Review: Rudolf Rocker: Nationalism and Culture


Rudolf Rocker is recommended by Chomsky, whose own anarchist thinking is strongly influenced by him, as one of the best writers on anarchism and this is probably his finest work - a brilliant libertarian analysis of the development of power, the cult of the state and their relationship with human liberty and culture.

Rocker sees the impulse to power as a vital element in influencing the type of society we have. Though acknowledging the crucial role economics plays in the structure of society, he argues that explaining the types of society solely in terms of their underlying economic structure is utterly inadequate.

He sees power relationships as a restraining factor on human development because when you're compelled to carry out orders, you become little more than a machine rather than an individual with a free will, personal thoughts and feelings.

Rocker argues that brute force is insufficient to command obedience over long spans of time and the ruling classes have always sought to implant the idea that their rule is legitimate and inevitable. This is why they have supported ideologies as far apart as Christianity and Bolshevism, both of which support a ruling caste and encourage voluntary submission for the masses.

As Alexander Berkman noted, such voluntary belief is actually stronger than outright tyranny, for when opposition grows, it is flexible enough to survive whereas the dictatorships often snap and come crashing down.

Rocker surveys the development of State power from ancient times, paying particular heed to developments after the Renaissance when nation-states increasingly came to be formed. He also devotes considerable space to those who set the intellectual climate for the triumph such as writers like Rousseau and Fichte and contrasts their deadening visions with the value of liberty and free expression for the development of culture.

For Rocker, nationalism was the foremost ideology - or mythology - which the ruling classes were using to bind the working class to them in an ever tighter form of voluntary submission.

And they were successful; nationalism became the new religion of the people. The logical and grotesque conclusion of this awe of the nation-state arrived with the Nazis, from whom Rocker fled in 1933 just as he was finishing this book. He demolishes their ideas of race theory, with their pseudo-scientific babble about the Nordic race with its pure language and superior culture. Given the rise of racism here, these chapters are unfortunately not out of date; readers looking for ammunition to challenge 'Irish Irelanders' will find plenty here.

It's not cheap, but it's great book, beautifully written. If you're interested in history or politics it's a must read.

James O'Brian


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This edition is No77 published in September 2003

Workers Solidarity 77 cover