“For sheer primitive rage,” said an old sage, “commend me to a thorough-going humanitarian when you get him well roused.”1 As I write (in mid-May), the left-center governments of North America and Western Europe—self-certified do-gooders all—are showering thousands of tons of hardware and hi-tech hellfire on targets in Yugoslavia selected by their “intelligence” agencies. The policy follows this syllogism:

1. We must stop the terror in Kosovo.

2. The bombing will not stop the terror in Kosovo.

3. Let’s get on with the bombing.

Such is the reasoning of the most powerful, most prosperous, best-educated, and best-informed nations on earth.

To be sure, the conflict in Yugoslavia defies any facile moral calculus. NATO is fighting a “just war” in the narrow sense of its being directed against a horrible genocidal regime, and pursued with the intention of upholding human rights. But it is also the wrong war, since it does not alleviate the predicament of the victims it purports to rescue. In this it parallels the Iraq imbroglio where, after long years of sanctions, boycott, and air strikes, the position of Kurds, Shiites, leftists, and other anti-Saddam forces are now much worse. The belief in the righteousness of NATO’s case is undermined by US support for authoritarian regimes practicing ethnic cleansing and massacre as an instrument of policy—in Cambodia, Guatemala, Colombia, and Turkey. Still, the enemy, Milosevic is evil; our side is merely absurd and unprincipled.

This “just” but “wrong” war is dividing and destroying the West European left, just as the first timid steps were underway to inaugurate a non-ethnic, non-racist citizenship in Germany and France, and it threatens to ruin East European democracy altogether. There may be no attractive solution, but better understanding may help to reduce the current horror.

The oracles have already spoken out on the explanation of the conflict and the ensuing genocide and massive population “transfer.” But their reasoning is not much better than the NATO syllogism. Consider two first-rate minds, both with Balkan roots. The post-Marxist Slovene thinker Slavoj Žižek delivers himself of the opinion that all that talk about ethnic nationalism is just nonsense, the essence is “power struggle.”2 The Bulgarian-French writer Julia Kristeva locates the essence in culture. She presents us with a dramatic contrast of East and West in 1793: while the Protestant Kant—according to her—was representing rational understanding (entendement, Verstand), Orthodox monks were translating Philokalia from the Byzantine Greek. QED. What more proof could we ask for that Orthodox Slavs are irrational, thus inferior?3

Two famous East European novelists shared their views with Western audiences, too. György Konrád blames the West, not unfairly, for encouraging separatism and believing the canard that Yugoslavia was in some sense more of an “artificial” creation than most states. “The West,” writes Konrád, “recognizes, protects, and maintains by force of arms a Bosnia made up of three republics, three nationalities: an entity no less artificial than was Yugoslavia. The West recognized ethnic nationalism and helped it to victory, opening the door to the violent expulsions. By giving top priority to national self-determination and rejecting on principle the federation inherited from the communist era, the West made individual human rights and lawful, democratic autonomy for cultural minorities subservient to [ethnic] nationalist hysteria.… Western politicians believe they act against Milosevic, but they act for him: the West has walked into the trap.”4

The Albanian novelist Ismaïl Kadaré, however, believes that we have another aggression of would-be Christians against non-Christians on our hands. Kadaré thinks that the Serbs have been bloodthirsty thugs throughout their history. But surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly), he finds words of praise for the Kanun, the medieval Albanian handbook of ritual vendetta, even for what he calls “its central part, ‘The Rules of Death.’”5

Among important Western authors, Susan Sontag, in an article of almost Wieseltierian ferocity, memorably (or ominously) called “Why Are We In Kosovo?” declares herself fed up with European whining and bellyaching about what she feels is “a just war.”6

The well-known social critic Jean Baudrillard, basing his theory on the counter-intuitive hypothesis that the leaders of the Western world cannot be complete idiots (why not?), thinks that Milos6evi´c is evil, but so is everyone else. All the capitalist countries are trying to get rid of their mostly immigrant minorities, to “eliminate heterogeneous and fractious elements” locally and achieve globalization, as it were, globally.7

Meanwhile, in Yugoslavia, sheer dementia seems to reign supreme. In her stunning war diary Biljana Srbljanovíc—Serb playwright and admirably courageous member of the Yugoslav democratic opposition (that, according to Dr. Z6iz6ek does not exist)—reports that the air attacks in Belgrade are announced on Serbian radio and television by a disembodied voice belonging to somebody called “Avram Israel,” and the Serb TV broadcasts endless reruns of Schindler’s List. The Serbs and the Albanians alike are now identifying themselves with the Jews known to them from Hollywood’s anti-fascist kitsch. Miss Srbljanovic’s generalized moral nausea is the most hopeful and refreshing development since NATO’s war began.8

But apart from this nausea, the analyses—however plausibly and forcefully stated—are not particularly helpful, and other discussions are comparably ignorant and unilluminating. The past matters in this conflict, and the major commentators are strikingly uninformed about the relevant history—a 200-year legacy that has fostered ethno-cultural division, produced a world without citizens, and correspondingly limited current options to a federal structure policed by external force, or a collection of ethnically pure states, or continued slaughter.

The Empire of Reason

One reason why the Yugoslav tragedy is not properly understood is the erroneous impression of leading analysts that communism was a mere aberration, without a history of its own. The “bracketing out” of 80 years of history where the causes of our present predicament can be found is understandable, but pernicious. There is a fear abroad that looking for the roots of post-communist problems in the communist past of the new democracies would somehow “normalize,” “trivialize,” or “banalize” what is regarded as the horrendous communist “experiment”—a period that is supposed to have been “abnormal” and “exceptional,” because it was, by definition, non-capitalist. Pointing out elements of continuity in the political history of totalitarian regimes seems to mitigate our legitimate outrage, so it is rejected on emotional grounds. But if we fail to understand, for example, that it was Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini who destroyed the last remnants of the aristocratic-feudal order in East and Central Europe, not (like west of the Rhine) the liberal middle classes, and it was they, in consequence, who created modernity there, then we egregiously misread the twentieth century.

To show that Hitler inherited some of Bismarck’s policies and that the communists had to face difficulties Kaunitz and Metternich faced before them is not tantamount to “relativising” the Holocaust and the Gulag. But there was no historical pause during totalitarian rule. This might sound like a truism, but it is not. The carnage in the Balkans is a result of the unraveling of a revolutionary project—philosophic, administrative and political—that started in the eighteenth century.9

It all began with the politically modernizing reforms of Joseph II, emperor of Austria from 1765 to 1790. In 1781, he issued the Toleration Patent, which ended Counter-Reformation and the persecution of the Greek Orthodox, Protestants, and Jews. In 1784, he followed with the Language Decree, which replaced Latin with German as the official usage. In 1782, the Emperor abolished the material autonomy of the Catholic Church, restricted ecclesiastical legislation to the clergy, dissolved the “contemplative” monastic orders, and imposed government control on seminaries. In 1781 (1786 for Hungary), he ended peasant serfdom. He effectively abolished patrimonial jurisdiction, in which a landlord could be plaintiff and judge at the same time. And in 1789 he introduced a cash tax on nobles, prelates, and guilds. Serfs became tenant farmers in the Western half of the Empire.

The Jewish minister Joseph von Sonnenfels abolished torture in 1776, after Count von Haugwitz separated the law courts from the Crown’s prosecutorial service and the justice ministry, and standardized weights and measures (in 1749 and 1756, respectively). The Emperor banned the Jesuits, paid the clergy through a central fund, funded the General Hospital in Vienna in 1784, modernized censorship in 1781, and began to allow anti-clerical pamphlets and criticism of himself—though not of the monarchical principle.

Feudal regional assemblies were disbanded or disregarded, and replaced by a modern, centralized administration. Civil servants no longer had to be of noble origin, and lordly justices of the peace disappeared in favor of qualified judges. Joseph II’s Uniform Code of Substantive Criminal Law (1787) abolished the death penalty and aristocratic exemptions. The regulation of marriage shifted from ecclesiastical to civil courts. Bankruptcy and inheritance laws followed. Modern record-keeping, statistical methods, and vocational schools were introduced; internal customs duties were abolished; many paved roads and deeper and expanded ports were built.10

Such was the modernizing political reform of enlightened Hapsburg despotism. It was achieved without the slightest popular participation—or, indeed, participation by anybody except the monarch and his small brain-trust. The Hapsburg Empire comprised a hodgepodge of kingdoms, provinces, principalities, and duchies that had been ought together by accidents of warfare and dynastic marriage—a backward, agrarian ruin of the obsolete Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation and the ancient Kingdom of Hungary (including Croatia), the latter laid waste by two centuries of Ottoman occupation, national insurrection, and peasant jacquerie. The regional aristocracies were linked to the House of Austria by wildly differing arrangements of suzerainty, with some of them—especially the noble counties of Hungary—enjoying nearly full-fledged autonomy ensured by medieval constitutions, treaties, and compacts. On this colorful mosaic, Joseph II—who refused to be crowned King of Hungary or King of Bohemia, so his rule was deemed illegal by the noble estates—tried to impose an order of rational benevolence. The emperor wanted uniform and science-based general education, a state-run manufacturing industry, and modern trade according to mercantilist principles—in short, “good governance.”

The Emperor’s contempt for the traditional ruling classes ran deep. In the 1780s he was sorely tempted to side with an uprising of the oppressed Rumanian peasantry in Transylvania against their cruel and shortsighted Hungarian masters. His contempt was fully reciprocated. Indeed, Joseph II’s rule of reason, welfare, benevolence, and paternalistic bureaucracy was bitterly resisted by virtually everyone with any power: noble Diets and assemblies, the Catholic church, medieval walled cities, and even some grandees at the Court. Paradoxically, the only political foundation for his enlightened, centralist, and “rational” government was the divine right of kings, the sacral monarchy he inherited from Constantine and Charlemagne. Unlike Frederick the Great, the emperor had no sense of national rebirth and greatness operating in his favor, nor, like Napoleon, a revolutionary-democratic version of nationalism. Legitimacy did not derive from the people, however conceived. The Emperor’s only allies were people he did not like much: intellectuals, Jews, Protestants, and Freemasons. These groups were either cut off from the system of local feudal privilege or positively hostile to it for philosophical reasons. Radicals of all stripes flocked to the service of the man who embodied enlightened absolutism. A typical figure, the Hungarian atheist priest Abbot Martinovics, served Joseph II and his successor, Leopold II, as a secret agent. A leading member of the radical Masonic Illuminati, Martinovics later organized a two-tiered Jacobin conspiracy while remaining an active, although disloyal, police spy. He was eventually executed at Buda, where a city square is still called “Bloody Fields.” Nevertheless, his life established a pattern of cooperation between Hapsburg reformers and “rootless” groups disconnected from regional elites.

Of course, the reforms of Joseph II and Leopold II challenged the local powers-that-be, especially the Hungarian nobles and their county assemblies. The German language decree and Joseph’s open disregard of medieval habits and customs allowed the provincial nobility to mobilize ethnic sentiment and genuine love of freedom against the Emperor. Whereas the Emperor claimed divine right, they sought to defend their threatened cash privileges with a modern-sounding democratic nationalisman ideology presented with quotes from Rousseau, and the singing of la Marseillaise and “Ça ira” in Latin. (“Hoc ibit, hoc ibit, hoc ibit,” intoned the Hungarian nobles defending their ancestral rights to refuse to pay taxes and to keep their peasants in a state of near-slavery.) Bohemian aristocrats—Germans, Scots, Irish, and Italians who could not muster a word of Czech among them—indulged in orgies of “Slav” sentimentality and grief-ridden self-pity.

Thus Joseph’s centralized, rationalist reforms-from-above were sabotaged by localist, feudal particularism newly dressed in liberal-democratic, nationalist garb. But those reforms also provoked genuine national sentiment among the impoverished gentry and the incipient educated middle class. This became the first undifferentiated revolt against something I cannot even translate into English, only into French or German as le pouvoir or Oigkeit—a populist distaste against anything that originated in the “center,” in the “metropolis.” Feudal particularism was, of course, regional rather than ethnic or racial. But the language issue added a cultural dimension, further exacerbated by the hatred of those groups regarded as the local agents of universalism: German-speaking intellectuals, Freemasons, Jews, Jacobins, modernizers, and Westernizers—all of them “paid by Vienna.”

Rationalizing, centralized political reforms were henceforth associated with disregard or ignorance of specificity, location, group sensibility, and tradition in East Central Europe. Josephinism was an aggressive attempt at top-down social change, and its failure, indeed its unwillingness, to reach out for popular support helped perpetuate a certain image: that the humble, obedient masses are fine, thank you, as they are, and that community self-assertion is best left in the hands of the hereditary ruling elites. In the absence of political rights for the common man, the nobles had only themselves to convince that legal reform abolishing or mitigating traditional caste privilege was somehow foreign or artificial, and on the whole they managed to persuade themselves beautifully. The axis of political conflict divided a rationalizing but undemocratic center, unwilling to mobilize popular support, and privileged local elites presenting themselves as the bearers of group aspirations and authentic representatives of popular sensibilities.

Emergent East European nationalism was thus already very different from West European nationalism. Western nationalism was usually linked to the idea of a political order, whose realization was deemed to be the mission of that nation: moreover, the politics of this nationalism were liberal-democratic. The ability of the free individual to give laws to himself (autonomy) was paralleled by a demand of the body politic for self-determination (independence).11 Nationalism in the Hapsburg empire, however, was more a cultural affair, divorced from politics, at least from what had sometimes been called philosophical politics—in which changes toward more freedom and justice through reformist or revolutionary legislation are achieved by public debate with public arguments. Since an attenuated form of “philosophical politics” was conducted by the Emperor without so much as by-your-leave from subjects—even the powerful ones—it was fiercely resisted. But the resisters did not, and could not, take one side of a reasoned debate: there was no debate to join. The remaining self-justification was a rather abstract desire for inclusion, and a shift in national self-definition from aristocratic tradition to all-encompassing and vague “culture.” In the Hapsburg empire, the romantic stress on a cultural identity prior to politics preceded liberal nationalism.

In the great Ernst Gellner’s posthumous book Language and Solitude, we find this characterization:

So the cult of community and specificity receives reinforcement from the entire romantic tradition and its claim that the best, or even the only, truly human elements are to be found in the non-reasoning aspects of life. Reason is defied twice over: by the love of the specific rather that the universal, and of the passionate rather than the calculating. Love, or passion, as it were, is enlisted in the political arena: political confrontations are presented as the conflict of life with sterility, of vitality with disease, a disease that masquerades as reason and compassion.12

But I would say more. Even German romantic nationalism had a political aim: national unity and independence from France (and Austria). The fusion within the Hapsburg empire of cultural nationalism with aristocratic regionalism, however, made this impossible: the Galician-Polish, Bohemian, Hungarian-Transylvanian magnates wanted independence from universalist, centralist, and humanist meddling with their privileges, power, and wealth. They did not want liberal-democratic statehood for a legally non-existent body politic, to which they did not want to be beholden in any way. Even in the nineteenth century, liberal nationalists had no desire, despite appearances, to dismantle the Hapsburg empire.13

Joseph II revoked all his measures on his deathbed, and the civil servants, spies, and intellectuals he abandoned turned to conspiracy. But the dream of radical reform through imperial fiat, and of a confidential understanding between the supreme authority and the “rootless” revolutionary intelligentsia never died. Moreover, the fateful separation of politics from culture, and a cultural definition of ethnicity, meant that assimilation and civic patriotism, with its supra-ethnic idea of citizenship, were all out of the question.

The tumultuous first half of the nineteenth century did not change those allegiances. Indeed by mid-century, the Court and most liberals came to realize that the brief illusion of the 1848 revolutions—the marriage of nationalism and democracy—was suicidal. With no clear ethnic majorities anywhere, the break-up of the Hapsburg monarchy would result in absolute mayhem. The Hapsburgs and the Austro-Hungarian liberals shared this “thin ice” theory of civilization: if the democratic and national-ethnic-tribal feelings were unleashed, peace, law, and justice—not to speak of the douceur de vivre—would be impossible to preserve.

Hapsburg liberals and, later, Hapsburg socialists evinced a panic fear of the peasant masses, who were ready, at least in the liberal imagination, to destroy liberty and urbanity out of hatred for the more or less benevolent transnational elites. At the same time, the cosmopolitan Court aristocracy had become ever more amalgamated with the “rootless Judeo-Masonic” intellectual elites. This enduring divorce of universalist “politics” and “law” from ethnic “culture,” the enmity of “pan-imperial” (gesamtmonarchisch) liberalism and “national” democracy, and more ominously the hostility of international and national socialism are the fountainhead of our present troubles—not the fanciful medieval conflicts ignorant columnists rattle on about in the mainstream press.

The fear from and of the masses is a general nineteenth-century phenomenon. But in the Austro-Hungarian case there was good reason for it: genuine democratic passions of the common people were directed against transnational elites whose existence depended upon the continued rule of an archaic pre-national dynasty. It is this panic that gives the special flavor to the grandiose Austro-Hungarian decadence. On the other hand, genuine social reform was dependent on those elites. The liberal measures proclaimed by the liberal Hungarian nobles during the glorious 1848 revolution were implemented by such absolutist Austrian oppressors as Baron von Bach and the Knight von Schmerling. Without absolutist military rule in the 1850s, serfdom would probably have survived in Hungary well into the twentieth century, something that Hungarian liberals and socialists knew very well.

Unwilling to advance a genuinely popular political project, liberals had to cheat: gerrymandering and extremely restricted franchise, supplemented by electoral fraud and the bribing of minority political leaders and ecclesiastical figures, a bought press, and a tightly controlled academic life were the price of keeping the illiterate rural masses quiet, shutting up the déclassé nationalist demagogues, and realizing progressive reforms. Thereby the Austro-Hungarian monarchy became a country of extraordinary individual freedom and extreme political powerlessness—the ultimate divorce of liberal rationalism from democracy.

But democratic passion was strong, at least in the Western half of the Empire, and some concessions had become unavoidable. So the franchise was extended. And the result, for example in the 1907 Reichsrat elections, was the following:

96 Christian Social Deputies; 86 Social Democrats; 31 German People’s Party, 21 German-Agrarians, 17 German-Progressives, 12 German-Radicals, 3 Pan-Germans; 28 Czech-Agrarians, 18 Young Czechs, 17 Czech Conservatives, 7 Old Czechs, 2 Czech Progressive ‘Realists’ 1 “non affiliated” Czech, and 9 Czech National Socialists; 25 Polish National Democrats, 17 Polish People’s Party, 16 Polish Conservatives, and 12 Polish Center; 4 Zionists and 1 Jewish Democrat; 10 Italian Conservatives and 4 Italian Liberals; 10 Slovene Conservatives and 5 Slovene Liberals; 25 Ruthene National Democrats, and 4 old Ruthenians; 12 Croats, 5 Rumanians [Bukovina], 2 Serbs, 1 radical Russian; 1 Free Socialist, 1 “Independent Socialist,” 1 ‘Social Politician’; 2 Non-Affiliated Members.” 14

And if the Western half of the Empire (“Austria”) was ungovernable, the Eastern half (“Hungary”) was anti-democratic. There the system discriminated against both the restive ethnic minorities (Rumanians, Serbs, Slovaks, Saxons) and the Magyar pro-independence “left.” Because of the outlandishly restricted electoral franchise, the Social Democrats were not even represented in Parliament, although they had a huge membership and considerable influence.

Thus the growing socialist movement in the two halves of the dual monarchy faced a profound dilemma: because of the multi-ethnic character of the country, democracy or political equality meant chaos and/or rural “reactionary” rule, dissolution, and, probably, civil war. But the alternative, transnational centralism, would preserve aristocratic and Court privilege, tending toward military government that would again end in disaster because the Hungarians would never tolerate “democratic caesarism” à la Napoleon.

What was to be done?

Hapsburg Marxists and Ethnic Socialists

The Hapsburgs tried to play an unusually intricate game with all the “nationalists” of the monarchy, pitting them against each other but only trusting the Baroque and Enlightenment transnational elites, the officer corps (well analyzed in a recent book by István Deák), the church, the imperial civil service, the Jews, the Freemasons, and Social Democracy. They did not have one solution; they were continuously tergiversating, postponing, extemporizing, “muddling through” in a state featuring an odd combination of liberal policies, egalitarianism, regional privileges, and non-democratic reforms.

In “Austria,” the Hapsburgs tried to strengthen the Polish and German liberals against the pan-German (pro-Prussian, pro-Anschluss) forces, limiting democracy against the irresponsible Czech politicians. In “Hungary” they tried to promote democracy and prop up the Rumanian and Serb movements to dissuade the Magyar pro-independence “left,” which of course only used the independence issue as leverage against the Hapsburgs, thus keeping the “ethnics” at bay. The Russian historian Dennison Rusinow called this strategy “a flexible and logical non-solution for an unsolvable national question.”15 There was no supra-language: Joseph II may have believed that German was one, but in the democratic nineteenth century, German was but one language among many. And there was no good governance as such according to the rules of Reason, just the policies of a bunch of amateur politicians elected at random following the whims of an unenlightened populace. Even imperial rule was no longer divinely ordained, just there as the contingent result of a precarious and transient balance of obscure forces. The state itself came to rest on loyalty, faith, habit, martial virtue, and a quasi-religious belief in authority—but not Reason. Herr von Sonnenfels once published a journal called Der Mann ohne Vorurteil (“Man Without Prejudice”). Such men were no longer available, if they ever had been.

The socialists—who treated regional, group, and traditional caste divisions as class conflicts—at first believed they were Republican and nationalist in the sense of standing for the independence and self-determination of ethnic nation-states. But the class conflicts were crisscrossed by strange alliances. Illiterate Greek Orthodox peasants and starving Hasidim were allies of the Holy Roman Emperor. City burghers opposed free trade. Proud German dukes fomented sedition and tumult among Slav peasants. The Court, the Hungarian aristocracy, and the new bourgeoisie destroyed the livelihood of the gentry squirearchy, and the latter invaded the civil service and politicized it, sabotaging the central authority.

At the same time the irredentist movements (Italian, Southern Slav, Rumanian, and pan-German) wanted out to create new unions, based on racial myth and historical fiction. They stood for a plebeian democratization colored by distrust of a rational universalism propped up by bayonets, vote-rigging, and show trials. A democratic Rumania, Yugoslavia, Czecho-Slovakia, and a new pan-German republic would be free of fraudulent Reason—which would be replaced by the true will of the people. There would be no more Josephine civil servants, Jewish barons, enlightened bourgeois Freemasons, carping and satirical journalists, radical savants-only simple folk of healthy peasant stock, unpretentious village parsons, apple-cheeked maidens, and sturdy militiamen.

So the socialist theoreticians in Austria-Hungary had to find a way to keep their supporters from being seduced by reactionary anti-capitalist Christian “socialists” or by the nationalist peasant parties of the “non-historical nationalities” in the East. What should politics look like in a world of discrete ethno-cultural identities? The answer they settled upon—advanced by Otto Bauer and Karl Renner (and, less clearly, Rosa Luxemburg in Poland and Lithuania, and the revolutionary syndicalist Erwin Szabó in Hungary)—was to radicalize the Josephine contraption by sharpening the distinction between politics and culture. And as you read these lines, the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe are still wrestling with the legacy of this decision.

The socialists broke decisively with the democratic doctrine of national self-determination with its one nation/one state principle, and proposed to ensure cultural and personal autonomy within a state that was itself to transcend ethno-cultural divisions. Cultural autonomy meant that the members of the ethnic group would receive (in proportion to the number of members) a percentage of the taxes collected by the government and use it for education, newspaper publishing, and the like, in its own language. Where ethnic groups, even minorities, were local majorities, they would use their own language in legislatures, administrative agencies, courts, and official documents. They could correspond with central government in their own language. The states were supposed to help create modern “high cultures” where, owing to backwardness, exploitation, and oppression, they did not exist. Personal autonomy—still propounded by ethnic minority movements in Eastern Europe, including the Hungarians in Transylvania and the Serbian Voivodina, or the Poles in Lithuania and Belorussians in Poland—would mean that even scattered diaspora populations have a second vote concerning their ethnic, cultural, and language needs. Territorial autonomy would be permitted, but limited to the fair administration of ethnic issues. Neither secession nor local exceptionalism would be allowed.

The idea, in short, was to localize ethno-cultural issues, so that in national politics there would be class or ideological—that is, universalist—parties. A policy of cultural autonomy, by confining the relevance of the ethnic question to culture and keeping it out of politics, would not prevent cooperation between socialist German or Czech proletarians or, for that matter, liberal German or Czech bourgeois. Also, where cultural autonomy is combined with a measure of territorial separateness, intra-ethnic power struggles were expected to limit the romantic lure of “ethnic unity” against benevolent universalist governance.16

Hungarian radicals accepted a modified form of this program.17 But its most important impact was on Lenin and Trotsky, and their followers, Stalin and Tito. The socialists who opposed the Austro-Marxist program of a supra- and transnational state, became nationalists-“social patriots,” as the jargon had it—at the outeak of World War I, so they did not participate in the founding of the Second-and-a-Half, Third, or Fourth International, and thus did not play a role in the subsequent history of Central and Eastern Europe. Communists and social democrats divided at Zimmerwald and Kienthal over the national question, and the heroes of Bolshevism—Jaurès, Liebknecht, Luxemburg, and Lenin—were war resisters and anti-nationalists. (The tradition of internationalism and revolutionary defeatism today is upheld only by the Trotskyites, one of the movements that might revive because of Kosovo.) The Austro-Marxist tradition, therefore, was one of the most precious treasures and defining elements of incipient Bolshevism, and its betrayal in 1914 became one of the defining traits of “reformist,” “opportunist” social-democratic treason-for Marxist-Leninists, the original sin.

The Communist Promise

The victorious allied powers after the First World War mistook the ethnic problems of multinational territorial empires for their own combination of assimilationist, non-racial civic patriotism at home and racial oppression in the non-territorial colonial empire. Ethnic-ally-based nation states were created with large minorities from the formerly “historical” nations of Austria-Hungary-Hapsburg empires without traditional safeguards like the combination of paternalistic liberalism, the rule of law, and feudal/territorial privileges and exemptions. The supra-national networks—German-speaking towns in Slav territory, Hungarian-speaking Jews in Rumanian territory, the common, “progressive,” positivist-scientist and Germanic “high” culture tradition of proletarian trades unions everywhere, and a common bureaucratic routine and pride in lack of particularistic bias—were destroyed. As everybody knows, the Versailles, Saint-Germain, and Trianon treaties were flops, and the quite legitimate issue of the mistreatment of the ethnic German minorities in the successor states triggered the Second World War. The idiocies of the 1918-20 peace treaties were repeated in 1945, though by this time the Jewish question was “solved” by Hitler, and the ethnic German question was “solved” by Stalin and Benes6 in a fell swoop of ethnic cleansing. The ethnically purged Poland and Bohemia-Moravia today live in perfect harmony, but they needed Hitler’s and Stalin’s cumulative efforts for that: in the spirit of Dr. Benes6’s wartime dictum, national minorities are out of date and will not be allowed. Millions were forced to leave exactly like the Kosovo Albanians today, but without the benefit of CNN.

The third wave of destruction of multinational federative states happened, of course, in 1989 and after, with perfectly predictable consequences.

To understand what happened, we must realize—however unpalatable this may sound in these days (and let an old dissident tell you this) of cheap no-stakes, facile, after-the-fact anti-communism—that the Bolshevik variant of cultural autonomy was not wholly unsuccessful. The federative states of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia (Marshal Tito, who started his political career as an Austro-Hungarian social democrat in an automobile factory has been called “the last Hapsburg”; he was half-Croat, half Slovene18) realized to a certain extent the Austro-Marxist ideal, with all its flaws. These two countries, while hardly abstaining from the wholesale murder and internal deportation of recalcitrant or otherwise undesirable populations, created a complex structure of federative and autonomous republics, autonomous territories, regions and districts, and structures for non-territorial minorities.

Naturally, these entities did not offer political freedom; communist society did not offer freedom to anyone. But they did keep ethnic high and popular culture in a rather good repair, and sometimes created a high culture for pre-literate populations, complete with script and standardized, super-dialectal language. They offered institutions—ethnic-language colleges and universities, theater and film studios, academies, learned societies, research institutions, newspapers and periodicals, publishing houses, symphonic orchestras, museums, ethnographic collections, and folklore ensembles. They put up bilingual signs. And, most important, through the relative decentralization of both Communist Party and state administration, they created a number of local regional elites that in most cases never existed before; sometimes they did the work of nineteenth-century cultural nationalism by conjuring up an ethnic intelligentsia, replacing the old, but much more frequently they created it from scratch, out of peasant lads.

The Bolshevized ethnic (political and intellectual) elite in the former autonomous regions is the ruling class of the new states. This ruling class had been able to read the classics of Western literature and philosophy in first-ever spanking new translations in its own mother tongue (the general accessibility of the modern cultural canon for millions is one of the greatest achievements of communism anywhere, now sadly decaying under the combined onslaught of economic crisis, commercialism, and popular culture—ordinary people really did read Shakespeare and Balzac and Tolstoy and everybody could afford opera and concerts). Certainly there was indoctrination, but it is not meaningless that it was done in dozens of languages, that it offered jobs to literate people in hitherto despised places, and that social oppression was not, except towards the end, systematically duplicated by ethnic or racial humiliation.

Yugoslavia, for example, was a tyranny, but with a difference. The federal structure insured a certain degree of diversity and it certainly guaranteed inner peace and safety. The Hapsburg experience told the Yugoslav leaders not to mix democracy and nationalism. This is why Tito tried to weaken the strong (the Serbs) and strengthen the weak. This is why he kept large Serb minorities hostage outside Serbia. The Serb intellectuals protested because they weren’t allowed to oppress the rest, and the beauty of it is that they were quite right. The Brünn (Brno) program of Austrian Social Democracy (1899) and the Dresden program of the Yugoslav Communist Party (1928) established the same structure of virtual self-determination and cultural autonomy.19 The Yugoslav model preserved, in a debased form, many features of enlightened absolutism-in particular, the separation of ethnic culture from high politics. It kept would-be local despots quiet, but denied popular participation and representation; of necessity, then, democratic and ethno-nationalist demand merged once more. Whatever provisional and partial liberties could be enjoyed were always granted by tyrannical fiat until withdrawn. The fabled “self-management” scheme was a bureaucratic stratagem of giant complexity and zero yield. Still, the regime betrayed itself: it inadvertently showed that it needed at least some appearance of popular participation. It also experimented with a simulated market à la hongroise, but it had to give it a “leftist” gloss to mask the abolition of central planning.

When the center collapsed, these stratagems made it necessary to involve the regional ethnic elites in the pseudo-market “decentralization” (read: dismantling, chopping up) of the state economy. As appetite comes with eating, local ethnic elites re-centralized the state economy, but on the “federative republic” level. The bounty had to be protected—hence the gradual redeployment, relocation, and “ethnicization” of the police force. The discrimination against local Serbs by the regional ethnic elites was couched in terms of decentralization, democracy, autonomy—official and “progressive” slogans. The Serb ruling group demanded, in response, another federal re-centralization, this time openly on an ethnic, not Austro-Marxist nor Titoist, basis, and cited minority Serb ethnic grievances in the republics (some real, most not). By this time not only the Enlightenment legacy was squandered (and then abruptly forgotten), but the emperor was dead, too.

It was the old story again: the regional aristocracy scrambles to preserve its privileges and pre-eminence as the “plebeian” masses make genuine democratic demands. The lack of participation was blamed on a federal system that let the regional oligarchies off the hook. The lack of freedom came to be seen as a problem with the actual composition of the body politic. The fateful separation of the cultural and the political in the understanding of a nation forbade the simple democratic reform of the pre-existent (multi-ethnic or multi-national society, federative state plus autonomies), and recommended instead its replacement with a wholly new body politic (in fact, several) whose new boundaries (ethnic, linguistic, territorial, symbolic, economic, military) had to be drawn after its establishment.

There is nothing traditional, let alone ancestral and medieval in this. Southern Slav nationalism, or Illyrism, was an irredenta movement aiming at national unity like Bismarck’s Germany, Cavour’s Italy, Maniu’s new Rumania, or Masaryk’s improvised Czecho-Slovakia.20 But now a nation, Yugoslavia, was given and it had to be chopped up into “natural” bits along the internal frontiers Machiavellistically and Josephinistically contrived by Tito and his minions for their own funny games, deliberately disregarding ethnic fault-lines. The Albanian-Yugoslav conflict was political in nature, too, not ethnic or racial.

Enver Haxha’s Albania was “left deviationist,” and Tito’s Yugoslavia “right deviationist.” The KLA is an ultra-Maoist group like Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge or Öçalan’s PKK in Kurdistan.

So Yugoslavia blew up. It is mostly the fault of the politically ambitious regional elites who, ironically, had been fashioned by socialist federalism precisely to be apolitical guardians of ethnic culture. The supra-national elites of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy (the church, the officer corps, the civil service, the socialist trade-union bureaucracy, Jewish radicalism, the Court) had been the glue of the state that could not withstand defeat in war and the unleashed democratic and national passions of dissatisfied groups. It lay in pieces, and the peace treaties of 1919-21 made a meaningless mishmash of it, insuring future wars.21

The only supra-national glue of the Soviet Union and of Yugoslavia was the Communist Party. With its disintegration under the blows of a chaotic democratic revolution, the takeover of the separate pieces by the second-rate, bottom-drawer regional bureaucracies and elites, and the defection of the all-powerful secret services to various politico-criminal conglomerates, the fate of non-regional, Titoist or Gorbachevite elites was sealed. With politics confined to the center, the regional elites always represented ethnicity without politics. When the center disappeared, politics as commonly understood disappeared too, and ethnicity remained as the only focus. (Does anyone know or care whether the New Thugs are on the right or the left, are state redistributionists or market fanatics, partisans of the jury system or proportional representation?) But ethnicism is not nationalism. Ethnicism does not care about non-ethnic fellow citizens: it does not want their exertions, taxes, contribution—only their departure or their death.

Indeed, the only citizenship known in a community bereft of religion and Enlightenment seems pre-politically, naturally—that is, racially or ethnically—”given”; it cannot be acquired or deserved. Ethnic minorities thus seem an aberration, a logical contradiction, a non-story. Less than human. Hence deportation, expulsion, mass murder, mass rape: in short, humiliation and extinction.

For the third time the West wants to force upon an intricate multi-ethnic mosaic the logic of the Gallo-American, civic-republican, assimilationist, or “melting pot”-but of course ethnically flavored-nation-state. It has ended twice in disaster and it will end so again. Does anybody still remember why there are no significant autochthonous ethnic minorities in Germany, Austria, Bohemia, Poland, or Hungary-central European countries that more easily approximate the ideal of a Western-type nation-state? Because they are in mass graves, or displaced by thousands of miles from where they were originally from.

But mostly they are dead.

After having helped destroy two imperial-federal arrangements, the West will either tolerate the extreme consequences of the nation-state logic, entirely inapplicable to countries where Enlightenment modernization took supra-national shape (and under this destroyed shape there isn’t anything but further destruction)-or it will construct an empire of its own, pacify the native peoples with awesome military might, and pay to keep them alive.

After Hapsburg self-colonization and communist centralization—what now? In a world without citizens, the options are ugly. In the former Yugoslavia, the West can rebuild a partial federal structure and keep policing it (for in the absence of an imperial civil service or a federal communist party, it will have to). Or it can acquiesce to partition, with ethnically pure separate entities—either a Serb-free Kosovo or an Albanian-free Serbia, with some internationally patrolled borders in the next couple of hundred years.

Or else, the continued carnage.

The thugs are in place because of this simple vision of race. They won’t give up their little fiefdoms and baronies. Milosevic is not Bismarck. Tudjman is not Clemenceau. These guys are not statesmen. They are strong because they care about their groups, not about fellow citizens. But there are no citizens, men and women possessing anything that would transcend immediate need, prejudice, fear, desire, or violent hatred. Transcendence is forbidden, period. Even in that modest sense that is necessary for the simple co-existence of different people in an imperfect community that works, where you pay your taxes, and you may reasonably believe that the trains will run, more or less on time.



1 Agatha Christie, Murder at the Vicarage [1930] (New York: Berkley, 1984).

2 Süddeutsche Zeitung, April 21, 1999.

3 Le Monde, April 17, 1999.

4 The Nation, May 3, 1999.

5 Le Monde, May 4, 1999.

6 New York Times Magazine, May 2, 1999. Ironically, though, Sontag’s quite credible “just war” view is shared by such megastars of the French punditocratic glitterati as Bernard-Henri Lévy, André Glucksmann, Alain Finkielkraut, Alain Touraine, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, and Philippe Sollers, while it was the US House of Representatives that failed to carry a motion supporting the air strikes, and it is Sen. Trent Lott who follows to the letter the party line laid down by the Socialist Worker’s Party USA and the Spartacist League (see, “Stop the Imperialist Bombing of Yugoslavia! Support the Fight for Self-Determination in Kosova!” in The Militant, April 26, 1999). Other members of Congress agree with the Communist Party USA in its friendly view of the Serb regime.

7 Libération, April 26, 1999.

8 Der Spiegel, April 26, 1999.

9 See G. M. Tamás, Les Idoles de la tribu [1985] (Paris: Editions d’Arcantère, 1991); “Old Enemies and New: A Philosophic Postscript to Nationalism,” Studies in East European Thought 46 (1994); “A Legacy of Empire,” Wilson Quarterly (Winter, 1994). My writings on nationalism and ethnicism are collected in Törzsi fogalmak [“Tribal Concepts”] (Budapest: Atlantisz, 1999), vol. 1.

10 On Austrian enlightened despotism and Joseph II see Ferdinand Maass, Der Josephinismus, 5 vols. (Vienna: Verlag Herold, 1951-56); Eduard Winter, Der Josephinismus (Berlin: Rütten & Loening, 1962); Paul P. Bernard, Jesuits and Jacobins (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1971); Robert A. Kann, A History of the Hapsburg Empire (Berkeley and London: University of California, 1974). Also see the Wandruszka/Urbanitsch handbook, Die Habsburgermonarchie, 8 vols. (Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1973).

11 See Elie Kedourie, Nationalism, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1993). His ideas have been reiterated and developed by Isaiah Berlin, “Kant as an Unfamiliar Source of Nationalism,” [1972] in his The Sense of Reality (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998).

12 Ernest Gellner, Language and Solitude: Wittgenstein, Malinowski, and the Hapsburg Dilemma (Cambridge, 1998), p. 19. He has this to say of Wittgenstein: “If there cannot be truth outside culture, if there is neither individual knowledge nor external or universal validation, if knowledge simply must be communal and the speech community is ultimate and final, then this applies to the problem of the authority of science and mathematics as much as it does to anything else. Populist or culturalist epistemology had presumed to defend the moral or aesthetic sensibility of the Carpathian village against the imperialism of Versailles manners or of Manchester commercialism, or more specifically against the Viennese or Budapest bureaucrat, but it had not to argue with Hume or Kant about the nature of inference or about logical antinomies. It had not occurred to it that they might be involved in the same game. Wittgenstein’s strange originality lay in doing precisely this,” pp. 77-78.

13 See my essay on the great Hungarian liberal statesman and philosopher Baron von Eötvös, in Törzsi fogalmak, pp. 9-143.

14 Quoted from Igitte Hamann, Hitler’s Vienna (Oxford, 1999), p. 117. Unfortunately, a terrible translation.

15 Quoted by Solomon Wank, “The Habsburg Legacy in the Nationalities Question,” Austrian History Yearbook, vol. XXVIII (1997), p. 146. The classical work on the legal structure of such a country is Joseph Redlich’s magisterial Der Österreichische Staats und Reichsproblem, vols I/1, I/2, and II (Leipzig: P. Reinhold, 1921); see also on Hungary, Louis Eisenmann’s masterpiece, Le Compromis austro-hungrois de 1867 (Paris: G. Bellais, 1904); on Bohemia, Ernst Birke and Kurt Oberdorffer, Das böhmische staatsrecht in den deutsch-tschechischer Auseinandersetzungen des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts (Marburg: Elvert, 1960); and Hugo Hantsch, Die Nationalitätenfrage im altern Österreich (Vienna: Verlag Herold, 1953).

16 On the Austro-Marxist theory of nationality see first of all Otto Bauer, Die Nationalitätenfrage und die Sozialdemokratie [1907], 2nd. ed. (Vienna: Verlag der Volksbuchhandlung, 1924). Also Hans Mommsen, Die Sozialdemokratie und die Nationalitätenfrage im Habsburgischen Vielvölkerstaat (Vienna: Europa-Verlag, 1963); Norbert Leser, Zwischen Reformismus und Bolschewismus: Der Austromarxismus als Theorie und Praxis (Vienna: Europa-Verlag, 1968); William M. Johnson, The Austrian Mind [1972] (Berkeley and London: University of California, 1984), pp. 99-114; Ruth D. Roetke-Berens, “Austrian Social Democratic Foreign Policy and the Bosnian Crisis of 1908,” Austrian History Yearbook, vol. XVII/XVIII, 1981-82, pp. 104-126. See also Karl Renner’s autobiography, An der Wende zweier Zeiten (Vienna: Danubia, 1946). The best general history of Austrian Social Democracy is still Ludwig Ügel, Geschichte der Österreichischen Sozialdemokratie (Vienna: Verlag der Volksbuchhandlung, 1922-25), 5 vols. On the Hungarian left, there is not much in Western translations, but let me mention the works of G. Litván, T Erényi, J. Jemnitz, and the Marxist quarterly Múltunk (still extant).

17 See the accounts of their leader, Oscar Jászi, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Hungary (London: P.S. King, 1942); and Oscar Jászi, The Dissolution of the Habsburg Monarchy [1929] (University of Chicago, 1961).

18 Tito’s view of himself can be found in Vladimir Dedijer, Tito (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1953). In the preface to the autobiography of another famous Yugoslav communist, we find the following newspaper account: “In giving the defendant’s personal history, the chief judge described him as a Montenegrin. Djilas, who otherwise bore the extravagant indictment and even the sentence of three years ‘strict imprisonment’ without discernible emotion, leapt to his feet. ‘I object,’ he declared. ‘The statement should show that I am a Yugoslav.’“ Quoted in Milovan Djilas, Land Without Justice (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1958), p. vii.

19 See Duncan Wilson, Tito’s Yugoslavia (Cambridge, 1979), pp. 193-207, about veto rights of the Federal Republics. Joseph Stalin, in this respect a vulgarizer of Rosa Luxemburg’s, Lenin’s, Martov’s, and Trotsky’s ideas, advocated a federal system in 1922 and proposed a federation with a right of secession for a future Yugoslav Communist and multinational state in 1925 in a characteristically utal and straightforward article of great clarity. See Stalin, Marxism and the National-Colonial Question (San Francisco: Proletarian Publishers, 1975), pp. 184-256, 301-303. Also, Wayne S. Vucinich, “Nationalism and Communism,” in Contemporary Yugoslavia: Twenty Years of Socialist Experiment, W.S. Wucinich, ed. (Berkeley: University of California, 1969), pp. 236-284.

20 See Miriam Gross, “Croatian National-Integrational Ideologies from the End of Illyrism to the Creation of Yugoslavia,” with comments by Arnold Suppan and Charles Jelavich, Austrian History Yearbook, vol. XV-XVI (1979-80), pp. 3-46. On the antecedents see Stanko Guldescu, The Croatian-Slavonian Kingdom 1526-1792 (The Hague: Mouton, 1970). On Bosnia and Kosovo see the deservedly famous books of Noel Malcolm, Miranda Vickers, and Tim Judah. On Yugoslavia’s dissolution see Misha Glenny’s reporting; on the Bosnian war, David Rieff’s; on contemporary Croatia, Marcus Tanner’s. On the origins of the KLA, see Christophe Chiclet’s article in Le Monde diplomatique, May 1999. Its leaders were all pro-Enver Hoxha Marxist-Leninist-Maoists, not nationalists.

21 One Austro-Marxist, a World War II Belgian resistant and Trotskyist militant, tried to explain transnational, non-territorial groups. See Aam Leon, La Conception matérialiste de la question juive [1946], translated as A. Leon, The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation (New York and London: Pathfinder, 1996). Leon’s theory of a “people-class” hopes to explain not only the Jewish case (there was no whole social and occupational “pyramid” in Jewish communities), but also the case of the ex-territorial, itinerant German-speaking proletariat in Eastern Europe, East Indians in Africa and the Carribean, and ethnic Chinese in South East Asia. They all were decisive components of the imperial order-“disembodied” and rootless.