Multiculturalism? We’ve been here before

By Marcus Hunt


Whether it is welcomed or not, Western Europe is in the midst of a great upheaval driven by immigration, one that poses questions about ethnic and national identities and how the state and civil society should relate to these identities.

It may at times seem as though this upheaval is the first of its kind: that there is nothing to be gleaned from history with which we might infer our future course. Although it is true that the current circumstances of Western Europe are unique, there are in fact some interesting historical parallels to be drawn.

In Austria-Hungary, in the decades prior to the First World War, questions of nationality and how to maintain a cohesive multi-national state were often asked. There were frequent political power struggles between the ethnically distinct provinces: German Austria, Magyar Hungary, Czech Bohemia, Polish Galicia. Moreover, as industrialisation gathered pace, the ethnically German inhabitants of Vienna and other cities were highly aggrieved by the massive influx of Czechs and other Slavic peoples, who fed labour-hungry enterprises and formed new ‘language islands’ amongst them. Debates, which may have some contemporary familiarity, raged about whether Czech children in traditionally German territory should be educated in Czech or German, and to what degree Czech immigrants ought to adopt the habits of their German neighbours.

Of this largely ignored debate, one scholar is still sometimes remembered – the Austrian Marxist Otto Bauer. In his 1907 work ‘Social Democracy and the Nationalities Question’, Bauer examined the origins and nature of nations and nationalism. This makes him something of an exception amongst early socialist thinkers, who believed that the only significant social cleavage was class – and that even to acknowledge national differences and the problems they bred was reactionary. Although Bauer agreed that class division was the most ‘truly’ important social cleavage, given the circumstances of Austria-Hungary at the time he could not ignore the importance that national and ethnic consciousness played in politics and the power it exerted on popular discourse.

Bauer was friendly in principle to the notion of national self-government, but recognised that in the Austro-Hungarian context this was not a possibility due to the highly dispersed nature of the empire’s national groups, due both to the new industrial ‘language islands’ and older myriad scattered villages. He was also concerned that the disintegration of the empire into several nation states would lead to overly assimilationist programmes in the new polities and the abuse of remaining minorities.

He therefore proposed a system of federal government which maximised the autonomy of each ethnic group in the geographical region of its predominance. In order to protect national minorities in each of these jurisdictions he supported the idea that they be ‘constituted as corporations under public law, which, with complete autonomy, provide for the education system of the national minority’.

Bauer’s vision, translated as far as is possible into contemporary circumstances, is an extreme form of multi-culturalism: devolution of political power to nationally distinct regions and the legal classification of each person according to their ethnicity with a corresponding provision of state services by separate ethnically defined institutions.

Whilst the notion of devolving power to the United Kingdom’s constituent nations is popular, Bauer’s latter suggestion is a model which will appeal to few of even the most extreme multi-culturalists. But a study of Bauer and other such political thinkers can be worthwhile for the context they give our own debates and their ability to impress upon us the importance of principles that we merely assume, like our ethnically-blind, undifferentiated and equal citizenship. As it happens, Bauer’s policies were never implemented.

Instead, Austria-Hungary collapsed under the weight of its ethnic differences. Remarkably, two of its successor states – Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia – did the same. These historical cases show that whatever the right response to our own great upheaval is, and whatever sources we draw upon in making it, we need it soon.

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