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Nationalism and Culture

Rudolph Rocker

Chapter 4


Before we go further into the relation of the national state to the general course of culture it is necessary to define as sharply as possible the concept of culture, so as to avoid confusion. The word "culture," the general use of which is a rather recent matter, embodies no very clearly defined idea—as one would infer from the multiplicity of its applications. Thus one speaks of culture of the soil, of physical, spiritual and mental culture, of the culture of a race or a nation, of a man of culture, and other like matters, and in each instance the word means something different. It is not very long since we gave to the concept of culture an almost purely ethical meaning. One spoke of the morality of peoples as we today speak of their cultures. In fact, up to the end of the eighteenth century and later men employed the concept "humanity," which is a purely moral concept, in the same sense in which we today use the word culture, and one cannot say that such application was less appropriate or less clear.

Montesquieu, Voltaire, Lessing, Herder and many others thought of culture only as a moral concept. Herder, in his Ideas for a Philosophy of the History of Mankind, had laid down the principle that the culture of a people is higher in proportion as it expresses the spirit of humanity. Besides, even today, ethical feeling is for many the essential content of all culture. Thus, Vera Strasser declares, in a much-noticed work, that "the progress of culture consists in this: that every individual shall suppress the bestial and develop the spiritual," which by the contrast selected reveals clearly that the spiritual is thought of as primarily a moral concept.1

Kant, also, saw in morality the essential characteristic of culture. Proceeding from the standpoint that man is a being in whom the inclination toward seclusion is matched with the impulse toward sociability, he thought he saw in the conflict of these two attitudes the "great instrument of culture" and the real source of ethical feeling in man. By it man was first enabled to overcome his natural crudity and to ascend the steps of culture, which, according to Kant's own utterance, "comprises the social worth of man." Culture seemed to him the final purpose of nature, which in man attained to consciousness of itself. According to Kant's view, culture carries in itself many obstacles which seem to hinder the free growth of humanity, but which really serve this final purpose. Holding this opinion he thought he saw in every form of expression of culture a fingerpost that pointed to the great goal toward which humanity strives.

Later, attempts were made to differentiate culture and civilization. Civilization was to mean merely the subjugation of external nature by man, while culture was to be valued as intellectualizing and spiritual refinement of physical existence. Based on this definite divisions were made of the phenomena of social life and conceived art, literature, music, religion, philosophy and science as separate spheres of culture; while technical skill, industrial life and political organization were gathered under the heading of civilization, since its practical application constantly influenced and transformed the material life of man. Each of these attempts has its peculiar advantages, each also its inadequacies; for it is not a simple matter to draw lines of division here, even when we recognize that this is only an attempt to set up a classification that shall make the study of actual occurrences easier.

The Latin word cultura, which had been almost forgotten, was originally applied almost exclusively to agriculture, animal-breeding and similar matters which represent a conscious attack by man upon the course of natural events; it had very nearly the meaning of rearing or cultivating. Such an approach involves no contradiction; it can also be conceived as a particular shaping of events which attaches itself to the long course of natural occurrences. It is very probable that only the Christian theologic way of thinking was the cause of this setting up of an artificial opposition between nature and culture by its placing of man above nature and its belief that nature was created entirely for man's sake.

When we take culture to mean simply man's conscious attack on the blind operation of natural forces, with the possibility of distinguishing between lower and higher forms of cultural process, there is no longer any possibility of misinterpretation. Thus understood, culture is the conscious resistance of man against the course of nature, to which resistance alone he owes the preservation of his species. Countless genera which once inhabited the earth perished in the early glacial period because nature had deprived them of food and of their old conditions of life. But man struggled against the altered conditions and found ways and means to escape from their destructive influence. In this sense the whole course of his development and dispersal over the earth has been a constant struggle against the natural conditions of his environment, which, in his way, he has tried to change to his advantage. He made for himself artificial utensils, weapons and tools, learned to use fire, and adapted himself by appropriate clothing and shelter to the circumstances under which he was compelled to live. Thus he made, so to speak, his own climate and was enabled to change his residence and to defy the natural conditions of his life. Thus understood, the appearance of man is the beginning of culture, and human life is merely its content. Ludwig Stein made an illuminating presentation of the contrasting concepts, nature and culture:

The unbroken regularity in the succession of events which goes on without definite purpose and independent of human activity, we call nature. What human beings have elaborated, planned, striven for, achieved, shaped purposively and deliberately, we call culture. What grows freely from the soil without any demands upon human labor is a natural product; but what takes shape only by the intervention of human labor is an artifact or culture-product. By pursuing conscious purposes and by a developed system of adapting these purposes to available means human effort controls the unconsciously adaptive creative activity of nature. By means of tools, which men as an imitative being makes in the approximate likeness of his own members, and with the help of institutions and labor-saving devices which he has invented, man speeds up the monotonous, tedious course of natural processes, and makes them serve his own ends. The type of the natural status is, therefore: mastery of man by his environment; the essence of the cultural status, on the other hand, is: mastery of his environment by man.2

This definition of the concept is simple and clear; it has the further advantage that it simply presents the relation between nature and culture without setting up and express opposition between them. This is important; for if one holds the view that man also is only a part of nature, one of its creatures who stands neither above it nor outside it, then neither does his work fall outside the general frame of nature, whether we call it culture, civilization, or something else. Viewed thus, culture is only a special manifestation of nature, and its beginning is linked with the appearance of man upon earth. His history is the history of culture in its manifold gradations; and yet he belongs, like every other being, to the same totality of things that we call nature. It is culture that assures him of his place in the great realm of Nature, who is his mother also. Of course, one can speak only of a relative mastery of nature by man, for even the most advanced culture is not yet in a position completely to control nature. A tidal wave suffices to destroy his carefully build dams, to drown his planted fields, and to send his well-built ships to the bottom of the sea. An earthquake annihilates in a few minutes painful products of a century of creative activity. The progress of culture is therefore only a gradual mastery of nature by man, which with his advancing development becomes ever better planned and surer of its goal without ever becoming absolute.

With this view the artificial distinction that has been set up between "nature peoples" and "culture peoples" disappears. Such a distinction corresponds in no way to actual facts, since there are no tribes or peoples anywhere entirely without a culture. Indeed, Friedrich Ratzel, the actual founder of the anthropo-geographical theory of history, stated, in his Völkerkunde, that there is to be found no essential difference between nature peoples and culture peoples, but merely differences in the degree of their culture, so that one can in reality speak only of culturally poorer and cultural richer peoples.

The different forms of the cultural life have of themselves given rise to certain distinctions, and even though it is hardly possible to draw sharp lines between the separate fields of activity of human culture, still we cannot get along without them, for our brains are so constructed that we can proceed only with the help of the crutches of concepts. So it was the presentation of the purely political history of separate states, whose content was limited almost exclusively to the enumeration of dynasties, the description of wars and conquests and the explanation of the different systems of government, which undoubtedly gave the first impulse to profounder cultural interpretations of history. We came to see that these one-sided presentations by no means exhaust the unlimited abundance of cultural events but rather make indecent display of their most unfruitful aspect. For, just as the forces of nature are not all of service for human purposes, so also, not all the occurrences in the social environment man has built up further his higher development. Some of them, in fact, operate as dangerous obstacles to this development.

Even slavery and despotism are manifestations of the general cultural movement; for they, too, represent a conscious attack on the natural course of things. But these are in the last analysis only defects of social culture, and their disastrous effects are brought more and more clearly to the consciousness of man in the course of his history. The long list of social upheavals and the uncounted uprisings against old and new systems of rulership bear witness to this. As man continually strives to impart to his natural environment more and more of his own character, his own development impels him in ever increasing measure to eliminate the evils of his social environment, to advance the intellectual development of his species and to lead it toward ever higher perfection. It is the essential core of all culture that man does not submit blindly to the rough caprice of natural processes, but struggles against them in order to shape his fate by his own standards; so he will some day break those chains which he forged for himself while ignorance and superstition still interfered with his freer insight. The farther his mind forces its way along the winding road of his social evolution, the broader become the purposes he holds before him, the more consciously and insistently will he try to influence the course of this evolution and to make all social occurrences serve the higher ends of culture.

Thus we advance, urged by an inner longing and spurred on by the influence of the social institutions under which we live, toward a social culture which will no longer know any form of exploitation or slavery. And this coming culture will work the more beneficently the more clearly its representatives recognize in the personal freedom of the individual and the union of all in the solidaric bonds of a sense of social justice the mainspring of their social activity. Freedom, not in the abstract sense of social activity. Freedom, not in the abstract sense of Hegel, but conceived as a practical possibility which guarantees to every member of society that he may develop to the fullest all those powers, talents and capacities with which nature has endowed him, without hindrance by authoritative compulsion and the inevitable effects of an ideology of brute force! Freedom of the person on the basis of economic and social justice! Only by this is man offered the possibility of bringing to full flower that consciousness of his personal responsibility which is the firm foundation of each and every freedom, and of developing the vital sense of his unity with his own kind to a stage where the wishes and desires of the individual spring from the depths of his social feeling.

Just as in nature the brutal struggle for existence that is fought out with tooth and claw is not the only mode of maintaining life; just as along with this crude manifestation another and much more involved form of the struggle for existence is in operation which finds expression in the social banding together of the weaker genera and in their practical rendering of mutual aid; so also in culture are manifested different forms of human activities which employ the more primitive or the finer traits of man. And just as in nature that second type of struggle for existence is far more effective in preserving the individual and the race than the brutal war of the so-called "strong" against the "weak"—a fact which is shown satisfactorily by the astounding retrogression of those species which have no social life and in their struggle with the environment have to rely merely on physical superiority3--so also in the social life of mankind the higher forms of moral and intellectual development slowly achieve victory over the brute forces of political forms of rulership, which have thus far only served to cripple every higher cultural development.

We are led to conclude, then, that if culture is simply a constant subduing by man of the primitive processes of nature, and the political endeavors within the social structure which throughout his life circumscribe man and subject his creative activities to the external compulsion of rigid forms, then it is in its essence everywhere the same despite the ever increasing number and the endless diversity of its special forms of expression. Then the notion of the alleged existence of purely national cultures, each of which constitutes by itself a closed whole and carries within itself in common with life's realities. The universal which lies at the foundation of all cultures is infinitely more important than the difference in their outer forms, which are for the most part determined by the environment. For every culture springs from the same urge and strives consistently toward the same goal. Everywhere it begins at first as a civilizing force enables man to satisfy his essential needs more easily and with less interference. Later there grows out of it quite spontaneously the aspiration for worthier organization and loftier spirit in social and individual life that is deeply rooted in the social sentiment of man and must be regarded as the driving force in every higher culture. If one wishes to get a clear picture of the relations and closer connections of the various groups of human beings with this thing we call culture he might make use of this comparison:

Over the broad surface of the ocean the sun unceasingly draws up watery vapors to the skies. Clouds form, and float, wind-driven, to the land where they discharge their garnered fullness and fall to earth as fruitful rain. By millions the raindrops hide themselves within the bosom of the earth, and then from countless springs gush, laughing, out again upon its surface. Rivulets are formed, cut through the land in every direction, swell to a brook, a river. The river rolls its floods down again circuit has gone on with irresistible certainly, unchanging; and it will continue unbroken sequence as long as the cosmic conditions of our solar system themselves endure unchanged.

It is not different with the cultural work of peoples, with every creative activity of the individual. What we in general designate as culture is at bottom only a great all-embracing unity of the "Occurring," which is gripped by a restless, uninterrupted transforming and makes itself apparent in countless forms and structures. Always and everywhere the same creative urge is hungry for action; only the mode of expression differs and is adapted to the environment. Just as every spring, every brook, every river is in its depths allied to the sea, into whose tides it ever pours itself anew, so also is every separate culture cycle only part of the same all-embracing unity, from which it draws its deepest and most original forces and into whose lap its own creative work always falls again at last. Like the brooks and rivers are all the culture forms that through the millennia have followed one another or have existed side by side. They are all rooted in the same primitive soil, to which they are in their depth allied as are the waters to the sea.

Cultural reconstructions and social stimulation always occur when different peoples and races come into closer union. Every new culture is begun by such a fusion of different folk elements and takes its special shape from this. This is quite natural, for only through outside influences do those new needs, those new understandings arise which constantly struggle for expression in every field of cultural activity. The desire to preserve the "purity of the culture" of a people y the deliberate elimination of foreign influences—a notion which is today advocated with great zeal by extreme nationalists and adherents of the race doctrine—is just as unnatural as it is futile, and merely shows that these peculiar fanatics for cultural autonomy have not understood at all the profound significance of the cultural process. Such distorted ideas have about the same meaning as saying to a man that he can attain to the highest state of manhood only if he eliminates woman from his life. The result would be the same in both cases.

New life arises only from the union of man with woman. Just so a culture is born or fertilized only by the circulation of fresh blood in the veins of its representatives. Just as the child results from the mating so new culture forms arise from the mutual fertilization of different peoples and their spiritual sympathy with foreign achievements and capacities. One needs a strong dose of mental short-sightedness to dream of withdrawing an entire country from the spiritual influences of the wider cultural circle to which it belongs, especially today when peoples are more than ever bent on the mutual enlargement of their cultural aspirations.

But even if the possibility existed, such a people would not experience an uplift in their cultural life, as the exponents of cultural autonomy so strangely exist. All experience indicates rather that such inbreeding would lead inevitably to a general stunting, to a slow extinction of a culture. In this respect it is with peoples as it is with persons. How poorly that man would fare who in his cultural development had to rely entirely on the creations of his own people! This quite apart from the fact that it is utterly useless to talk of such a possibility, since even the wisest is in no position to say which among the cultural possessions of a people they actually worked out for themselves and which they took over in one form or another from others. The inner culture of a man grows just in the measure that he develops an ability to appropriate the achievements of other peoples and enrich his mind with them. The more easily he is able to do this the better it is for his mental culture, the greater right he has to the title, man of culture. He immerses himself in the gentle wisdom of Lao-tse and rejoices in the beauty of the Vedic poems. Before his mind unfold the wonder-tales of the Thousand and One Nights, and with inner rapture he drinks in the sayings of the wine-loving Omar Khayyam or the majestic strophes of Firdusi. His soul absorbs the profundities of the Book of Job and swings in rhythm with the Iliad. He laughs with Aristophanes, weeps with Sophocles, reads with enjoyment the humorous incidents of the Golden Ass of Apuleius, and hears with interest Petronius' portrayal of conditions in declining Rome. With Maistre Rabelais he treads the tastefully decorated halls of the happy Abbey of Thélème and with François Villon he wanders past the Ravenstone. He tries to fathom the soul of Hamlet and rejoices in Don Quixote's lust for deeds. He presses through the terrors of Dante's Hell and grieves with Milton for the lost Paradise. In one word, he is everywhere at home, and therefore known better how to value the charm of his own homeland. With unprejudiced eye he searches the cultural possessions of all peoples and so perceives more clearly the strong unity of all mental processes. And of these possessions no one can rob him; they are outside the jurisdiction of the government and are not subject to the will of the mighty ones of the earth. The legislator may be in a position to close the gates of his country to the stranger, but he cannot keep him from making his demands upon the treasure of the people, its mental culture, with the same assurance as any native.

Here is the point at which the preponderant importance of culture over any political-national frontier-fixing reveals itself most clearly. Culture unlooses the shackles that the theological spirit of politics has fastened on the peoples. In this sense it is in its deepest essence revolutionary. We indulge in profound reflections about the evanescence of all existence and demonstrate that all the great kingdoms which have played a world-commanding role in history were irrevocably doomed to downfall as soon as they had attained the highest peak of their culture A number of well known historians have even maintained that we have to do here with the inevitable operation of a definite law, to which all historic process is subject. But really the fact that the decline or downfall of a kingdom is not in any way equivalent to the decline of a culture should indicate to us where the actual causes of the downfall are to be sought. A political rulership can go down without leaving behind a trace of its former existence; with a culture it is quite otherwise. IT can, as it were, wither in a country where it has been disturbed in its natural growth. In this event it looks for new possibilities of development outside its old circle of operation, gradually enters upon new fields and fertilizes there germs that were in a sense waiting for fertilization. Thus there arise new forms of the cultural process, which doubtless differ from the old, but nevertheless carry in them its creative forces. Macedonian and Roman conquerors could put an end to the political independence of the tiny Greek city-republics; they could not prevent the transplanting of Greek culture deep in Inner Asia, its growth to new bloom in Egypt, nor its intellectual vitalizing of Rome herself.

This is the reason why peoples of less developed culture could never actually bring under subjection peoples of higher cultural status even when they far excelled them in military strength. It is possible to completely subjugate only very small populations which because of their numerical weakness could be easily ground down; so to subdue any larger people which has been welded together in the course or many centuries by a common culture is unthinkable. The Mongols could easily deal with the Chinese militarily; they were even in a position to set up a man of their tribe as a despot of the Celestial Kingdom; but they had not the slightest influence on the inner structure of the social and cultural life of the Chinese peoples, whose distinctive customs were hardly disturbed by the invasion. On the other hand, the primitive culture of the Mongols could not hold out against the much older and immeasurable finer culture of the Chinese, and was in fact, so completely absorbed by it that it left not a trace behind. Two hundred years sufficed to transform the Mongolian invaders into Chinese. The higher culture of the "conquered" proved itself stronger and more effective than the brutal military power of the "conquerors."

And how often was the Apennine Peninsula, the present Italy, overrun or quite inundated by foreign tribes. From the times of the migrations of peoples to the invasion by the French under Charles VIII and Francis I, Italy was the constant object of attack by countless tribes and populations whom ancient yearning and, above all, the prospect of rich booty, drew southward. Cimbri and Teutons, Lombards and Goths, Huns and Vandals, and dozens of other tribes rolled their rude troops through the fertile vales of the peninsula, whose inhabitants suffered severely from the continuous invasions. But even the most powerful and the cruelest of the conquerors succumbed to the higher culture of the country, even though they opposed it at first with outspoken hostility or contemptuous disdain. 4 They were all gradually drawn into it and compelled to new ways of living. Their native strength has merely served to bring to that ancient culture new vitalizing factors and to fill its veins with their fresh blood.

History knows many similar instances. They serve repeatedly to demonstrate the infinite superiority of cultural processes over the pitiful stupidity of political endeavors. All efforts of conquering states to assimilate the population of new-won territories by the brutal exercise of power—suppression of the native language, forcible interference with traditional institutions, and so on—have been vain; more than that, in most instances, their effect has been just the opposite of what the conqueror sought to accomplish. England has never been able to win the loyalty of the Irish; her violent treatment has only deepened and widened the abyss that separates the two peoples and increased Irish hatred of the English. The "Germanizing efforts" of the Prussian government in Poland made the lives of the Poles more difficult and bitter, but they were not able to change their temper or make them friendlier to the Germans. Today we behold the fruits of this senseless policy. The Russifying policy of the tsarist government in the Baltic provinces led to shameful outrages against human dignity, but it brought the people no closer to Russia and was of profit chiefly to the resident German barons whose brutal exploitation of the masses it greatly furthered. The supporters of imperial policy in Germany might persuade themselves that they could win the affection of the Alsatians for Germanism by their "dictatorial decrees," but, although the people were German both in language and customs, Germany failed to achieve that end. Just as little will the present efforts of the French at assimilation in Alsace be able to instill into the inhabitants a love for France. Almost every great state has within its borders national minorities which it treats in this manner; the result is everywhere the same. Love and loyalty cannot be compelled, they have to be earned; and force and suppression are the least fitting means to this end. The national-suppression policy of the great states before the War developed in the suppressed nationalities an extreme nationalism which finds expression today in the according by the new-made states of the same treatment to their national minorities which, as national minorities, they themselves once received—a phenomenon showing all too clearly that little states follow in the footsteps of great ones and imitate their practices.

We can just as little convert a people by force to alien morals, customs and modes of thought as we can force a man into the frame of an alien individuality. A fusion of different tribes and racial elements is possible only in the realm of culture, because here no external compulsion arises, only an inner need, to meet which every member makes its special contribution. Culture rests neither on brute force nor on blind faith in authority; its effectiveness if based on the free acceptance of all that has resulted from collaborative efforts for spiritual and material welfare. The decisive matter here is the natural need, not the blind edict from above. For this reason, in all the great epochs, culture has marched hand in hand with the voluntary union and fusion of different human groups; in fact, these two factors are mutually necessary. Only voluntary determination which in most cases arises quite unconsciously is able to unite men of different descent in their cultural efforts and in this way to produce new forms of culture.

Here the situation is the same as it is with the individual. When I take up the work of a strange author who reveals new things to me and arouses my mind no one compels me to read the book or to appropriate its ideas. It is merely the mental influence that affects me and that will perhaps later be erased by influences of another kind. Nothing compels me to make a decision that is repugnant to my inmost nature and does violence to my mind. I appropriate the alien matter because it brings me pleasure and becomes a part of my spiritual being; I assimilate myself to it until at last there is no boundary between myself and the alien matter. It is in this way that all cultural and mental occurrences are brought about.

And this natural, unforced assimilation goes on without any oversight, without any evident analysis, because it grows out of the personal requirements of the individual and corresponds to his mental and spiritual experiences. Any cultural process goes on the more peacefully and with less friction, the less political motives are in evidence; for politics and culture are opposites which can never be fundamentally reconciled. They are striving in different directions, always widely divergent; their allegiance is to different worlds.


1Psychologie der Zusammenhånge und Begebenheiten. Berlin, 1921.

2Die Anfånge der menschlichen Kultur, Leipzig, p. 2.

3Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid, a Factor of Evolution.

4Thus Procopius tellsus in his story of the wars of the Goths and Vandals of a significant utterance of Luitprand: "When we wish to insult an enemy in public and hold him up to scorn, we call him a Roman." The Germanic tribes were especially hostile to all instruction and educative influence because, in the opinion of Procopius, they saw in these the enervation of their warlike activities.

To Chapter 3
To Chapter 5
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