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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Marxism of the Bolshevik-Leninist persuasion is an
extreme voluntaristic revision of the Social-Democratic
variety that flourished in the period from the death
of Marx (1883) to the outbreak of the First World War
in 1914. The fact that it claims for itself the orthodoxy
of the canonic tradition has about the same significance
as the claims of Protestant leaders that they were
returning to the orthodoxy of early Christianity. Even
before the First World War, in Tsarist Russia the Bol-
shevik faction of the Russian Social-Democratic move-
ment had taken positions that evoked charges from its
opponents that the leaders of the group were disciples
of Bakunin and Blanqui, rather than of Marx and
Engels. Their voluntarism, especially in its orga-
nizational bearings, received a classic expression in
Lenin's work What Is To Be Done? (1902). But the
emergence of Bolshevik-Leninism as a systematic re-
construction of traditional Marxism was stimulated by
the failure of the Social-Democratic movement to resist
the outbreak of the First World War, and the disregard
of the Basel Resolutions (1912) of the Second Interna-
tional to call a general strike; by the Bolshevik seizure
of power in the October Russian Revolution of 1917
and the consequent necessity of justifying that and
subsequent events in Marxist terms; by the accession
of Stalin to the supreme dictatorial post in the Soviet
Union; and, finally, by the adoption of the systematic
policy of building socialism in one country (the Soviet
Union) marked by the collectivization of agricul-
ture—in some ways a more revolutionary measure, and
in all ways a bloodier and more terroristic one, than
the October Revolution itself. The chief prophet of
Marxist-Leninism was Stalin, and the doctrine bears
the stigmata of his power and personality. Until his
death in 1953, he played the same role in determining
what the correct Marxist line was in politics, as well
as in all fields of the arts and sciences, as the Pope
of Rome in laying down the Catholic line in the do-
mains of faith and morals. Although Stalin made no
claim to theoretical infallibility, he exercised supreme
authority to a point where disagreement with him on
any controversial matter of moment might spell death.

The Bolshevik-Leninist version of Marxism got a
hearing outside Russia, at first not in virtue of its doc-
trines, but because of its intransigeant opposition to
the First World War. The Social-Democratic version
of Marxism was attacked as a “rationalization” of po-
litical passivity, particularly for its failure to resist the
war actively. Actually there was no necessary connec-
tion between the deterministic outlook of Social De-
mocracy and political passivity, since its electoral suc-
cesses were an expression of widespread political
activity albeit of a non-revolutionary sort. Further, not
only did some Social-Democratic determinists with a
belief in the spontaneity of mass action, like Rosa
Luxemburg, oppose the war, but even Eduard Bern-
stein, the non-revolutionary revisionist, who ardently
believed that German Social Democracy should trans-
form itself into a party of social reform, took a strong
stand against the War. The attitude of Social Democ-
racy to the First World War in most countries was more
a tribute to the strength of its nationalism than a
corollary of its belief in determinism. Nonetheless, the
Bolsheviks on the strength of their anti-war position
were able to insinuate doubts among some working-
class groups, not only about the courage and loyalty
to internationalist ideals of Social-Democratic parties,
but about their Marxist faith and socialist convictions.

After the Bolshevik Party seized power in October
1917 and then forcibly dissolved the democratically
elected Constituent Assembly, whose delayed convo-
cation had been one of the grounds offered by that
Party for the October putsch, and in which they were
a small minority (19%), it faced the universal condem-
nation of the Social-Democratic Parties affiliated with
the Second Socialist International. In replying to these
criticisms Lenin laid down the outlines of a more
voluntaristic Marxism, that affected the meaning and
emphasis of the complex of doctrines of traditional


Marxism, especially its democratic commitments, in a
fundamental way.

Finally with Lenin's death and the destruction of
intra-party factions, which had preserved some vestig-
ial traits of democratic dissent, the necessity of con-
trolling public opinion in all fields led to the trans-
formation of Marxism into a state philosophy enforced
by the introduction of required courses in dialectical
materialism and Marxist-Leninism on appropriate
educational levels. Heretical ideas in any field ulti-
mately fell within the purview of interest of the secret
police. Censorship, open and veiled, enforced by a
variety of carrots and whips, pervaded the whole of
cultural life.

As a state philosophy Marxist-Leninism is marked
by several important features that for purposes of
expository convenience may be contrasted with earlier
Social-Democratic forms of Marxist belief.

1. Marxism became an all-inclusive system in which
its social philosophy was presented as an application
and expression of the ontological laws of a universal
and objective dialectic. During the heyday of Social-
Democratic Marxism, the larger philosophical impli-
cations and presuppositions of its social philosophy
were left undeveloped. So long as the specific party
program of social action was not attacked, the widest
tolerance was extended to philosophical and theolog-
ical views. There was no objection even to the belief
that God was a Social Democrat. Social Democrats,
without losing their good standing within their move-
ment, could be positivists, Kantians, Hegelians,
mechanistic materialists, even, as in the case of Karl
Liebknecht, subjectivists of a sort in their epistemology.

All this changed with the development and spread
of Marxist-Leninism. The works of Engels, particularly
his Anti-Dühring and Dialectics of Nature, of Lenin's
Materialism and Empirio-Criticism and Notebooks, and
subsequently, those of Stalin, became the sacred texts
of a comprehensive system of dialectical materialism,
devoted to explaining “the laws of motion in nature,
society and mind.” The details of the system and its
inadequacies need not detain us here (Hook, 1941;
1959), but what it professed to prove was that the laws
of dialectic guaranteed the victory of communist soci-
ety, that no one could consistently subscribe to the
ontology of dialectical materialism without being a
communist and, more fateful, that no one could be a
communist or a believer in communist society without
being a dialectical materialist.

The comprehensiveness of this state philosophy re-
sulted in a far flung net of new orthodox dogma being
thrown over all fields from astronomy to zoology, the
development of what was in effect a two-truth theory,
ordinary scientific truth and the higher dialectical truth
which corrected the one-sidedness of the former, and
political control of art and science. All communist
parties affiliated with the Third Communist Interna-
tional were required to follow the lead of the Russian
Communist Party. The literalness of the new orthodoxy
is evidenced in the fact that the antiquated anthropo-
logical view of Engels and its primitive social evolu-
tionism, based upon the findings of Lewis Morgan's
pioneer work, Ancient Society (1877; 1959), were re-
vived and aggressively defended against the criticisms
of Franz Boas, Alexander Goldenweiser, Robert Lowie,
and other investigators who, without any discredit to
Morgan's pioneer effort, had cited mountains of evi-
dence to show that social evolution was neither uni-
versal, unilinear, automatic, or progressive. Oddly
enough the acceptance of the Engels-Morgan theory
of social evolution, according to which no country can
skip any important phase in its industrial development,
would be hard to reconcile with the voluntarism of
Bolshevik-Leninism, which transformed Russia from a
backward capitalist country with strong feudal vestiges
into a highly complex and modern industrial socialist

Reasoning from the dubious view that all things were
dialectically interrelated, and the still more dubious
view that a mistaken view in any field ultimately led
to a mistaken view in every other field, including
politics, and assuming that the party of Bolshevik-
Leninism was in possession of the truth in politics, and
that this therefore gave it the authority to judge the
truth of any position in the arts and sciences in the
light of its alleged political consequences, a continuous
purge of ideas and persons, in accordance with the
shifting political lines, marks the intellectual history
of the Soviet Union. Here, as often elsewhere in the
world, theoretical absurdities prepared the way for the
moral atrocities whose pervasiveness and horror were
officially partly revealed in N. Khrushchev's speech
before the XXth Congress of the Russian Communist
Party in 1956. Most of what Khrushchev revealed was
already known in the West through the publications
of escapees and defectors from the Soviet Union, and
the publications of Commissions of Inquiry into the
Truth of the Moscow Trials, headed by John Dewey.

1. The theory of historical materialism was invoked
by all the socialist and Marxist critics of Bolshevik-
Leninism since, if it were valid, a prima facie case
could be made against Lenin and his followers for
attempting to skip a stage of industrial development
and introduce socialism in a backward country. Lenin
and Trotsky in consequence reinterpreted the theory
by asserting that the world economy had to be treated
as a whole, that the world was already prepared for
socialism as a result of modern science, technology,


and industry, and that the political revolution could
break out at the weakest link in the world economic
system as a whole. This would serve as a spark that
would set the more advanced industrial countries like
England, the USA, and Germany into revolutionary
motion (places where Marx and Engels had expected
socialism originally to come). This meant, of course,
that the theory of historical materialism could no
longer explain the specific political act of revolution,
since on the theory of the weakest link, a political
revolution by a Marxist party anywhere in the world,
even in the Congo, could trigger off the world socialist

On the theory of the weakest link, after the political
revolution successfully took its course and spread to
other countries, the world socialist revolution, marked
by the socialization of affluence, would be initiated by
advanced industrial countries, with Russia and China
once more bringing up the rear because of their primi-
tive economies. But they would be the last in a socialist
world, and only temporarily, until the world socialist
economy was established and strategic goods and
sources flowed to areas of greatest human need.

When the theory of the “weakest link” led in prac-
tice to the fact of a severed or isolated link, in conse-
quence of the failure of the October Russian Revolution
to inspire socialist revolutions in the West, the program
of “building socialism in one country” was adopted.
The attempt to build socialism in one country—and
in a bankrupt, war-torn, poverty-stricken country at
that—flew in the face of any reasonable interpretation
of historical materialism. Nonetheless, by a combina-
tion of great courage, and still greater determination
and ruthlessness, and aided by the ineptitude of their
political opponents, the Bolshevik-Leninists succeeded
in doing what the theory of historical materialism
declared impossible. There is no doubt but that a new
economy had been constructed by political means.
Despite this, however, the theory that the economic
base determines politics and not vice versa is still ca-
nonic doctrine in all communist countries.

2. In expectation of the socialist revolution occur-
ring in the highly industrialized countries of the West,
the theorists of Marxist-Leninism have clung to the
letter of Marx's critique of capitalism and his predic-
tions. For decades they have painted a picture of mass
misery and starvation in the West. They have denied
that capitalism has been modified in any significant way
and that the Welfare State exploits the workers any
less than the more individualistic economies it re-
placed. On the contrary, their claim is that economi-
cally the rich get richer, and the poor become poorer—
and the rest is bourgeois propaganda.

3. The concept of “class” has been quite trouble-
some to Marxist-Leninism particularly with Stalin's
declaration that a “classless” society had been intro-
duced in the Soviet Union with the adoption of its new
constitution of 1936. If the concept of “proletariat”
or “working class” is a polar one it implies, when
concretely used, a “capitalist class.” But if capitalism
is abolished and all social ownership is vested in the
community, who or which is the exploiting class? On
a functional conception of property, viz., the legal
right or power to exclude others from the use of things
and services in which property is claimed, critics have
argued that the social property of the Soviet Union
in effect belongs to the Communist Party considered
as a corporate body. And although there is no right
to individual testamentary transmission, so long as the
Communist Party enjoys the privileged position as-
signed to it in the Soviet Constitution, in effect, one
set of leaders, in the name of the Party, inherits the
power over social property from its predecessors, and
the differential use and privileges that power bestows.
Milovan Djilas, in his The New Class... (1957), on
the basis of his study and experience in Yugoslavia and
the Soviet Union argued that in current communist
societies the bureaucracy constituted a ruling elite
enjoying social privileges which justified calling it a
“class.” Subsequently other writers claimed that divi-
sions and conflicts within the ruling elite presented a
picture of greater class complexity (Albert Parry, The
New Class Divided,
1966). It is obvious that the
Marxist-Leninist concept of class cannot do justice to
the Soviet, not to speak of the Chinese experience, in
which peasants are often referred to as proletariat in
order to give some semblance of sense to the termi-
nological Marxist pieties of the Communist Party.

Actually the position of the worker is unique in the
Soviet Union, in that it corresponds neither to the
“association of free producers,” envisaged by Marx nor
to “the Soviet democracy” used by Lenin as a slogan
to come to power. Nor is it like the position of the
workers in modern capitalist societies, since the Soviet
workers cannot organize free trade unions independent
of the state, cannot without punitive risk leave their
jobs, cannot travel without a passport and official per-
mission, and cannot appeal to an independent judiciary
if they run afoul of the authorities. Oscar Lange, the
Polish communist economist, before his return to
Poland, and while he was still a left-wing Socialist,
characterized the Soviet economy as “an industrial
serfdom” with the workers in the role of modern serfs.
Like the phrases “state capitalism” and “state social-
ism,” which have also been applied to the Soviet
Union, this indicates that present-day communist eco-
nomics and class relationships require a new set of
economic and political categories to do justice to them.


Nonetheless, that its economy is distinctive, although
sharing some of the features of classical capitalism and
classical socialism, is undeniable.

4. Even more embarrassing is the nature of the state
in the Marxist-Leninist theory. If the state is by defini-
tion “the executive committee of the ruling class,” then
as classes disappear the state weakens and finally
withers away. But since the Soviet Union is declared
to be a classless society, how account for the existence
of the state, which instead of withering away has be-
come stronger and stronger? The conventional reply
under Stalin was that so long as socialism existed within
one country, which was encircled by hungry capitalist
powers intent upon its dismemberment, the state func-
tioned primarily as the guardian of national integrity.
This failed to explain the regime of domestic terror,
and a concentration camp economy, worse than any-
thing that existed in Tsarist days. Furthermore as com-
munism spread, and the Soviet Union became no longer
encircled by capitalist nations but emerged as co-equal
in nuclear power to the West, more threatening to than
threatened by the countries adjoining it, the state
showed no signs of weakening. Although the domestic
terror abated somewhat under Khrushchev, it still re-
mains, after fifty years of rule, much stronger than it
was under Lenin, before the Soviet Union consolidated
its power.

Theoretically, the Soviet Union is a federal union
of autonomous socialist republics which theoretically
possess complete ethnic and national equality and with
the right of secession from the Union guaranteed. In
fact, it is a monolithic state that can establish or destroy
its affiliated republics at will, and in which some ethnic
minorities have been persecuted and subjected to se-
vere discrimination.

5. The economy of the Soviet Union has remained
a highly centralized, planned, and planning economy,
primarily a command economy, functioning best in
time of war and largely indifferent to the needs and
demands of the consumer. The result has been the
transformation within a period of fifty years of an
agricultural economy into a great, modern industrial
economy. The human costs in bloodshed and suffering
of this transformation have been incalculable. The
excessive centralization has led to inefficiency and
waste, the development of a hidden market, and other
abuses. To supplement the controlled economy's efforts
to take care of consumers' needs, the state has tolerated
a private sector in which goods and services are sold
or exchanged for profit. Under the influence of E. G.
Liberman and other economic reformers, some tenta-
tive steps have been taken to decentralize, and to
introduce the concept of net profit in state enterprises
in order to provide incentives and increase efficiency.
Greeted as a return to capitalistic principles, it over-
looks the limited function of profit as conceived in a
socialist economy, in which prices are still controlled
by the central planning authority.

What these and similar reforms do that is difficult
to square with the theory of Marxist-Leninism is to
increase the power of the plant manager over the
workers, and to differentiate even further the incomes
received. Because of differences created by advances
in technology, comparisons in standards of living are
difficult to make between different historical periods.
With respect to per capita consumption of the material
necessities of life, the workers in most of the advanced
industrial economies today seem to enjoy, without the
sacrifice of their freedoms, a substantially higher
standard of living than the workers of the Soviet Union.
But there is nothing in the structure of the socialist
economy which makes it impossible to equal and even
surpass the standards of living of workers in capitalist
countries. An economy that can put a Sputnik in the
sky before other industrial societies, can probably out-
produce them, if the decision is made to do so, in the
production of refrigerators or television sets. The major
differences lie not in what and how much is produced,
but in the freedom to choose the system of production
under which to live.

6. This brings us to the major Bolshevik-Leninist
revision of the Marxism of the Social-Democratic
variety—viz., the abandonment of its commitment to
democracy as a system of social organization, as a
theory of the political process including political orga-
nization, and, finally, as the high road to socialism.

Until the October Russian Revolution, the phrase
“the dictatorship of the proletariat” was rarely used
in Marxist literature. Marx himself used the term very
infrequently, and Engels pointed to the Paris Com-
mune of 1871, in which Marx's group was a tiny mi-
nority, as an illustration of what the phrase meant.
Even those who spoke of the “dictatorship of the
proletariat” meant by it the class rule of the workers,
presumably the majority of the population, which
would democratically enact laws introducing the so-
cialist society. That is what Engels meant when he
wrote in 1891 that the democratic republic was “the
specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat”
(Marx and Engels, Correspondence 1846-1895, New
York [1936], p. 486). Marx and Engels also anticipated
that the transition to socialism would be peaceful
where democratic political institutions had developed
that gave the workers the franchise. Force would be
employed only to suppress armed rebellion of unrec-
onciled minorities against the mandate of the majority.

The Marxist-Leninist version of “the dictatorship of
the proletariat” is that it is substantially “the dictator-


ship of the Communist Party,” which means not only
a dictatorship over the bourgeoisie but over the prole-
tariat as well. The Paris Commune on this view is not
really a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” The dictator-
ship of the Communist Party entailed that no other
political parties, not even other working-class parties,
would be tolerated if they did not accept the Leninist
line. It meant that there could be no legally recognized
opposition of any kind. For as Lenin put it, “Dictator-
ship is power based directly upon force, and unre-
stricted by any laws,” and again “dictatorship means
neither more nor less than unlimited power, resting
directly on force, not limited by anything, not re-
stricted by any laws, nor any absolute rules” (Selected
VII, 123).

This whole conception is based frankly on the as-
sumption that armed by the insights of Marxist-Lenin-
ism, the Communist Party knows better what the true
interests of the working class are than the workers
know themselves; that it cannot give the workers their
head but must, if necessary, restrain or compel them
for their own good. Thus Lenin proclaimed “All power
to the Soviets,” the organs of the Russian workers and
peasants after 1917, when he anticipated that they
would follow the Communist (Bolshevik) Party line,
but this slogan was abandoned and even opposed when
there was fear the Soviets would not accept the Com-
munist Party dictatorship. This view of the dictatorship
of the Party is central to all Marxist-Leninist parties.
Thus the Hungarian communist premier, Jan Kadar,
in his speech before the Hungarian National Assembly
on May 11, 1957, justifying the suppression by the Red
Army of the Hungarian workers in the Budapest upris-
ing of 1956, makes a distinction between “the wishes
and will of the working masses” and “the interests
of the workers. The Communist Party, knowing the
true interests of the workers and having these interests
at heart, is therefore justified in opposing the wishes
and will of the masses. This is the Leninist version of
Rousseau's doctrine that the people “must be forced
to be free.”

The antidemocratic conception of the political party
actually preceded the transformation of the dictator-
ship of the proletariat into the dictatorship of the party
over the proletariat. Logically the two ideas are inde-
pendent, since a hierarchically organized party could
accept the democratic process as providing an oppor-
tunity for coming to power legitimately. The Social-
Democratic conception of party organization made it
a very loose-jointed affair. Marx and Engels actually
assumed that in the course of its economic struggles,
the working class spontaneously would develop the
organizational instrumentalities necessary to win the
battle. Lenin, on the other hand, thought of the politi
cal party as an engineer of revolution, spurring on,
teaching, even lashing the working class into revolu-
tionary political consciousness.

The political party structure devised by Lenin owes
more probably to the fact that the socialist parties
were underground and had to work illegally in Russia
than it does to Marxist theory. The theory of “demo-
cratic centralism” was really better adapted for a re-
sistance movement than for political democratic proc-
ess. Nonetheless all of the many Communist Parties
associated with the Communist International were
compelled to adopt that theory as a condition for
affiliation. The Central Committee of the Party was
the chief organizing center, the final link in a chain
of command that extended down to the party cells.
The Central Committee had the power to co-opt and
reject delegates to the Party Congress which nominally
was the source of authority for the Central Committee.
Because of its access to party funds, lists, periodicals,
and control of organizers, the leadership of the “demo-
cratic centralized” party tended to be self-perpetuat-
ing. Certain maneuvers or coups from the top would
bring one faction or another to the fore, but no broad-
based movement of member opposition was possible.
Until Stalin's death changes in the leadership of Com-
munist Parties outside of the Soviet Union occurred
only as a consequence of the intervention of the Russian
Communist Party acting through representatives of the
Communist International. Thus, to cite a typical ex-
ample, the leadership of the American Communist
Party which claimed to have the support of 93% of
the rank and file was dismissed by Stalin in 1928, and
the new leadership of W. Z. Foster and Earl Browder
appointed. The processes of “democratic centralism”
then legitimized the change. After the Second World
War, Browder, based on the ostensibly unanimous sup-
port of the party membership, was unceremoniously
cashiered as leader by signals communicated by
Jacques Duclos of the French Communist Party at the
instigation of the Kremlin.

There have been some developments in the theory
and practice of Marxist-Leninism of the first political
importance. Lenin and Stalin both believed that the
capitalist countries were doomed to break down in a
universal crisis; that because of their system of produc-
tion they must expand or die, and that before they died,
they would resort to all-out war against the Soviet
Union. The classic statement of this view was Lenin's
declaration of November 20, 1920, repeated in subse-
quent editions of his and Stalin's writings:

“As long as capitalism and socialism exist, we cannot
live in peace; in the end one or the other will tri-
umph—a funeral dirge will be sung over the Soviet
Republic or over World Capitalism” (Selected Works,


VIII, 297). Despite the hypothetical possibility of a
capitalist triumph, the victory of communism was
declared to be inevitable in consequence of the inevi-
table war for which it was preparing. The Soviet Union
and all its communist allies must consider itself to be
in a state of undeclared defensive war against the
aggression being hatched against it; Communist Parties
abroad must have as their first political priority “The
defence of the Soviet Union”—which sometimes led
to difficulties with workers who struck industrial plants
in capitalist countries manufacturing goods and muni-
tions for the use of the Soviet Union.

The doctrine of the inevitability of armed conflict
between the democratic countries of the West and the
Soviet Union undoubtedly played an important role
in Stalin's war and postwar policy. Even though Great
Britain and the United States were loyal allies in the
struggle against Hitler, the war had to be fought with
an eye on their capacity for the subsequent struggle
against the Soviet Union. This led to an extensive
development of Soviet espionage in allied countries
during, and especially after, the war; the expansion of
Soviet frontiers; the establishment of a communist
regime by the Red Army in adjoining territories; and
a political strategy designed to split the Western alli-
ance. Although aware of the development of nuclear
weapons, Stalin was skeptical about their capacity for
wholesale destruction, and remained steadfast in his
belief in the inevitable victory of communism through
inevitable war.

Nikita Krushchev, who by outmaneuvering Bul-
ganin, Malenkov, and Beria, succeeded Stalin, had
a far greater respect for the potential holocaust in-
volved in nuclear war. Although he spurred on the
development of Soviet nuclear power, he revived the
notion of “peaceful coexistence,” a theme originally
propounded by Lenin in an interview with an Ameri-
can journalist in 1920, and periodically revived for
propaganda purposes since. But what was highly sig-
nificant in Khrushchev's emendation of the doctrine,
was his declaration that although the final victory of
world communism is inevitable, world war was not
inevitable; that it was possible for communism to suc-
ceed without an international civil war. This recog-
nized the relatively independent influence of techno-
logical factors on politics, and created an additional
difficulty for the theory of historical materialism.

The second important political development since
the death of Stalin has been the growth of communist
polycentrism, and the emergence of Communist China
as a challenge to Soviet hegemony over the world
communist movement. Communist “polycentrism”
meant the weakening of the centralized control of the
Russian Communist Party over other Communist
Parties, and the gradual assertion of political inde-
pendence in some respects by hitherto Communist
Party satellites. For the first and only time in its history
the American Communist Party officially declared
itself in opposition to Soviet anti-Semitism. After
Khrushchev's speech exposing Stalin's terrorism, it has
become impossible for Communist Parties to resume
the attitude of total compliance to Kremlin demands.
The degree of independence, however, varies from
country to country—the Italian Communist Party
manifesting the most independence and the Bulgarian
Communist Party the least.

The strained relations between Communist Yugo-
slavia and the Soviet Union and especially between
Communist China and the Soviet Union—all invoking
the theory of Marxist-Leninism—are eloquent and iron-
ical evidence that some important social phenomena
cannot be understood through the simple, explanatory
categories of Marxism. After all, war was explained
by Marxists as caused by economic factors directly
related to the mode of economic production. That one
communist power finds itself not only engaged in
military border skirmishes with another, but actually
threatens, if provoked, a war of nuclear annihilation
against its communist brother-nation, as spokesmen of
the Soviet Union did in the summer of 1969, is some-
thing that obviously cannot be explained in terms of
their common modes of economic production. Once
more nationalism is proving to be triumphant over