocker discusses a great number of thinkers and ideas in the book, but I will only focus on a small selection and shall not conduct an exercise in exegesis.

[ii] Rocker’s peculiar take was that the Protestant reformation caused the principle of authority to be transferred from the religious sphere to the political (chapter 6).

[iii] Rocker’s views on the Middle Ages were certainly a bit rose-tinted. Most communities at the time were typically under the control of the local nobility and medieval charters were not granted directly to the “people”; in the vast majority of cases, these charters were won by the aristocracy in revolts against whatever royal house was in charge of the overall country. Medieval charters can hardly be regarded as popular victories, even though some of their precepts may have benefited the overall population in one way or other and they have certainly functioned as precedent for subsequent popular struggles. Popular rebellions in medieval and early modern Europe were often mostly about tax collection, though these could often and easily derive into more general disputes regarding autonomy, freedom, and the like (see Henry Kamen, European Society 1500-1700, London, England: Routledge, 1984, for some details on this).

[iv] Rocker ends Book I with chapters 14-15, where he discusses the differences between liberalism and anarchism, on the one hand, and democracy, nationalism, and communism, on the other. Rocker lumps the last three together on the grounds that all three are centred on the idea of a unified community, be this citizen-voters, co-nationals or workers, whilst he viewed anarchism as a synthesis of liberalism and socialism, and thus quite different in nature.

[v] The question of how power relations and economic considerations result in different groups of people, along with their own interests, was already of utmost importance to early theorists of capitalism. Adam Smith, for instance, divided the population of England into classes of people as defined by their relationship to economic activity: landowners, working people, and capitalists. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2008 [1776]), Book IV.

[vi] Another question entirely is the kind of politicised aesthetics Rocker would have experienced in Nazi Germany, which shouldn’t be taken to be a case of a national aesthetics or art.

[vii] Though not quite in the terms I discussed in my series on Language and Nationalism here at 3QD Tower. Rocker’s understanding of homogeneity, for instance, certainly diverges from my own, as he was interested in the question of whether languages and cultures are intrinsically their own – English as purely English, with no contamination from other languages or cultures – while my point in the series was that any two speakers of the nominally same language have slightly different systems represented in their minds (that is, slightly different mental grammars).

[viii] Let alone legitimising where one is born. What I mean by this phrase – the legitimisation of one’s national identity and nation, effectively – is that in the overwhelming majority of cases throughout history the question of whether any citizen is given the right to consent, or indeed accept, the political system they inherit hardly ever arises. There are of course exceptions, but these tend to come after crises and do not occur as a matter of fact; there were various referenda in both Italy and Spain after the regimes imposed by Mussolini and Franco fell, for instance, resulting in the adoption of novel constitutional arrangements, but subsequent generations have had little to no say in the matter (minus elections and other, narrower referenda; and I should add that the actual details of the new constitutions are also never put to consultation). In any case, there is often quite a large intellectual and political chasm between what effectively are rather recent generations, and the gap can only increase the further back we go in history. This is on a par with the discontinuity I have claimed in this blog is the norm when it comes to the history of a language, and yet it appears to be perfectly normal to see a continuity of sorts in both the linguistic and political history of any one country, no matter all the changes that do occur through the ages. The political continuity can perhaps be best exemplified by the common practice of sharing and even taking pride in the past glories (and, sometimes, guilt) of previous generations of supposed co-nationals, even centuries apart. But there is really nothing there! The general sentiment is a familiar one in the anarchist literature, from Rocker’s own work to modern discussions of the tension between the authority of the nation-state and the autonomy of the individual, but I shall put this topic to one side. Check, if interested, Robert Paul Wolff, In Defense of Anarchism (Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1998 [1970]), and maybe even Wolff’s blog, where he has often treated these issues, though it is best to ignore the comments section.