Marxism and the national question

by Alan Woods and Ted Grant

Part two: Marx and Engels and the national question

The national question has a very long history in the theoretical arsenal of Marxism. Already in the writings of Marx and Engels, we can find some very interesting and penetrating remarks on the national question. Lenin later based himself also on those writings in working out his own classical theory of nationalities. For example, Marx examined in great detail the question of Poland and Ireland which throughout the 19th century occupied the attention of the European workers' movement. It is interesting to see that Marx, who approached the national question not as a shibboleth, but dialectically, changed his position in relation to both issues.

The difference between revolutionary dialectics and abstract thinking was strikingly shown in the debates that took place on the national question between Marx and Proudhon at the time of the First International. Proudhon, the French socialist and precursor of anarchism, denied the existence of the national question. Throughout the history of the movement there have always been sectarians who present an abstract conception of the class struggle. They do not proceed from the concrete reality of society as it exists, but they move in the lifeless abstractions of their own imaginary world. The Proudhonists on the General Council of the First International considered the struggles of the Poles, Italians and Irish for national emancipation to be unimportant. All that was necessary was a revolution in France, and all would be perfect; everyone must wait. But oppressed people cannot wait, and they will not wait. In 1866 Marx wrote to Engels denouncing the "Proudhonist clique" in Paris which "…declares nationalities to be an absurdity and attacks Bismarck and Garibaldi. As polemics against chauvinism their tactics are useful and explicable. But when the believers in Proudhon (my good friends here, Lafargue and Longuet also belong to them) think that all Europe can and should sit quietly and peacefully until the gentlemen in France abolish poverty and ignorance—they become ridiculous." (Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, Letter of June 7th, 1866. Henceforth referred to as MESC.)

On the General Council of the First International or International Workingmen's Association (IWA), Marx had to fight on two fronts; on the one hand against the petit-bourgeois nationalists like Mazzini, and on the other hand against the semi-anarchist followers of Proudhon who denied the existence of the national question altogether. On June 20th, 1866, Marx wrote: "Yesterday there was a discussion in the International Council on the present war… The discussion wound up, as was to be expected, with 'the question of nationality' in general and the attitude we take towards it… The representatives of 'Young France' (non-workers) came out with the announcement that all nationalities and even nations were antiquated prejudices. Proudhonised Stirnerism… The whole world waits until the French are ripe for a social revolution…" But although Marx and Engels gave due consideration to the national question, as against Proudhon, they always considered it as subordinate to "the labour question"—that is, they always considered it exclusively from the point of view of the working class and the socialist revolution.

The Polish question

Like Lenin, Marx had a very flexible position on the national question, which he always approached from the standpoint of the general interests of the proletariat and the international revolution. At one stage in the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s, Marx advocated not just the right of self-determination for Poland, but outright independence. This was in spite of the fact that the independence movement in Poland at the time was led by the reactionary Polish aristocrats. But the reason why Marx took that position was not some sentimental attachment to nationalism, and least of all because he saw the right of self-determination as some kind of universal panacea.

In one of his last works, The Foreign Policy of Russian Tsarism, Engels points out that the Polish people, by their heroic struggles against tsarist Russia, on several occasions saved the revolution in the rest of Europe, as in 1792-94 when Poland was defeated by Russia but saved the French revolution. But there was another side to the Polish question. "First of all, Poland, completely disorganised, a republic of nobles, founded upon the spoliation and oppression of the peasants, with a constitution that made all national action impossible, and thus made the country an easy prey for its neighbours. Since the beginning of the century it had existed only, as the Poles themselves said, through disorder…; the whole country was commonly occupied by foreign troops, who used it as an eating and drinking house…in which they usually forgot to pay." (Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 27, p. 18. Henceforth referred to as MECW.)

Throughout the 19th century, the question of Poland occupied a central place in European politics and also deeply affected the working class movement. In January 1863 the Poles rose in revolt. The insurrection spread all over Poland and led to the formation of a national government. But the leadership of the insurrection was in the hands of the lesser nobility who were incapable of arousing the masses to participate in the revolt. When power passed into the hands of the big landowners, the latter, hoping for diplomatic intervention from France and Britain, reached a deal with the tsar—which he promptly broke. The movement was crushed by the Russians. Naturally, the British and French did not lift a finger. But the Polish revolt aroused the sympathy and solidarity of the workers of Europe. The First International was set up in 1863 directly as a result of an international initiative to assist the revolutionary movement of the Poles. Engels pointed out that the only hope for the Polish insurrection was the working class of Europe: "If they hold out," he wrote to Marx on 11 June 1863, "they may yet be involved in a general European movement which will save them; on the other hand if things go badly Poland will be finished for ten years—an insurrection of this kind exhausts the fighting strength of the population for many years." (MESC, p. 150.)

Marx's attitude to the Polish question was determined by his general revolutionary strategy for world revolution. At that time tsarist Russia was the main enemy of the working class and democracy—a monstrous reactionary force in Europe, particularly in Germany. Since there was no working class in Russia at that time, there was no immediate possibility of revolution in Russia. As Lenin later expressed it, "Russia was still dormant and Poland was seething". (LCW, The Right of Nations to Self-determination, February-May, 1914, vol. 20, p. 108.) Therefore Marx supported Polish independence as a means of striking a blow against the main enemy, Russian tsarism. But by 1851 Marx had drawn pessimistic conclusions about "knightly-indolent" Poland, that is to say, he was sceptical about the prospects of success for insurrections led by the Polish aristocracy.

From this alone it is absolutely clear that for both Marx and Lenin the demand for self-determination and the national question in general always occupied a subordinate position to the class struggle and the perspective of the proletarian revolution. It was never an absolute obligation for Marxists to support each and every movement for self-determination. The same Marx who originally supported Polish independence was radically opposed to the independence of the Czechs and was also opposed to the so-called liberation movements in the Balkans in the latter half of the 19th century. These two apparently contradictory positions were, in fact, motivated by the self-same revolutionary considerations. Marx understood that, whereas a victory of the Poles would have represented a blow against Russian tsarism which would have revolutionary implications, the national movement of the South Slavs was used by tsarism as a tool of its expansionist policy in the Balkans. As so often occurs in history, the struggles of small nations were used as small change for the manoeuvres by a reactionary big power. Whoever fails to grasp this side of the national question will inevitably fall into a reactionary trap.

At the end of his life, Engels, with extraordinary far-sightedness, predicted revolutionary upheavals in Russia: "And here we come to the very kernel of the matter. The internal development of Russia since 1856, furthered by the Government itself, has done its work. The social revolution has made great strides. Russia is daily becoming more and more occidentalised; modern manufactures, steam, railways, the transformation of all payments in kind into money payments, and with this the crumbling of the old foundations of society are developing with ever greater speed. But in the same degree is also evolving the incompatibility of despotic tsardom with the new society in course of formation. Opposition parties are forming—constitutional and revolutionary—which the Government can only master by means of increasing brutality. And Russian diplomacy sees with horror the day on which the Russian people will demand to be heard, and when the settlement of their own internal affairs will leave them neither time nor wish to concern themselves with such puerilities as the conquest of Constantinople, of India and of the supremacy of the world. The revolution of 1848 that halted on the Polish frontier, is now knocking at the door of Russia and it now has, within, plenty of allies who can only wait the right moment to throw open that door to it." (MECW, vol. 27, p. 45.)

What extraordinary lines! As early as 1890—15 years before the first Russian revolution, and 27 years before October—Engels was predicting these great events, and also linking the fate of the national question in Europe to the Russian revolution. Events showed that Engels was right. As Lenin later explained, from the 1880s onward the slogan of Polish independence was not an appropriate slogan because of the development of the working class in Russia raised the prospect of revolution in Russia itself.

The Franco-Prussian war

Under the influence of Marx and Engels the First International took a principled internationalist stand on all the fundamental issues. The International's position was not merely theoretical but also practical. For example, during a strike in one country, members of the International would agitate and explain the issues in other countries to prevent the use of foreign scabs.

As we have already seen, one of the central problems facing the working class in the first half of the 19th century was the unification of Germany. Marx and Engels were compelled to give critical support to the unification of Germany, even though this objectively progressive act was carried out by reactionary means by Bismarck. But in no sense did this signify a capitulation to Bismarck or the abandonment of a class position. The First International initially regarded the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 as a defensive struggle of Germany. That was undoubtedly correct. The reactionary Bonapartist regime of Napoleon III was intent upon blocking Germany's national unification by the use of force. But he miscalculated. The Prussian army cut through the demoralised French forces like a hot knife through butter.

The case of the Franco-Prussian war is a good example of Marx's flexible and revolutionary position on the national question. He gave critical support to Prussia in the first phase of the war, when it had a strictly defensive character. Here Marx's position was determined, not by superficial or sentimental considerations (he hated the reactionary Prussian Bismarck), but strictly from the standpoint of the interests of the proletariat and the international revolution. On the one hand, the victory of Prussia would bring about the unification of Germany—an historically progressive task. On the other hand, the defeat of France would mean the overthrow of the Bonapartist regime of Louis Bonaparte, opening up the perspective of revolutionary developments in France. It would also represent a blow against Russian tsarism which was basing itself on the Bonapartist government in Paris to keep Germany weak and divided. That is why Marx initially supported Prussia in its war with France, despite the fact that a Prussian victory would have the effect of strengthening Bismarck—at least for a time.

But this general statement does not exhaust the question of the Marxist attitude to war. At all times it is necessary to approach the national question from a class point of view. Even when a particular national struggle has a progressive content, it is always necessary for the proletariat to maintain its class independence from the bourgeoisie. In the course of the war Marx changed his position. Once Louis Bonaparte had been overthrown (in October 1870) and a republic had been declared in France, the character of the war on Prussia's part changed from a war of national liberation to an aggressive campaign directed against the people of France. It ceased to have a progressive character and Marx therefore denounced it. The seizure of Alsace-Lorraine by Prussia was likewise a thoroughly reactionary act which could not be justified by referring to the progressive task of uniting Germany. It merely served to stir up national hatreds between France and Germany and prepare the ground for the imperialist slaughter of 1914-18.

The defeat of the French army led immediately to revolution in France and the glorious episode of the Paris Commune. Marx had advised the workers of Paris to wait, but once they took action he immediately threw himself into the defence of the Paris Commune. At this point the nature of the war was transformed. The national question for Marx was always subordinate to the class struggle (the "labour question"). The correctness of this position is revealed in mirror-image by the conduct of the ruling class in every war. No matter how great the degree of national antagonism between the ruling class of warring states, they will always unite to defeat the workers. Thus, the Prussian generals stood aside while their enemies, the reactionary Versaillese forces, attacked Paris and slaughtered the Communards.

Marx on Ireland

As with Poland, so on the question of Ireland Marx's position was also determined exclusively by revolutionary considerations. While naturally sympathising with the oppressed Irish people, Marx always subjected the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalist leaders to an implacable criticism. From the beginning, Marx and Engels explained that the national liberation of Ireland was inseparably linked to the question of social emancipation, particularly to a revolutionary solution to the land problem. This far-sighted analysis has a great bearing on the national liberation struggle in general, and not only in Ireland.

In a letter to Eduard Bernstein dated June 26 1882, Engels pointed out that the Irish movement consisted of two trends: the radical agrarian movement that erupted into spontaneous peasant direct action and found its political expression in the revolutionary democracy, and "the liberal-national opposition of the urban bourgeoisie". This is true of the peasant movement in all periods. It can only succeed to the degree that it finds a leadership in the urban centres. Under modern conditions, that means either the bourgeoisie or the proletariat. But the bourgeoisie has demonstrated throughout history its total inability to solve any of the fundamental problems posed by the bourgeois-democratic revolution—including the problem of national independence. Ireland is the classic example of this.

At the heart of the position of Marx and Engels was the perspective of a voluntary federation of Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. And this perspective was always linked to the perspective of the workers taking power. This, in turn, demanded the unconditional defence of the unity of the working class. Thus, Engels wrote in January 1848:

"The Irish people must fight strenuously, and in close association with the English working classes and the Chartists, in order to win the six points of the People's Charter—annual parliaments, universal suffrage, vote by ballot, abolition of the property qualification for members of parliament, payment of MPs, and the establishment of equal electoral districts. Only after these six points are won will the Repeal [of the Union] have any advantage for Ireland." (Engels, Feargus O'Connor and the Irish People, 9 January 1848, our emphasis.)

From the very first, Marx and Engels waged an implacable struggle against the Irish middle-class nationalist liberals like Daniel O'Connell, whom they denounced as a charlatan and a betrayer of the Irish people. Later on, they gave critical support, for a time, to the petty-bourgeois Fenians. This was natural and correct at a time when the workers' movement did not yet exist in Ireland which remained an overwhelmingly agrarian society until the early years of the 20th century. But Marx and Engels never acted as the cheer-leaders of the Fenians but always adopted an independent class position. They severely criticised the adventurist tactics of the Fenians, their terrorist tendencies, their national narrowness and their refusal to accept the need to link up with the English workers' movement. Despite the fact that the Fenians were the most advanced wing of the Irish revolutionary democratic movement, and even showed socialist inclinations, Marx and Engels did not have any illusions in them. On November 29th, 1867, Engels wrote to Marx:

"As regards the Fenians you are quite right. The beastliness of the English must not make us forget that the leaders of this sect are mostly asses and partly exploiters and we cannot in any way make ourselves responsible for the stupidities which occur in every conspiracy. And they are certain to happen."

Engels was soon proved right. Just two weeks later, on the 13th December 1867, a group of Fenians set off an explosion in London's Clerkenwell Prison in an unsuccessful attempt to free their imprisoned comrades. The explosion destroyed several neighbouring houses and wounded 120 people. Predictably, the incident unleashed a wave of anti-Irish feeling in the population. The following day Marx wrote indignantly to Engels:

"The last exploit of the Fenians in Clerkenwell was a very stupid thing. The London masses, who have shown great sympathy for Ireland, will be made wild by it and driven into the arms of the government party. One cannot expect the London proletariat to allow themselves to be blown up in honour of the Fenian emissaries. There is always a kind of fatality about such a secret, melodramatic sort of conspiracy."

A few days later, on December 19th, Engels replied as follows: "The stupid affair in Clerkenwell was obviously the work of a few specialised fanatics; it is the misfortune of all conspiracies that they lead to such stupidities, because 'after all, something must happen, after all something must be done'. In particular, there has been a lot of bluster in America about this blowing up and arson business, and then a few asses come and instigate such nonsense. Moreover, these cannibals are generally the greatest cowards, like this Allen, who seems to have already turned Queen's evidence, and then the idea of liberating Ireland by setting a London tailor's shop on fire!"

If Marx and Engels could write in such withering terms about the Fenians just imagine what they would have said about the terrorist tactics of the IRA over the past 30 years, compared to which the "Clerkenwell atrocity" was mere child's play. The most reactionary feature about this individual terrorism, which does not weaken the bourgeois state, but only strengthens it, is that it serves to divide the working class and weaken it in the face of the exploiters. This was undoubtedly the weakest point of the Fenians which Engels criticised when he wrote scathingly that "to these gentry the whole labour movement is pure heresy and the Irish peasant must not on any account be allowed to know that the socialist workers are his sole allies in Europe." (MESC, Engels to Marx, 9 December 1869.)

Naturally, Marx and Engels defended the Fenian prisoners against ill-treatment by the English state. They always defended the rights of the Irish people to determine their own destiny. But they did this from a socialist and not a nationalist standpoint. As consistent revolutionaries and supporters of proletarian internationalism, Marx and Engels always stressed the link between the fate of Ireland and the perspective of proletarian revolution in England. In the 1840s and 1850s, Marx thought that Ireland could gain her independence only through the victory of the English working class. Later, in the 1860s, he changed his mind and adopted the standpoint that it was more probable that a victory in Ireland could be the spark that ignited the revolution in England. Even the most cursory reading of Marx's writings on the Irish question shows that his defence of Irish independence after 1860 was determined exclusively by the general interests of the proletarian revolution, above all in England, which he considered the key country for the success of the world revolution. In a confidential communication to members of the General Council, written in March 1870, Marx explains his views thus:

"Although revolutionary initiative will probably come from France, England alone can serve as the lever for a serious economic revolution. It is the only country where there are no more peasants and where land property is concentrated in a few hands. It is the only country where the capitalist form, i.e., combined labour on a large scale under capitalist masters, embraces virtually the whole of production. It is the only country where the great majority of the population consists of wages labourers. It is the only country where the class struggle and organisation of the working class by the Trades Unions have acquired a certain degree of maturity and universality. It is the only country where, because of its domination on the world market, every revolution in economic matters must immediately affect the whole world. If landlordism and capitalism are classical examples in England, on the other hand, the material conditions for their destruction are the most mature here." (See The Minutes of the General Council of the First International, 1868-70.)

From this point of view, the Irish national question was only part of the broader picture of the perspective of world socialist revolution. It is impossible to understand Marx's attitude to Ireland outside this context. The reason why Marx favoured Irish independence after 1860 was that he had come to the conclusion that English landed interests, which had their most important base in Ireland, could most easily be defeated by a revolutionary movement based on the Irish peasantry in which the demand for national self-determination was inextricably linked to a radical solution of the land question. In the same memorandum, Marx explained: "If England is the bulwark of landlordism and European capitalism, the only point where one can hit official England really hard is Ireland.

"In the first place, Ireland is the bulwark of English landlordism. If it fell in Ireland it would fall in England. In Ireland this is a hundred times easier since the economic struggle there is concentrated exclusively on landed property, since this struggle is at the same time national, and since the people there are more revolutionary and exasperated than in England. Landlordism in Ireland is maintained solely by the English army. The moment the forced union between the two countries ends, a social revolution will immediately break out in Ireland, though in outmoded forms. English landlordism would not only lose a great source of wealth, but also its greatest moral force, i.e., that of representing the domination of England over Ireland. On the other hand, by maintaining the power of their landlords in Ireland, the English proletariat makes them invulnerable in England itself.

"In the second place, the English bourgeoisie has not only exploited the Irish poverty to keep down the working class in England by forced immigration of poor Irishmen, but it has also divided the proletariat into two hostile camps. The revolutionary fire of the Celtic worker does not go well with the nature of the Anglo-Saxon worker, solid, but slow. On the contrary, in all the big industrial centres in England there is profound antagonism between the Irish proletariat and the English proletariat. The average English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers wages and the standard of life. He feels national and religious antipathies for him. He regards him somewhat like the poor whites of the Southern States of North America regard their black slaves. This antagonism among the proletarians of England is artificially nourished and supported by the bourgeoisie. It knows that this scission is the true secret of maintaining its power." (Ibid.)

And Marx concludes: "The General Council's resolutions on the Irish amnesty serve only as an introduction to other resolutions which will confirm that, quite apart from international justice, it is a precondition to the emancipation of the English working class to transform the present forced union (i.e. the enslavement of Ireland) into equal and free confederation, if possible, into complete separation if need be." (Ibid.)

Note how carefully Marx chooses his words here, and how scrupulously he expresses the proletarian position on the national question. First, the Irish question cannot be seen in isolation from the perspective of the world socialist revolution, of which it is seen as an integral part. More particularly, it is seen as the starting-point for socialist revolution in England. And afterwards? Marx does not take it for granted that the national liberation struggle in Ireland will necessarily end in separation from Britain. He says that there are two possibilities: either an "equal and free confederation"—which he clearly regards as preferable ("if possible")—or "complete separation", which he considers as possible but not the most desirable outcome. Which of the two variants would come into being would clearly depend, above all, on the conduct and attitude of the English proletariat and the perspective of a victorious socialist revolution in England itself.

Thus, the standpoint of Marx was always that of the proletarian revolution and internationalism. This, and this alone, was what determined his attitude to the Irish question, and every other manifestation of the national question. For Marx and Engels, the "labour question" was always the central one. It would never have occurred to them to reduce their propaganda and agitation on the Irish question to a simple, one-line slogan like "troops out!" or to act as the unpaid advisers to the nationalists. On the contrary, they waged a stubborn struggle against the harmful demagogy of the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois Irish nationalists, and for the revolutionary unity of the Irish and English working class.

History has shown that Marx and Engels were correct in their appraisal of the bourgeois and petty bourgeois nationalists in Ireland. In 1922, the Irish nationalist bourgeoisie betrayed the national liberation struggle by agreeing to the partition between North and South. Ever since then the petty bourgeois nationalists have demonstrated their utter inability to solve the "border question". The tactic of individual terrorism, so sharply criticised by Marx and Engels, has been shown to be both counter-productive and impotent. After 30 years of so-called "armed struggle" in Northern Ireland, the unification of Ireland is further away than ever. The only way to solve what is left of the national question in Ireland is on the basis of a class, socialist and internationalist policy—the policy of Marx, Lenin and that great proletarian revolutionary and martyr, James Connolly.

Only the working class can solve the problem by uniting around a class programme to conduct an implacable struggle against the bourgeoisie in London and Dublin. The prior condition for success is the unity of the working class. This can never be achieved on nationalist lines. Petty bourgeois nationalism has done untold damage to the cause of workers' unity in Northern Ireland. The wounds can, and must, be healed. But this can only be done on the basis of a clean break with nationalism and the adoption of class policies, by a revival of the spirit and ideas of Larkin and Connolly. The national question in Ireland will be solved through the socialist transformation of society, or it will not be solved at all.

The Second International

Launched in 1889 the Socialist International, unlike the First International, was composed of mass organisations in the form of the mass Social Democratic parties and the trade unions. The misfortune of the Second International was to be born in a period of prolonged capitalist upswing. In the period 1870-1900 world oil output rose two and a half times. The railways expanded two and a half times. Germany and the United States began to challenge the hegemony of Great Britain. A scramble began to divide the world into spheres of influence and colonies. The rapid growth of industry also meant a parallel growth of the working class and its organisations in the developed capitalist countries. In the last three decades of the 19th century the working class in the United States and Russia grew by more than three-fold. In Britain the trade unions grew by four times between 1876 and 1900. In Germany trade union membership grew from tens of thousands to millions. And parallel to this there was a steady growth in the membership, votes and influence of the mass Social Democratic Parties.

But from the outset, although in theory it stood for Marxism, the new International lacked the theoretical clarity that were guaranteed by the presence of Marx and Engels. A clear case of this was its attitude to the national question. The Second International did not really understand the national question, which received an unsatisfactory treatment at its congresses. In 1896 the London congress of the International passed the following resolution:

"The congress declares in favour of the full autonomy for all nationalities and its sympathy with the workers of any country at present suffering under the yoke of military, national or other despotisms; and calls upon the workers of all such countries to fall into line, side by side with the class-conscious workers of the world, to organise for the overthrow of international capitalism and the establishment of international social-democracy." (Quoted in E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, vol. 1, p. 423.)

However, the position of the Second International on the colonial question was ambiguous and vague. The Left tended to an anti-colonialist position, but there were those who were prepared to justify colonialism on the grounds of its alleged "civilising mission". Thus in the debates on the colonial question in the Amsterdam congress of 1904, the Dutch delegate van Kol openly defended colonialism. He moved a resolution that stated:

"The new needs which will make themselves felt after the victory of the working class and its economic emancipation will make the possession of colonies necessary, even under the future socialist system of government." And he asked the congress: "Can we abandon half the globe to the caprice of peoples still in their infancy, who leave the enormous wealth of the subsoil undeveloped and the most fertile parts of our planet uncultivated?" (Lenin's Struggle for a Revolutionary Party, p. 5.)

The congress gave an enthusiastic welcome to Dadabhai Naoroji, founder and president of the Indian National Congress, but in its resolution on India, while calling for self-rule, specified that India would remain under British sovereignty. It neither endorsed nor rejected the views of van Kol. In the debate on immigration, a racist resolution was moved by the American Hillquit and supported by the Austrians and the Dutch. But it caused such a storm of protest that it had to be withdrawn. Nevertheless, the fact that such a resolution could be moved in an International congress was a symptom of the pressure of bourgeois and nationalist ideas on the Socialist Parties.

The Russian revolution of 1905 gave a mighty impulse to the colonial revolution, inspiring the masses to act in defence of their national aspirations in Persia, Turkey, Egypt and India. This served to sharpen the differences in the ranks of the Socialist International on the colonial and national question. At the Stuttgart congress of 1907, where Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg moved their famous amendments on war, there was a sharp struggle between the Lefts (in reality centrists) represented by Lebedour and the Right, led by the revisionist Eduard Bernstein, on the colonial question. The Dutch delegates, typical petty bourgeois imperialists, were again the most outspoken defenders of colonialism. The Left was in a minority in opposing it. In the course of a heated debate, Bernstein made the following comments:

"We must get away from the utopian notion of simply abandoning the colonies. The ultimate consequences of such a view would be to give the United States back to the Indians (Commotion). The colonies are there; we must come to terms with that. Socialists too should acknowledge the need for civilised peoples to act somewhat like the guardians of the uncivilised." (Ibid., p 10.)

Rebutting the arguments about the "civilising" role of colonialism, the Polish delegate Karski (Julian Marchlewski) replied: "David has asserted the right of one nation to exercise tutelage over another. But we Poles know the real meaning of this tutelage, since both the Russian tsar and the Prussian government have acted as our guardians ("Very good!")… David quotes Marx to support his view that every nation must go through capitalism, but he is not right to do so here. What Marx said was that countries that had already begun capitalist development would have to continue the process through to completion. But he never said that this was an absolute precondition for all nations…

"We socialists understand that there are other civilisations besides simply that of capitalist Europe. We have absolutely no grounds to be conceited about our so-called civilisation, nor to impose it on the Asian peoples with their ancient civilisation. ("Bravo!") David thinks that the colonies would sink back into barbarism if left to themselves. In India's case that hardly seems likely. Rather I picture that if independent, India would continue to profit from the influence of European civilisation in its future development and it would grow in this way to its fullest potential." (Ibid., p. 11.)

In the end, the resolution on India was not put to the vote.

Although the leaders of the International tried to paper over the cracks by all kinds of diplomacy, the end result of this was the catastrophe of August 1914, when every single one of the parties of the Second International—with the exception of the Russians and the Serbs—betrayed the principles of internationalism and supported the imperialist war. The absence of a real revolutionary internationalist policy was starkly exposed in the Summer of 1914 when the Second International collapsed along the lines of social-chauvinism.

'National-cultural autonomy'

A peculiar variant of the national question in the Second International was put forward by the Austrian Social Democrats before the First World War. They defended the theory of so-called national-cultural autonomy. The same position was adopted in Russia by the Jewish Bund. At the Brno Conference of the Austrian Social Democrats (1899) the idea of national-cultural autonomy defended by the South Slavs was rejected. Instead, the Conference adopted the slogan of territorial autonomy, which, while insufficient, was certainly better. Later, under the influence of the centrist theoretician Otto Bauer and his comrade Karl Renner (who wrote under the pseudonym of Rudolf Springer), the Party changed its position and adopted the line of national-cultural autonomy.

Rejecting the link between nation and territory, Bauer defined a nation as "a relative community of character". (Otto Bauer, Die Nationalfrage and die Sozialdemokratie, Vienna 1924, p. 2.) But what is national character? Bauer defines it as "the sum total of characteristics which distinguish the people of one nationality from the people of another nationality—the complex and spiritual characteristics which distinguish one nation from another." (Ibid., p. 6.) The threadbare nature of this definition is glaring. It is a pure tautology: a national character is what makes one nation different from another! And what makes one nation different from another? "The character of a people is determined by nothing so much as by their fate… A nation is nothing but a community of fate [determined] by the conditions under which people produce their means of subsistence and distribute the products of their labour." (Ibid., p. 24.)

A nation, according to Bauer, is thus "the aggregate of people bound into a community of character by a community of fate". (Ibid., p. 135.) Renner defined it as follows: "A nation is a union of similarly thinking and similarly speaking persons, [it is] a cultural community of modern people no longer tied to the soil." (R. Springer, Das Nationale Problem, Leipzig-Vienna, 1902, p. 35.) This approach to the national question was not scientific, but subjective and "psychological"—not to say, mystical. It was an unsuccessful and opportunist attempt to seek a solution for the national question in the Austro-Hungarian empire by making concessions to bourgeois nationalism. By contrast, Marxism approaches the national question from a historical-economic point of view.

In contrast to the Bolsheviks, who sought a solution to the national problem through the revolutionary overthrow of tsarism, the Austrian Social Democrats approached the question in the spirit of petty reforms and gradualism. Bauer wrote: "We therefore first assume that the Austrian nation will remain in the same political union in which they exist together at the same time, and inquire how the nations within this union will arrange their relations among themselves and to the state." (Quoted in Stalin, The National Question and Marxism, p. 23.)

Once the link between nation and territory is broken, the demand was put forward of grouping the members of different nationalities who live in different areas into a general inter-class national union. The members of different national groups would come together in conferences and vote to decide which nationality they belonged to. Germans, Czechs, Hungarians, Poles, etc., would then vote for their own National Council—a "cultural parliament of the nation", as Bauer styled it. By such means the Austrian Social Democrats tried to avoid an open clash with the Hapsburg state and reduced the national question to a purely cultural-linguistic affair. Bauer went so far as to assert that local autonomy for the nationalities would be a stepping-stone to socialism which would "divide humanity into nationally delimited communities" and "present a chequered picture of national unions of persons and corporations".

This philosophy is entirely at variance with the class standpoint and internationalist principles of Marxism. It represents petty bourgeois nationalism disguised with "socialist" phrases. For this reason Lenin was scathing about it. He was particularly hostile to the idea of separate schools for different nationalities. On this, Lenin wrote: "'Cultural-national autonomy' implies precisely the most refined and, therefore, the most harmful nationalism, it implies the corruption of the workers by means of the slogan of national culture and the propaganda of the profoundly harmful and even anti-democratic division of the schools by nationalities. In short, this programme undoubtedly contradicts the internationalism of the proletariat and is in accordance only with the ideals of the nationalist petty bourgeoisie." (LCW, The National Programme of the RSDLP, 15 December 1913, vol. 19.)

Nowhere is the harmful effect of this petty-bourgeois theory clearer than in the field of education. Thus, Lenin was opposed to any privileged status for language, but, in opposition to Otto Bauer and the advocates of "national-cultural autonomy", vehemently opposed to setting up separate schools for the children of different nationalities: "The practical execution of the plan for the 'extraterritorial' (outside of, unconnected with, the territory on which a given nation lives), or 'cultural-national' autonomy, would mean only one thing: the splitting of educational affairs according to nationality, i.e., the introduction of national curiae into school affairs. It is sufficient to envisage clearly the real substance of the celebrated Bund plan in order to understand its utterly reactionary character, even from the standpoint of democracy, let alone that of the proletarian class struggle for socialism." (LCW, Critical Remarks on the National Question, October-December, 1913, vol. 20.)

Here we see the fundamental difference between Leninism and petty bourgeois nationalism. Marxists will fight against any form of national oppression, including linguistic oppression. It is impermissible that a man or woman be deprived of the right to speak his or her language, to be taught in it, to use it in a court of law or any other official function. In general, there is no particular reason for the existence of an "official" language, or for any special privileges to be given to one language over another. But to separate children on a national, linguistic or religious basis, is utterly reactionary and retrograde. The segregation of schools played a reactionary role in South Africa and the USA. And the separation of Catholic and Protestant children in Northern Ireland in so-called religious schools plays a no less pernicious role. Religion has no place in the educational system and should be radically separated from it. If the churches wish to teach their doctrines, they must do it in their own time and with their own funds, raised from their congregation, not the state. And while schools must cater for the needs of different linguistic groups, and funds must be found for this purpose, it is entirely unacceptable to separate children on national-linguistic lines and thus create the basis for prejudice and conflicts in later life.

The hostility towards French among the Flemish population in Belgium is the product of generations of discrimination of the Flemish language and the forcible imposition of French. However, there can be all sorts of cross-currents on this question. In South Africa the teaching of native languages in the schools (instead of English) was a measure of national oppression. In the same way the representatives of the non-Russian nationalities themselves strove to teach their children Russian. For example, in the Armenian church schools, the children were taught Russian, although it was not obligatory. What the Bolsheviks opposed was discrimination against any language, to forcible assimilation and the forcible imposition of a dominant language and culture. But there is no reason why any language should have a monopoly. In Switzerland there are not two, but three official languages. Now with modern technology, there is no reason why people cannot receive education and communicate in parliament or in a court of law in any language they choose. But what is not acceptable is the introduction of nationalist or religious poison into the schools:

"The Marxists, dear nationalist-socialists, have a general school programme which demands, for example, absolutely secular schools. From the point of view of the Marxists, a departure from this general programme is never permissible in a democratic state anywhere (and the question of introducing any 'local' subjects, languages, and so forth into it, is determined by a decision of the local inhabitants). From the principle that education 'should be withdrawn from the purview of the state' and transferred to the nations, however, it follows that we the workers must allow the 'nations' in our democratic state to spend the peoples's money on clerical schools! Without being aware of it, Mr. Liebmann has clearly exposed the reactionary nature of 'cultural-national autonomy'!" (LCW, Critical Remarks on the National Question, October-December 1913, vol. 20.)

On this, as on every other aspect of the national question, while resolutely combating all manifestations of oppression and discrimination without exception, Marxists take a class position. Thus, in Belgium, where the Flemish and Walloon nationalists have tried—unfortunately with some success—to divide Belgian society and the Labour Movement on national lines using the language question, the Belgian Marxists worked out transitional demands on the language issue. Where, for example, a worker was compelled to learn Flemish or French by the employers, they demanded that they be given time off from work on full pay and courses paid for by the bosses under the control of the workers' organisations, and moreover, should be entitled to extra payment for learning new skills.

From all this it is clear that Lenin always insisted on the need to approach the national question strictly from a class point of view. "The slogan of workers' democracy," wrote Lenin, "is not 'national culture', but the international culture of democracy and of the world working class movement." (LCW, Critical Remarks on the National Question, October-December 1913, vol. 20.)

And again: "The national programme of workers' democracy is: absolutely no privileges for any one nation or for any one language; the settlement of the question of the political self-determination of nations, i.e., their state secession in an absolutely free and democratic way; the passing of a law covering the whole country and proclaiming unlawful and null and void every measure…which in any way grants privilege to any one nation, which violates the equality of nations or the rights of a national minority—and by virtue of which law every citizen of the state will have the right to demand the repeal of such a measure as unconstitutional and the criminal prosecution of those who proceed to carry it out." (Ibid.)

The divisive nature of "cultural-national autonomy" was clearly shown by its harmful effects on workers' unity in Austria itself. Following the Wimberg Congress, the Austrian Social Democratic Party began to break up into national parties. Instead of one united workers' party in which all the nationalities were present, six separate parties were formed—German, Czech, Polish, Ruthenian, Italian and Yugoslav. This encouraged the spread of chauvinist sentiment and national antagonisms within the workers' movement, with negative results: the Czech Party would have nothing to do with the German Party, and so on.

As always happens, the so-called practical policies of reformism achieved the opposite results to those intended. The programme of national-cultural autonomy was intended to prevent the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian empire, but had precisely the opposite effect. The overthrow of the Hapsburgs could have led to a proletarian revolution, as did the February revolution in Russia. But the failure of the working class to take power led directly to the disintegration of Austro-Hungary on national lines, whereas Lenin's policy of the right of nations to self-determination had the effect of uniting the workers and peasants of most of the oppressed nations, and thus creating the conditions for a soviet federation. This, not separatism, was the position of Bolshevism. It was brilliantly vindicated after 1917.

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