- Conrad, the ‘Polish Problem’ and Transnational Activism
This essay examines Conrad’s political essays written between 1905 and 1916.1 This examination involves three key terms—nationalism, internationalism and transnationalism—which will be explored and differentiated. First, there is the nineteenth-century nationalism that found expression in the unification of Germany in 1871 and the unification of Italy in the same year; that was manifested in the independence struggles of South American states (which Conrad touches on in Nostromo by evoking the figures of Bolivar and Garibaldi); and, in its imperialistic aspect, was the motive force behind the Congress of Vienna of 1814–15 and the First World War. Secondly, there is the rise of the idea of internationalism as manifested in the First and Second International. The First International, a federation of workers’ groups called the International Working Men’s Association, was founded in London in September 1864 by British and French trade unionists.2 As Isaac Deutscher notes, there was a paradox about the founding meeting: although the organisation was founded to promote international solidarity among the working class, the immediate issue at its foundation was ‘to express the solidarity of Western working classes with the armed rising of the Poles against tsarist Russia.’3 Thus it simultaneously proclaimed the anachronism of the nation state and demanded the creation of a new state. As we will see, this is a contradiction that Conrad was also unable to avoid. The Second International, the Socialist International, was a federation of socialist parties and trade unionists and was founded at a congress in Paris in 1889.4 By 1912, it represented the socialist and social democratic parties of all the European states—as well as the United States, Canada and Japan—in a loose federation. Transnational activism refers to another kind of international politics—an activism that is not necessarily based on the idea of an international movement linked by a shared ideology, [End Page 21] but is carried out by those who are exiles or emigres, who live in one country but have ties to another. This is a political activism that can involve complex loyalties and divided sites of operation: there is the question of political loyalties and action in relation to the host country and also the question of political loyalty and political activism in relation to the other country with which one identifies.
Conrad’s political essays show him negotiating a transnational politics based on the experience of exile in the context of competing nationalisms. ‘Autocracy and War,’ for example, began as a consideration of nationalist contention at the Congress of Vienna and ends with the apprehension of a forthcoming war between nations. It presents two conflicting visions of Europe: the current state of competing nationalisms based on ‘material interests’ and what Eisenhower would call ‘the military-industrial complex’ and a future vision of a federal Europe, a Europe without frontiers, which would be realised later as the European Union.5 Besides these conflicting visions of Europe, there is a further unresolved contradiction: between a desire for a resurrected Polish nation, with its own boundaries, and the vision (and personal experience) of a Europe without frontiers. Through these conflicting visions and unresolved contradictions, Conrad moves towards the transnational activism of his later essays.
Conrad’s first political essay ‘Autocracy and War’ (1905), which Najder describes as Conrad’s ‘most extensive and ambitious political statement’ (JCL, 351), was published in the Fortnightly Review in July 1905. Conrad first mentions the project that was to produce this essay in a letter to H-D Davray on 12 January 1905 on the eve of the family’s departure for Capri. He asks for ‘a book on Russia—recent—serious,’ and then explains more fully: ‘I want something on the political and social aspect of the White Empire, from the French point of view’ (CL3, 204–5). He asks whether ‘Leroy–Beaulieu’ is ‘any good,’ and he clearly has plans to pick up whatever book Davray recommends in Paris en route to Capri. Conrad tells Davray: ‘I have the idea of writing three articles on the future of the said Empire—to keep the pot boiling, you understand...