Marxism and the National Question

A 4 part document by Alan Woods and Ted Grant. The question of nationalities has always occupied a central position in Marxist theory. In particular, the writings of Lenin deal with this important issue in great detail. It is true to say that, without a correct appraisal of the national question, the Bolsheviks would never have succeeded in coming to power in 1917. This document reviews the rich Marxist literature on this issue and applies it to today's conditions.

Part One: The national question in history


The question of nationalities—that is, the oppression of nations and national minorities—which has characterised capitalism from its birth till the present time, has always occupied a central position in Marxist theory. In particular, the writings of Lenin deal with this important issue in great detail, and still provide us with a sound foundation to deal with this most complicated and explosive issue. It is true to say that, without a correct appraisal of the national question, the Bolsheviks would never have succeeded in coming to power in 1917. Only by placing itself at the head of all oppressed layers of society could the proletariat unite under the banner of socialism the mass forces necessary to overthrow the rule of the oppressors. Failure to appreciate the problems and aspirations of the oppressed nationalities of the tsarist empire would have undermined the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat severely.

The two fundamental barriers to human progress are on the one hand the private ownership of the means of production and on the other hand the nation state. But whereas the first half of this equation is sufficiently clear, the second half has not received the attention due to it. Today, in the epoch of imperialist decline, when the crying contradictions of a socio-economic system that is decaying on its feet have reached the most unbearable limits, the national question is once again raising its head everywhere, with the most tragic and sanguinary consequences. Far from peacefully receding into the background as an antiquated phase of human development, as hopeless reformists imagine, it has acquired a particularly vicious and poisonous form that threatens to drag whole nations into barbarism. The solution of this problem is a vital component for the triumph of socialism on a world scale.

No country—not even the biggest and most powerful states—can withstand the crushing domination of the world market. The phenomenon which the bourgeois describe as globalisation, predicted by Marx and Engels 150 years ago, is now working itself out under almost laboratory conditions. Since the Second World War, and particularly over the last 20 years, there has been a colossal intensification of the international division of labour and an enormous development of world trade, to a degree that even Marx and Engels could not have dreamt of. The knitting together of the world economy has been carried out to a degree never before seen in human history. This is a most progressive development because it means that the material conditions for world socialism are now established.

Control of the world economy is in the hands of the 200 biggest international companies. The concentration of capital has reached staggering proportions. Every day 1.3 trillion dollars cross frontiers in international transactions and 70 per cent of these transactions take place within the multinationals. With every passing day, huge monopolies engage in mortal combat to take over other giants. Vast sums of money are spent on these operations, which are concentrating unimaginable power into the hands of fewer and fewer companies. They conduct themselves like ferocious and insatiable cannibals, devouring each other in the pursuit of greater and greater profit. In this cannibalistic orgy, the working class is always the loser. No sooner has a merger taken place than head office announces a new wave of sackings and closures, and remorseless pressure on the workforce to boost profit margins, dividends and executive payouts.

In this context Lenin's book, Imperialism—the Highest Stage of Capitalism, acquires a very modern ring. Lenin explained that imperialism is capitalism in the period of the big monopolies and trusts. But the degree of monopolisation in Lenin's day seems like child's play in comparison with the situation today. In 1999 the number of cross-border take-overs was an astonishing 5,100. Moreover, the value of the deals rose by no less than 47 per cent compared to 1998, to a record high of $798 billion. With such staggering sums as these it would be possible to solve most of the pressing problems of world poverty, illiteracy and disease. But that presupposes the existence of a rational system of production in which the needs of the many take precedence over the super-profits of a few. The colossal power of these gigantic multinational companies, which is increasingly fused with the capitalist state, producing the phenomenon which the American sociologist Wright-Mills dubbed the "Military Industrial Complex", dominates the world far more completely than at any time in history.

Here we see a striking contradiction. On the basis of globalisation, the argument is put forward by the bourgeois and particularly the petty-bourgeois apologists for capitalism that in effect the nation state does not matter any more. This is not new. It is the same argument that was put forward by Kautsky in the period of the First World War (the so-called theory of "ultra-imperialism"), when he argued in effect that the development of monopoly capitalism and imperialism would gradually eliminate the contradictions of capitalism. There would be no more wars because the development of capitalism itself would render national states redundant. The same theory is put forward today by revisionist theoreticians like Eric Hobsbawm in Britain. This ex-Stalinist who has gone over to the right wing of Labourism argues that the national state was just a transient period of human history which has now passed. Bourgeois economists have put forward the same argument throughout history. They try to abolish the contradictions inherent in the capitalist system merely by denying their existence. Yet precisely at this moment in time, when the world market has become the dominant force on the planet, national antagonisms have everywhere acquired a ferocious character and the national question far from being abolished everywhere assumed a particularly intense and poisonous character.

With the development of imperialism and monopoly capitalism, the capitalist system has outgrown the narrow limits of private property and the nation state which plays approximately the same role today as did the petty local princedoms and states in the period prior to the rise of capitalism. During the First World War Lenin wrote: "Imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism. In the foremost countries capital has outgrown the bounds of national states, has replaced competition by monopoly and has created the objective conditions for the achievement of socialism." (Lenin, Collected Works, The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-determination, January-February 1916, vol. 22. Henceforth referred to as LCW.) Whoever fails to understand this elementary truth will be incapable of understanding, not just the national question, but all the most important manifestations of the present epoch.

The whole history of the last hundred years is the history of the rebellion of the productive forces against the narrow confines of the nation state. Out of this comes world economy—and with it world crises, and world wars. Thus, the picture painted by the Professor Hobsbawms of a world in which national contradictions are being eliminated is an idle fancy. Just the opposite is true. With the general crisis of capitalism the national question is not confined to the ex-colonial countries. It is beginning to affect the advanced capitalist countries also, even in places where it appeared to have been solved. In Belgium, one of the most developed countries in Europe, the conflict between the Walloons and the Flemish has assumed a vicious character which under certain circumstances could lead to the break-up of Belgium. In Cyprus, we have the national antagonisms between Greeks and Turks, and the broader conflict between Greece and Turkey. Recently the national question in the Balkans has dragged Europe to the brink of war.

In the USA there is the problem of racism against the Blacks and also the Hispanics. In Germany, France and other countries we see discrimination and racist attacks against immigrants. In the former Soviet Union the national question has resulted in the descent into a bloody chaos of wars and civil wars in one country after another. In Britain, where capitalism has existed for longer than anywhere else, the national problem is still unresolved, not only in Northern Ireland, but also in Wales and Scotland has also been placed firmly on the agenda. In Spain we have the question of Euskadi, Catalonia and Galicia. Most extraordinary of all, over a hundred years after the unification of Italy, the Northern League advances the reactionary demand for the break-up of Italy on the grounds of self-determination for the North ("Padania"). The conclusion is inescapable. We ignore the national question at our peril. If we are to succeed in transforming society, it is imperative that we have a scrupulous and a clear and correct position on this issue. For this purpose, we address ourselves to the workers and youth, to the rank and file of the Socialist and Communist Parties, who wish to understand the ideas of Marxism in order to fight to change society. To these we dedicate the present work.

Part One: The national question in history

"In Western Europe the epoch of the formative stage of bourgeois nations, if you leave out the struggle of the Netherlands for independence and the fate of the island country, England, began with the great French revolution, and was essentially completed approximately one hundred years later with the formation of the German Empire." (L. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, p. 889.)

Although most people think of the national state as something natural, and therefore rooted in the distant past, if not in the blood and soul of men and women, it is, in fact, a relatively modern creation, which really speaking has only existed for the last 200 years. The only exceptions to that would be Holland, where the bourgeois revolution in the 16th century took the form of a war of national liberation against Spain, and England because of its unique position as an island-kingdom where capitalist development took place earlier than in the rest of Europe (from the late 14th century onward). Prior to this period there were no nations, but only tribes, city-states and empires. It is scientifically incorrect to refer to the latter as "nations", as is frequently done. One Welsh nationalist author even referred to the "Welsh nation"—before the Roman invasion of Britain! This is wishful thinking. The Welsh at that time were an agglomeration of tribes not fundamentally different from other tribes which inhabited what is now known as England. It is a pernicious trait of nationalist writers to try and create the impression that "the nation" (especially their particular nation) has always existed. In fact, the nation state is an historically evolved entity. It has not always existed, and will not always exist in the future.

In reality, the nation state is a product of capitalism. It was established by the bourgeoisie which required a national market. It had to break down the local restrictions with little local areas with their local taxes, toll roads, separate money systems, separate weights and measures. The following extract by Robert Heilbroner puts it very graphically when he describes a journey by a German merchant about the year 1550:

"Andreas Ryff, a merchant, bearded and fur-coated, is coming back to his home in Baden; he writes to his wife that he has visited thirty markets and is troubled with saddle-burn. He is even more troubled by the nuisances of the times; as he travels he is stopped approximately once every ten miles to pay a customs toll; between Basle and Cologne he pays thirty-one levies.

"And that is not all. Each community he visits has its own money, its own rules and regulations, its own law and order. In the area around Baden alone there are 112 different measures of length, 92 different square measures for cereals and 123 for liquids, 63 for liquor, and 80 different pound weights." (R. Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers, p. 22.)

The overthrowing of this local particularism was a giant step forward at that time. The gathering together of the productive forces into one national state was a colossally progressive historical task of the bourgeoisie. The basis for this revolution was laid in the later Middle Ages, in the period of the decline of feudalism and the rise of the bourgeoisie and the towns which gradually asserted their rights. The medieval kings needed money for their wars and were forced to lean on the rising class of merchants and bankers like the Fuggers and the Medicis. But the hour of the market economy had not yet struck. What existed was only an embryonic form of capitalism, typified by small-scale production and local markets. One could not yet speak of a truly national market, or national state. True, the elements of some modern European states were present in outline, but these were also as yet in an undeveloped stage. Although France gradually took shape as a result of the hundred years' war with England, these struggles had a feudal and dynastic, rather than a really national, character. The soldiers who fought in the wars owed more allegiance to their local lord than to the king of France, and despite the existence of a common territory and language, considered themselves as Bretons, Burgundians and Gascognes rather than French.

Only gradually, painfully, over a period of several centuries did a real national consciousness arise. This process runs parallel to the rise of capitalism, money economy and the gradual emergence of the national market, typified by the wool trade in England in the later Middle Ages. The decay of feudalism and the rise of the absolute monarchies which, for their own purposes, encouraged the bourgeoisie and trade, accelerated the process. As Robert Heilbroner puts it:

"First, there was the gradual emergence of national political units in Europe. Under the blows of peasant wars and kingly conquest, the isolated existence of early feudalism gave way to centralised monarchies. And with monarchies came the growth of the national spirit; in turn this meant royal patronage for favoured industries, such as the great French tapestry works, and the development of armadas and armies with all their necessary satellite industries. The infinity of rules and regulations which plagued Andreas Ryff and his fellow sixteenth-century travelling merchants gave way to national laws, common measurements, and more or less standard currencies." (Ibid., p. 34.)

The national question, from an historical point of view, therefore, pertains to the period of the bourgeois democratic revolution. Strictly speaking, the national question does not form part of the socialist programme, since it should have been resolved by the bourgeoisie in its struggle against feudalism. It was the bourgeoisie that created the nation state in the first place. The establishment of the nation state was, in its day, a tremendously revolutionary and progressive development. And it was not achieved peacefully and without struggle. The first real European nation, Holland, was formed in the 16th century as a result of a bourgeois revolution that took the form of a war of national liberation against imperial Spain. In the United States it took place on the basis of a revolutionary war of national liberation in the 18th century and was consolidated through a bloody civil war in the 1860s. In Italy also it was achieved through a war of national independence. The unification of Germany—a progressive task at the time—was carried through by the Junker Bismarck by reactionary means, on the basis of war and a policy of "blood and iron".

The French revolution

The establishment of the modern European nation states (with the exceptions of Holland and England) begins with the French revolution. Up to this point the notion of the nation state was identical to that of kingship. The nation was the property of the ruling sovereign. This antiquated legal set-up, inherited directly from feudalism, was in direct conflict with the new conditions related to the rise of the bourgeoisie. In order to conquer power the bourgeoisie was obliged to put itself forward as the representative of the people, that is, the Nation. As Robespierre put it: "In aristocratic states the word patrie [nation] has no meaning except for patrician families who have seized the sovereignty. It is only under democracy that the state is truly the patrie of all the individuals composing it." (Quoted in E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, vol. 1, p. 414.)

The first principle of the French revolution was the most implacable centralisation. This was the prior condition for its success in the life-and-death struggle against the old regime backed up by the whole of Europe. Under the banner of "the Republic, one and indivisible" the revolution united France for the first time into one nation, sweeping aside all the local particularisms and separatisms of Bretons, Normans and Provençals. The alternative was the disintegration and death of the revolution itself. The bloody struggle in the Vendée was both a war against separatism and feudal reaction. The overthrow of the Bourbons gave a powerful impetus to the national spirit throughout Europe. In the first period, the example of a revolutionary people that succeeded in overthrowing the old feudal monarchist order served as an inspiration and a focal point to revolutionary and progressive forces everywhere. Later, the revolutionary armies of the French republic were compelled to take the offensive against the assembled powers of Europe which united under the leadership of England and Russian tsarism to crush the revolution. By a prodigious feat of arms, the revolutionary forces succeeded in throwing back the forces of reaction on every front, thereby revealing before an astonished world the power of a revolutionary people and a nation in arms.

The revolutionary army carried the spirit of revolt everywhere, and was bound to carry a revolutionary message to the territories it occupied. In the ascending phase of the revolution, the armies of the French Convention appeared before the peoples of Europe as liberators. In order to succeed in this titanic struggle with the old order, they were obliged to appeal to the masses to carry out the same revolutionary transformations that had taken place in France. This was a revolutionary war, the like of which had never been seen before. Slavery was abolished in the French colonies. The revolutionary message of the Declaration of the Rights of Man was everywhere the rallying cry that announced the end of feudal and monarchic oppression. As David Thompson points out:

"They [the French] were aided, indeed, by native supporters, and the destructive side of their work was often welcome enough. It was only when populations found French masters no less exacting than their old régimes that they were fired to ideas of self-government. The idea that 'sovereignty of the people' should lead to national independence was the indirect result of French occupation; its original meaning, of abolishing privilege and universalising rights, came to merge into this new implication only as a result of conquests. The French revolutionaries spread liberalism by intention but created nationalism by inadvertence." (David Thompson, Europe after Napoleon, p. 50.)

The exhaustion and decay of the French revolution produced the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte, just as the degeneration of the isolated Russian workers' state later ended up in the proletarian Bonapartist dictatorship of Stalin. The earlier revolutionary democratic message was twisted and deformed into the dynastic and imperial ambitions of Napoleon that proved fatal to France. However, even under Napoleon, albeit in a distorted form, some of the gains of the French revolution were maintained and spread throughout France's European territories, with revolutionary results, especially in Germany and Italy:

"Its most destructive achievements were among the most permanent. Napoleon extended and perpetuated the effects of the French revolution by destroying feudalism in the Low Countries, in much of Germany, and in Italy. Feudalism as a legal system, involving noble jurisdiction over peasants, was ended; feudalism as an economic system involving payment of feudal dues by peasants to nobles, was ended, though often in return for compensation and indemnity. The claims of the Church were never allowed to stand in the way of this reorganisation. Middle classes and peasants became, like nobles, subjects of the state, all equally liable to pay taxes. The system of levying and collecting taxes was made more equitable and efficient. Old guilds and town oligarchies were abolished; internal tariff barriers were removed. Everywhere greater equality, in the sense of careers open to talents, was inaugurated. A gust of modernisation blew through Europe in the wake of Napoleonic conquests. His violent attempts to hammer western Europe into one subservient bloc of annexed or satellite territories succeeded, at least, in shaking it free from antiquated jurisdictions and privileges, from outworn territorial divisions. Most of what he swept away could not be restored." (Ibid., p. 67.)

But Napoleonic rule was not an unmixed blessing. In order to avoid imposing heavy taxes at home, Bonaparte laid heavy impositions on the conquered territories. And for all the social advances, French rule remained foreign rule. As Robespierre so wisely remarked, nobody likes missionaries with bayonets. The French invasion inevitably called forth its opposite in the form of wars of national liberation which ultimately undermined the earlier triumphs. Napoleon's defeat in the frozen wastes of Russia and the destruction of the French army was the signal for a wave of national uprisings against the French. In Prussia the whole nation rose and compelled Fredrick William III into a war with Napoleon. Out of the bloody chaos of the Napoleonic wars and the subsequent carve-up of the victors arose most of the modern states of Europe as we know them today.

The national question after 1848

The year 1848 was a turning-point for the national question in Europe. Amid the flames of revolutions, the suppressed national aspirations of Germans, Czechs, Poles, Italians and Magyars were thrust sharply into the foreground. Had the revolution succeeded, the road would have been open to the solution of the national problem in Germany and elsewhere by the most democratic means. But, as Marx and Engels explained, the 1848 revolution was betrayed by the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie. The defeat of the revolution meant that the national problem had to be solved by other means. Incidentally, one of the causes of the defeat was precisely the manipulation of the national problem (for example, of the Czechs) for reactionary ends.

In Germany, the national question could be expressed in one word: unification. After the defeat of the revolution of 1848, the country remained divided into a series of petty states and principalities. This was an insurmountable obstacle for the free development of capitalism in Germany—and therefore of the working class. Unification was therefore a progressive demand. But the question of who would unite Germany and by what means was of central importance. Marx hoped that the task of unification would be achieved from below—by the working class using revolutionary means. But this was not to be. Since the proletariat had failed to solve this question by revolutionary means in 1848, it was solved by reactionary means by the conservative Prussian Junker Bismarck.

The principal method of achieving this end was through war. In 1864 the Austrians and Prussians combined to defeat the Danes. Denmark lost the province of Schleswig-Holstein, which, after a tussle between Austria and Prussia, was united to Germany in 1865. Having manoeuvred to keep France out of the conflict, Bismarck then formed an alliance with Italy to fight against Austria. When Austria was defeated at the battle of Königgrätz in July 1866, Prussian domination of Germany was guaranteed. By this act, the unification of Germany was achieved by reactionary means, through the agency of Prussian militarism. This served to strengthen the position of Prussian militarism and Bismarck's Bonapartist regime, and sowed the seeds of new wars in Europe. Thus, the way in which the national question is resolved, by which class and in whose interest, is by no means an unimportant question for the working class. This alone is sufficient to explain why it is inadmissible to demand that we should merely act as the cheer-leaders for bourgeois and petty bourgeois nationalists—even when they are carrying out a task that is objectively progressive. At all times the class standpoint must be maintained.

Objectively, the unification of Germany was, of course, a progressive development, which Marx and Engels supported. But this in no way presupposed that the German socialists should support Bismarck. The very idea would have been anathema to Marx. He always opposed the reactionary Bismarck, but when the latter succeeded in uniting Germany, Marx and Engels reluctantly were compelled to support it as a step forward, because it would facilitate the unification of the German proletariat. Thus, Engels wrote to Marx on 25 July 1866: "The thing has this good side to it that it simplifies the situation; it makes a revolution easier by doing away with the brawls between the petty capitals and will in any case hasten development…The whole of the petty states will be swept into the movement, the worst localising influences will cease and parties will at last become really national instead of merely local…

"In my opinion, therefore, all we can do is simply to accept the fact, without justifying it, and to use, so far as we possibly can, the greater facilities for national organisation and unification of the German proletariat which must now at any rate offer themselves."

Italian unification

An analogous situation existed in Italy. At the end of the 1850s, despite many attempts to achieve unification, Italy still remained hopelessly divided and subjugated to Austria, which had annexed its northern territories. In addition, several smaller states, including the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Southern Italy and Sicily) were protected against revolution by Austrian troops ready to intervene. The Papal states of Central Italy were under French "protection". Only the small kingdom of Sardinia, based on Savoy-Piedmont, was free of Austrian domination. Under the leadership of the able diplomat and statesman Count Cavour, the conservative ruling dynasty gradually expanded its sphere of influence and territories, expelling the Austrians from one area after another.

Side by side with the dynastic-conservative opposition to Austria of the Piedmontese, there was also a radical and revolutionary nationalist movement, involving a heterogeneous mixture of republicans, democrats and socialists. These forces were present in every state of Italy as well as in exile. The most visible representative of this trend was Mazzini, whose confused and amorphous ideas corresponded to the nature of the movement he represented. By contrast, Cavour, who stood at the head of the independent North Italian state of Piedmont, was a wily and unprincipled manoeuverer. In a typical diplomatic intrigue, he first got the permission of Britain and France to join them in their Crimean expedition against Russia in 1855. Then, secretly promising the French emperor Napoleon III the territorial concession of Nice and Savoy, Cavour obtained a treaty pledging the French to come to the aid of Piedmont, in the event of hostilities with Austria. The war broke out in 1859 and was the starting-point for the unification of Italy. There were uprisings in all the Italian duchies and Papal states. Together with the French, the Piedmontese troops won a signal victory against Austria at Solferino. The unification of Italy seemed to be imminent. But that did not correspond to the interests of Louis Bonaparte, who promptly signed an armistice with the retreating Austrian armies, thus abandoning the Piedmontese and revolutionaries to their fate.

Finally, the Italian war of liberation was saved by the uprising in Sicily which greeted the landing of Garibaldi's expeditionary force of 1,000 red-shirted volunteers. After winning the battle for Sicily, Garibaldi's rebel force invaded Southern Italy and made a triumphal entry into Naples. Italian unity was thus brought about by revolutionary means from below, but the fruits were harvested elsewhere. The perpetual intriguer Cavour persuaded London and Paris that it would be better to accept the rule of a conservative Piedmont over a united Italy than to wait for all Italy to fall under the control of revolutionists and republicans. The army of Piedmontese dynastic reaction marched into Naples unopposed. Garibaldi, instead of fighting them, opened the gates and greeted the King of Piedmont, Victor Emmanuel, on October 26, hailing him as "King of Italy". Thus, the people of Italy only won one half a victory, instead of the complete triumph over the old order which they had paid for with their blood.

Instead of a republic, Italy got a constitutional monarchy. Instead of a democracy, it got a limited franchise which excluded 98 per cent of the people from voting. The Pope was allowed to continue his rule in the Papal states (a concession to Louis Bonaparte). Yet, despite this, the unification of Italy was a giant step forward. All Italy was united, except for Venice, which remained under Austrian control, and the Papal states. In 1866, Italy joined Prussia in its war against Austria and received Venice as a reward. Finally, after the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian war (1871) the French troops were withdrawn from Rome. The entry of the Italian army into that city marked the final victory of Italian unification.

By the latter half of the 19th century, the national question in Western Europe had largely been resolved. With the unification of Germany and Italy, after 1871 the national question in Europe appeared to be confined to Eastern Europe and, in a particularly explosive sense, in the Balkans where it was inextricably entangled with the territorial ambitions and rivalries of Russia, Turkey, Austro-Hungary and Germany, a fact that led inexorably to the First World War. During the first period—approximately from 1789 to 1871—the national question still played a relatively progressive role in Western Europe. Even the unification of Germany under the reactionary Junker Bismarck was considered as a progressive development by Marx and Engels, as we have seen. But already by the second half of the 19th century the development of the productive forces under capitalism was beginning to outgrow the narrow limitations of the nation state. This was already manifested in the development of imperialism and the irresistible tendency towards war between the major powers. The Balkan wars of 1912-13 marked the completion of the formation of the national states of south-eastern Europe. The First World War and the Treaty of Versailles (which was held, incidentally, under the slogan of the "right of nations to self-determination") finished the job by dismantling the Austro-Hungarian empire and granting independence to Poland.