Bryon Fraser on Nationalism And Culture

Nationalism and Culture

By Rudolf Rocker


(Reviewed by Byron Fraser)
I would like to introduce you to one of the great books of
this century, and by one of our own– a libertarian, albeit a
left-libertarian. I speak of Rudolf Rocker’s masterpiece Nat-
ionalism and Culture.
This magnum opus, the culmination of
many years of thought and study, was spirited out of Nazi
Germany just in the nick of time in 1933 when all Rocker’s
possessions (including his 5,000 volume library) were seized
and destroyed. He fled to London with only the manuscript.
Luckily, and despite Rocker despairing that it would never be
published, it saw the light of day in an English language trans-
lation first published in 1931. It was hailed in its infancy
as a major contribution by such worthies as Bertrand Russell,
Albert Einstein, Charles A. Beard, Will Durant, and Lewis Mum-
ford. But it languished for a number of years in relative ob-
scurity until, in recent times, it was made more widely avail-
able once again through the efforts of the publisher, Michael
Coughlin. Nevertheless its stature as a classic of not only
anarchist, but also world, literature seems assured. Despite
the vicissitudes of time, its reputation can only grow.

My first exposure to Rocker came in the mid-70s when I
obtained a copy of his Pioneers of American Freedom: Origins
of Liberal and Radical Thought in America
from a rare book
dealer. I subsequently gave it to my friend, Carl Harp, short-
ly before his death in Walla Walla Prison in 1979 at the age
of 31. He counted it among his most treasured possessions. Al-
though Carl was a left-wing anarchist in the Bakuninist mold,
he had read Stirner and was.a great admirer of Benjamin Tucker.
Some of you may remember him as the leader of a prisoner’s
rebellion at Walla Walla and as the author of Love and Rage:
The Diary of a Prison Anarchist.
He was also very close to
Claire Culhane, Canada’s premier prisoner’s rights activist,
who helped him get his book published through Pulp Press in
Vancouver. Carl published widely in the anarchist press (mainly
in Open Road, Anarchist Black Dragon, Bulldozer, and Social
Anarchism a
mong others) and, for a time, was a bright light
on the anarchist scene. He was a gifted writer and one of the
bravest men I ever knew. He was dearly loved by all who knew
him. The reader will have to forgive this diversionary excur-
sion but the meaningful impact of Rocker on Harp, reaching down
across the generations, is somehow significant and seemed a
noteworthy association. But I come to praise Rocker, not to
bury Carl. (Well, perhaps a little bit of both).

Rudolf Rocker’s life spanned the years 1873-1958. He was
born in Mainz, Germany, orphaned at an early age, and raised
in a Catholic orphan’s home. A benevolent uncle nurtured his
intellectual development early on and introduced him to the
milieu of socialist ideas then current in Germany. Due to his
negative reaction to doctrinaire Marxism and dogmatic social
democracy, he gravitated to the libertarian socialism of God-
win, Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin, et. al. After working
as a bookbinder until he was 25, Rocker devoted himself to full-
time study, writing, and lecturing. He made the acquaintance
of, and worked in close association with, such luminaries as
Peter Kropotkin, Elisee Reclus, and Errico Malatesta. From 1898
until the World War Rocker lived among the Jews of London’s
East Side where he edited the Yiddish Workers’ Friend.  During
the War he was interned as an enemy alien. And, after the War,
he returned to his native Germany where he remained until forced
to flee in 1933. The rest of his days were lived out mainly
in the U.S.

During his long and productive life Rocker wrote prolifically
and published widely. His stature in the international anarch-
ist community was probably comparable to, say, the influence
of Murray Bookchin or Noam Chomsky closer to our own time. One
of the great features of the recent edition of Nationalism
and Culture
is its extensive bibliography, compiled by Michael
Coughlin, of works by and about Rudolf Rocker. This gives some
idea of the scope of his work and influence and serves as a
useful guide to further study.

Now to the work itself. The first thing one will notice is
that it is lengthy (554 pages) but the reader should not be
daunted by this. It is a lively read throughout and there is
an ample variety of subject matter treated, for the most part,
in a rather pithy manner. His over-arching theme is analogous
to the one most right-libertarians are familiar with from Franz
Oppenheimer’s much shorter work: The State. That is, the dis-
tinction between the “political means” and the “economic means”
or between coercion and voluntarism. For Rocker the distinction
is between nationalism– by which he predominantly means statism
–and culture, by which he means spontaneous cooperative creat-

The discerning right-wing libertarian will undoubtedly note
Rocker’s use of the term “state-capitalist” to refer to the
Soviet Union and perhaps find this somewhat irksome. It should
be seen, however, in the context of the times and the stubborn
refusal of libertarian leftists to equate the monstrosity which
was the U.S.S.R. with anything genuinely socialist. Unlike bam-
boozled liberal progressives, Rocker at least had no illusions
about the totalitarian repression of the “worker’s paradise”
and he roundly condemned it. Moreover, his attacks on capitalism
are always couched in terms of the injustice of monopoly and
privilege, much in the manner of Tucker. True, he is theoretic-
ally opposed to private property but this philosophical position
does not intrude so as to invalidate the bulk of his analysis.
Indeed, explicit anarcho-communist theorizing is, if anything,
understated throughout.

The scope of Rocker’s undertaking is no less than a panoramic
survey of man’s history to date. Space does not permit a detail-
ed accounting but I can touch upon some of the highlights of his
overview. To begin with he has a chapter taking to task that
dominant bugaboo of “scientific” socialism: the materialist
conception of history, He lays bare the myth of economic deter-
minism based on “forces of production”, etc., and asserts the
primacy of will, volition, and ideation as causative factors
in history.

His next chapter delineates the intimate relationship between~
religion and the genesis of politics. Here he echoes the senti-
ments of Bakunin in God and State that dependency on and sub-
mission to a “higher power” in spiritual matters is the concom-
itant to political subjugation. While we can certainly agree
that there is ample historical precedent for this conclusion,
we would also have to say that it is not always true. One thinks,
for instance, of the “higher laws”, obedience to which led men
such as Thoreau, Gandhi, and Tolstoy into a thoroughgoing anti-
statism. Or what about the “inner-light” abolitionist Quakers
who were animated in their opposition to slavery by the belief
that God dwells no less in the breast of a black man than in
that of a white? Notwithstanding these cavils, Rocker does make
a convincing case to show that, for most of recorded history,
Church and State have consistently conspired to thwart man’s
libertarian instincts.

Some further highlights chosen at random from subsequent
chapters include:

1) A demonstration of the ill-effects of absolutism on eco-
nomic development.

2) The reactionary nature of legitimizing the State via a
fictitious “social contract”.

3) The truly revolutionary and anti-statist implications of
the doctrine of natural rights.
4) The illusory benefits of democracy: the tyranny of the
many instead of the one.

5) A look at the race theories of Gobineau and Chamberlain,
et. al.,in light of modern science.

6) A juxtaposition of the cultural achievements of Greece
and Rome relative to their respective degrees of statism.

7) Art and architecture: how far they are related to nation-
alism; wherin they are not.

These last are, of course, only hints to whet your appetite
for the larger more extravagant full course meal. It is impossi-
ble to convey a sense of the erudition displayed within these
pages. While he possibly stops short of being encyclopedic,
Rocker maintains the highest standards of European scholarship.
There are, necessarily, some rather broad brush-strokes. But,
at the same time, there are a wealth of detailed references for
the earnest intellectual historian. In all, Nationalism and
is one of the most powerful polemics against the
pernicious (and omnipresent) notion of the nation-state ever
penned. It deserves a prominent place in your arsenal of int-
ellectual weaponry for the perpetration of libertarian thought-

A last word on Michael Coughlin, the prime mover behind the
republication of Nationalism and Culture. Like many of the
modern movement’s enduring cadre, Michael converted from limited-
State conservatism to the pure light of libertarian-anarchism
back in the late 60s. His discovery of Rudolf Rocker, by all
accounts, was a great intellectual adventure. And he had the
wherewithal to make Rocker’s greatest work available again,
in a handsome hardcover edition, at what must have been no small
expense to him and his family. I think all libertarians– left
and right –owe Michael a debt of gratitude for expending his
capital in this cause (and for continuing to offer the book at
such a reasonable price!). We can express this by encouraging
outlets such as Laissez-Faire Books and Loompanics to stock
it– and by urging our friends to buy it. This classic deserves
an ever-widening readership. And, who knows, maybe one day
Michael will offer us more of Rocker.

Comments are closed.