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Non-historic peoples

Non-historic peoples This term frequently appeared in the German revolutionary Friedrich Engels' discussions of the nationality problem in the Habsburg monarchy during the revolution of 1848-49. Writing in the newspaper he co-edited with Karl Marx, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, Engels divided the nationalities of the empire into "historic" (Germans, Poles, Magyars) and "non-historic" (Czechs, South Slavs, Ukrainians, Slovaks, Transylvanian Romanians and Saxons). He considered the historic nations to be supporters of the all-European revolution, while the non-historic peoples were counter-revolutionary by their very nature and doomed to national extinction.

Engels borrowed the concept of non-historical peoples from Hegel, who had identified nationhood with a tradition of statehood: "A nation with no state formation . . . has, strictly speaking, no history -- like the nations which existed before the rise of states and others with still exist in a condition of savagery" (Philosophy of Mind). As a sociological distinction, the concept had some validity, since the nations Engels characterized as historical did have a strong tradition of statehood and active participation in politics relative to the non-historic peoples; more to the point, the historic nations had preserved a traditional elite (particularly the Polish and Magyar gentry) into the mid-nineteenth century, while the non-historic peoples were predominantly peasant peoples. Engels' distinction was also, in the main, descriptively accurate, since the German, Polish and Hungarian national movements were ranged on the side of revolution, while the national movements of the non-historic peoples tended to support the emperor against the revolutionaries (the most notable case may be that of the Croatian political and military leader, Josip Jelacic).

Engels often used very strong language in denouncing the non-historic peoples during the revolution. In his article "The Magyar Struggle," for example, Engels wrote of "a bloody revenge on the Slav barbarians" and of the annihilation of "all these small pig-headed nations even to their very names." Engels also erred fundamentally when he predicted the eventual extinction of these nationalities. Engels used the Hegelian concept of non-historic peoples to explain the course of the nationality struggle in the Habsburg monarchy, although the concept had at most descriptive validity; his argument that certain peoples were counter-revolutionary because they were non-historic was almost tautological. He would not see that as the Austrian German, Poles and Magyars fought for their own national freedom, they denied elementary democratic rights to other nationalities. Most curiously, he also refused to take note of the conflict between landlords and peasants that lay at the very root of the national conflict between historic and non-historic nationalities; since the Magyar and Polish gentry were the chief allies of the revolution in east central Europe, he supported them uncritically. In this, as the Marxist historian Roman Rosdolsky has pointed out, Engels departed radically form the theory he and Marx had advanced on the very eve of the revolution -- that class struggle is the motive force of history -- and returned to the Hegelian idealism of his youth
John-Paul Himka


Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. The Revolutions of 1848. David Fernbach (ed.) The Pelican Marx Library. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973.

Roman Rosdolsky Engels and the "Non-historic" Peoples: The National Question in the Revolution of 1848. Glasgow: Critique Books, 1986.

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