Marxism and the National Question


Part Five: The nation state today


In the classical period of the bourgeois revolution in Europe—that is, approximately, from 1780 to 1871—the establishment of the nation states played a relatively progressive role in breaking down local particularism, smashing the remnants of feudalism and laying the basis for the development of the productive forces on the ground of the national market. But in the present epoch, the situation has been transformed. The means of production have long ago outgrown the narrow limits of the nation state. At the present time the nation state has ceased to fulfil any progressive role. Instead of developing the means of production it is an enormous brake on the means of production. That is implicitly acknowledged by the bourgeois themselves. The formation of the European Union was an admission on the part of the European bourgeois that the pigmy states of Europe could not compete in the past against the two giants of imperialist America and mighty Stalinist Russia. But the formation of the European Union has not abolished the nation state in Europe. On the contrary. The old national antagonisms continue to exist, in effect German imperialism at the present time dominates Europe with France as a second rate partner. But the national antagonisms continue to exist, and on the basis of a world slump they will be intensified.

The apologists of capitalism like to present a rosy picture of so-called globalisation, a world free from contradiction, blissfully moving towards ever greater freedom and liberalisation. But the truth is very different. The world has not become globalised in the way that they pretend. On the one had it tends to break up into three rival imperialist blocks. The USA controls Canada and South America. In Asia there is the weaker yen block dominated by Japan. The European Union, dominated by Germany, also dominates large section of the colonial world in Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the Caribbean. The antagonism between these rival imperialist blocks is as intense now as at any other time in history. In fact, at any other historical period it would have meant war between these blocks. A world war now appears to be ruled out because the advent of horrific means of destruction—nuclear, bacteriological and chemical weapons—means that the great powers would run the risk of mutual annihilation. But there is a ferocious struggle for markets, which is inevitably leading to wars in one region of the world after another. It is sufficient to mention the struggle for spheres of influence, markets and access to the fabulous mineral wealth of the region which has led to the catastrophic epidemic of wars in Central Africa. These are generally presented as the result of tribalism and mere barbarism on the part of the Africans. But in practice behind most of these conflicts we can see the effects of the struggle between the USA, France and Britain to gain a foothold in Africa using their stooges in one camp or another.

The world described in Lenin's Imperialism is a fairly accurate reflection of the present world situation. There is an intense struggle for markets between the imperialist powers, even for the smallest market. This is very different to the cosy picture of a nice globalised world in which all the contradictions have been resolved. In reality the imperialist powers are fighting like dogs over a bone. One only has to glance at a map of Africa to see how the crimes of imperialism have brutally distorted the life and evolution of millions of human beings. Here frontiers are straight lines drawn on the map with the aid of a ruler. The Economist gives quite an accurate description of what really happened: "European bureaucrats casually agglomerated perhaps 10,000 different tribes and nations into just a few dozen colonial almost states." The present wars that are taking place in Central Africa are, in part, the heritage of this monstrous carve-up which cut across all natural geographic, linguistic and tribal divisions. There is horror without end in a whole series of countries: the Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Sierra Leone with elements of barbarism. An article in The Economist referred to the war in Sierra Leone: "Children kill their parents, cannibal gangs roam the countryside, chaos rules, barbarism flourishes, Sierra Leone is the latest African country to dissolve into bloody chaos. And the outcome could be the worst yet."

The imperialist carve-up of Africa was a monstrous act. But now, over a hundred years later, a series of national states have been established in Africa. The task of giving a genuinely democratic, rational and progressive character to the different states of post-colonial Africa is a task that can only be carried out by the proletariat once it has finally overthrown the domination of imperialism and its local office boys. True independence and the ability to stand up against all attempts at foreign domination can only be achieved by uniting the divided body of Africa on the basis of a common socialist plan of production. The joint exploitation of the enormous natural wealth of the continent, its vast agricultural potential and mineral resources, can transform the lives of the peoples and thus put an end to the nightmare of tribal and ethnic strife. However, the attempts to reshuffle the pack on a capitalist basis, to alter the existing frontiers through war, can only have the most destructive results and even lead directly to barbarism. To hold out the perspective before millions of desperate people that by altering the frontiers it is possible to solve their most pressing problems, is a vile deceit.

Nowhere is the reactionary nature of the misuse of the slogan of self-determination clearer than in Africa. The slogan of self-determination in Africa has been repeatedly manipulated for reactionary purposes, to weaken certain states by breaking away provinces rich in mineral resources which can then be more easily dominated by foreign powers and big multinational companies. In every single case there is an involvement of the imperialists. There is a titanic battle between the American and French imperialists for markets in Africa. And, imitating the big wolves, the little British poodle is also trying to get involved in Sierra Leone, although, predictably, with not much success.

For all the pretty speeches about liberalisation and democracy, the fact of the matter is that imperialism is carrying on the most ferocious oppression and exploitation of the ex-colonial peoples. The low price of raw materials has been an important component part in the economic growth of the West in the last 50 years. This itself shows the limitations of the nation state. The fact is that on the basis of capitalism, the achievement of formal independence, while in itself a progressive development, can solve nothing. The colonial nations, theoretically masters in their own house, are in practice entirely subordinate to the world market—that is, to imperialism.

After the Second World War we have seen an enormous upswing of the colonial revolution. This was perhaps the biggest movement of the oppressed people in human history. This was an enormous awakening of the colonial peoples, of China, of Africa, of the Middle East, Indonesia, of India, of Pakistan, This was an inspiring movement in which countless millions of former colonial slaves rose against their masters, fighting for their national emancipation. The reasons why all Marxists supported the colonial revolution are obvious. It was a revolutionary movement, a blow against imperialism it aroused the masses and advanced the class struggle. Yet 50 years later, if one takes for example India and Pakistan, what has been resolved by the bourgeoisie? They have formal independence, but under capitalism, this turns out not to be independence at all. The ex-colonial countries are chained to the chariot of World Imperialism through the mechanisms of the world market. In fact, they are more enslaved now than they were 50 years ago. The only difference is that in place of the military, bureaucratic rule there is indirect rule, through the terms of trade—that is, the exchange of more labour for less—and through indebtedness.

Falling commodity prices and debt

The collapse in Asia found its reflection in world markets in a general fall of commodity prices including oil. In the course of 1998 alone, the price of oil fell from approximately $20 a barrel to less than $10 a barrel. This is a finished recipe for revolution in every single oil producing country. True, the price of oil has recovered since as a result of Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing countries agreeing to restrict production. But the effect of this cannot be long-lasting, especially as most of these countries depend exclusively upon oil for their foreign earnings. They have no other source of income. The whole history of cartels shows that sooner or later one country will start trying to get an advantage by selling more oil, and the whole thing breaks down. The same thing is true for all raw materials.

The ex-colonial countries are subjected to a dual exploitation. There are two points of the scissors. Through the debt the metropolitan countries also squeeze the colonial people. 10 years ago the accumulated debt of the Colonial World was approximately 800 billion dollars. All of that has been paid. From 1990 to 1997 just in the servicing of the debt, that's interest rates, the Colonial World paid 1.8 trillion dollars. That is more than twice the original sum that was owed. And what has happened to the accumulated debt? In 1994 it stood at 1.4 trillion dollars and in 1997, it stood at 2.1 trillion dollars. That will never be paid.

In Nigeria oil is 95 per cent of foreign income. In 1997 Nigeria earned 12 billion US dollars from the sale of oil. In 1998 it was reduced to 6.8 billion. This horrendous decline has not been compensated for by the subsequent rise in oil prices. The instability that arises from the wild swings in the price of oil is mirrored in growing social and political instability. In any case, the poorest sections of society derive no benefit from the increased price of oil, but suffers the worst consequences when it falls. Nigeria, which used to be one of the richest countries in Africa is now one of the poorest countries in the world, according to the United Nations. This situation gives rise to dire social consequences which find their most acute expression in the growing antagonisms between different regions and ethnic groups.

If the workers do not succeed in taking power and transform Nigeria on socialist lines, a nightmare will be prepared. There are at least 120 ethnic groups in Nigeria, including the three main nations—the dominant Hausa in the North who are Islamic in religion and have traditionally dominated the state and oppressed the other two main nationalities, the Yorubas and the Ibos in the South and East of the country. The war of Biafra, in which the imperialists were involved in an attempt to split away the Ibo area, led to a terrible blood bath. If Nigeria was to break up on national lines it could be an even more ghastly slaughter, which would make the Biafran war seem insignificant by comparison. To advocate in such a situation the demand of self-determination not just for the main nations of Nigeria, but for tribal groups, as one sect has advocated, is the height of irresponsibility.

In Indonesia also the national question is very important and a correct position on this will be as important to the Indonesian Marxists as it was to the Russian Bolsheviks. If the proletariat of Indonesia does not succeed in showing a way forward through socialist revolution, the break-up of Indonesia will become a real possibility. Given the explosive mixture of races and religions, the consequences would be too horrible to contemplate. The bloody events in East Timor were a warning to all the peoples of Indonesia. Now we see the emergence of murderous inter-ethnic strife in Aceh, Molucca and other islands. The forces of reaction in the tops of the army, the landowners, capitalists and members of the old regime, faced with the loss of their power and privileges will not hesitate to plunge Indonesia into a nightmare of chaos and bloodshed in order to divide and disorient the mass movement. Only by skilfully combining a programme that recognises the national rights and aspirations of all the peoples of the Archipelago with the programme of uniting the workers and poor peasants of all nationalities and religions to expropriate the landlords and capitalists, can a way out be found.

The colonial revolution today

The reason why the colonial revolution has taken such a distorted form, with monstrous aberrations like proletarian Bonapartism, is because of the delay of the proletarian revolution in the West on the one hand and on the other hand the absence of strong Marxist parties. If such parties existed, it would have been entirely possible to carry through the revolution on classical lines. After all, Russia in 1917 was an extremely backward country, a semi-feudal and semi-colonial country and at the same time an imperialist power. In a country of 150 million people, there were only 3.5 million industrial workers, 10 million if we take all sections of the class, transport, mining etc. And yet Lenin based himself on the working class and carried through a classical revolution in Russia.

There is no doubt that when strong Marxist parties are built in countries like Pakistan, or Mexico, there will be no question of the movement being side-tracked into guerrillaism and proletarian Bonapartism. The peasant war in underdeveloped countries should be an adjunct of the proletarian revolution, but it cannot play the main role. However, the masses in the underdeveloped countries cannot wait until mass parties are created, or until the British or French workers take power. Therefore, violent outbreaks, uprising, even guerrilla wars, as we see in Colombia, are inevitable in the present epoch. In the absence of a Bolshevik party, the colonial revolution can take all kinds of peculiar forms. It goes without saying that Marxists will support any movement of the oppressed people against imperialism, especially where it leads to the abolition of landlordism and capitalism. But the only way in which the problems of the colonial peoples can be solved is through the soviet system brought into existence by Lenin and Trotsky in Russia in 1917. Under capitalism there is no way forward. The working class must take power into its own hands. By nationalising the means of production, under the democratic control and administration of the working class, a start can be made immediately to solve the most pressing problems of society.

However, under modern conditions this is insufficient. An internationalist policy is a fundamental requirement. Nationalism can offer no way forward. For example, if the workers and peasants of Ecuador take power—and this is entirely possible, as we saw in the magnificent movement last January—US imperialism will not remain with its arms folded. Washington does not want to get involved in a war on the ground in Latin America (or anywhere else) for fear of the effects at home. But it would undoubtedly do everything in its power to sabotage and wreck the revolution. Not only would it organise an economic blockade and support counter-revolutionary forces within Ecuador, but it would also incite neighbouring states to intervene against the revolution. There has already been one war in the past few years between Ecuador and Peru. US imperialism would not hesitate to prod Fujimori into a new armed conflict against the Ecuadorian revolution, if that became necessary.

The key to success is therefore a correct policy. That presupposes a Bolshevik leadership, standing firmly on the basis of proletarian internationalism. The founders of scientific socialism already pointed out in The Communist Manifesto that, although national in form, the proletarian revolution is always international in essence. This means that, although the workers of a particular country can and must first of all settle accounts with its own bourgeoisie, it cannot remain on the basis of a purely national revolution. It must take steps to spread the revolution beyond its own frontiers, or face the prospect of defeat and destruction. For that very reason, nationalism and the socialist revolution are diametrically opposed and mutually incompatible concepts.

The only way, for example, that a revolutionary Ecuador could confront its enemies would be by immediately making an appeal to the workers and peasants of Peru, Venezuela, Colombia and the whole of Latin America to come to its aid. Such an appeal would not fall on deaf ears! The whole of Latin America is in a deep crisis. This is a most graphic expression of the reactionary character of private property of the means of production and the nation state. Once the revolution starts in any country of Latin America it will tend to spread. This process would be immeasurably assisted by a conscious internationalist policy. In reality, the national states of Latin America are of an artificial character. By perpetuating the division of people who share a common history, culture and, with the exception of Brazil, a common language, we are perpetuation the Balkanisation of Latin America, that is, the prior condition for the enslavement of millions of people and the plundering of a potentially prosperous and advanced continent by the imperialist robbers.

Long ago Simon Bolivar advanced the prospect of a united Latin America. On a capitalist basis that idea remained an unattainable dream. But on the basis of workers' power, a Socialist Federation of Latin America would mean the pooling of all the vast resources of the continent for the benefit of all its peoples. This, in turn, would have an electrifying effect on the workers of North America where 20 per cent of the population of the USA are now Hispanic. The basis would be laid for the victory of socialism, north and south of the Rio Grande, and therefore on a world scale.

The Palestinian Question

The national question is crucial to the Middle East, above all the Palestinian question. After decades of national oppression at the hands of the Israeli imperialists, the Palestinian masses have a burning sense of injustice, expressed in the desire for their own homeland. That is their inalienable right, which Marxists will uphold and fight for. However, the experience of the last thirty years should provide us with some necessary lessons. The petty bourgeois nationalist leaders of the PLO held out the idea that they could obtain self-determination by means of a so-called armed struggle against Israel. In practice this boiled down to simple acts of individual terrorism, bombings, kidnappings, hijacking aircrafts, etc. These actions did not weaken Israel in the slightest degree. On the contrary. To the degree that they persuaded ordinary Israelis that the intention was to "drive the Jews into the sea", they pushed the population into the arms of reaction. Far from weakening the Israeli state, they strengthened it.

The tactics of the PLO leaders led the Palestinians to one defeat after another. First, they were crushed by King Hussein of Jordan in 1970, although they could easily have taken power in that country. Subsequently they repeated the same story in the Lebanon, and helped to provoke a bloody civil war and Israeli and Syrian intervention into the bargain. And while they continued to meddle with the disastrous tactics of individual terrorism, they had no strategy for an uprising of the masses on the West Bank itself. When the Intifada finally broke out, Arafat and the PLO leadership played no real role in it. The Palestinian youth had to face the might of the Israeli military machine, unarmed except for sticks and stones. Despite this, the mass movement on the West Bank did more for the Palestinian cause in a few months than Arafat and co. had achieved in thirty years.

The "concessions" offered by Tel Aviv were not at all the result of the actions of the PLO exiles. They were partly the result of the Intifada, which shook Israeli society and attracted the sympathetic attention of the whole world. But they were also the reflection of the new world situation. Since the collapse of Stalinism, the world balance of forces has been changed. The USA has achieved a crushing dominance on a world scale. This means that Washington is no longer so dependent on Israel as during the Cold War. US imperialism has vital economic and strategic interests in the Middle East, which means that it has an interest in shoring up Arab regimes like Saudi Arabia, and in maintaining stability in the region. Therefore Washington has put pressure on Tel Aviv to reach a compromise with the Palestinians and the neighbouring Arab states. And Arafat jumped with alacrity to accept what was offered. Having failed for decades to advance the Palestine cause one step, the PLO leaders were greedy to enjoy the "fruits of office" which had been conquered by the people. What they accepted amounted to a betrayal of the national struggle of the Palestinians.

Washington hoped to establish stability in the area by forcing through a compromise. However, the national question is notoriously volatile and complex, and explosive situations created by imperialism in the past cannot always be easily defused by imperialism when it changes its mind. Just as British imperialism created a Frankenstein monster in the North of Ireland, which it cannot now control, so the American imperialists now find that, having built up a client state in Israel, the puppet does not always dance when the strings are pulled. The Israeli ruling class has its own interests, which may, or may not, correspond to those of the USA. Thus, the so-called Peace Deal in the Middle East is in serious difficulties. None of the fundamental problems have been solved.

As predicted by the Marxists, the deal signed by Arafat with the Israelis was a trap for the Palestinian people. This is not self-determination but only a miserable caricature and a fraud. The new Palestinian entity is a truncated abortion, with Gaza separated from the West Bank and Jerusalem still firmly under Israeli control. There are all sorts of humiliating conditions attached. To make matters worse, large numbers of Jewish settlers remain and act as a continual provocation to the Palestinians. In effect, the so-called Palestinian Authority is just a tool of Israel, which in practice, continues to dominate. The conditions of the Arab masses on the West Bank and Gaza are probably worse than before, with mass unemployment, especially among the youth. Israel can turn the screw at any time by closing the border, thus depriving the Palestinians who work in Israel of employment and bread. To make things worse, Arafat and his gang have formed themselves into a privileged bureaucratic elite who act as policemen for Tel Aviv, while filling their pockets at the expense of ordinary Palestinians.

The deal that was brokered with a fanfare of trumpets under the pressure of Washington is breaking down. With the fall of Netanyahu and the election of a Labour government, Washington hoped that it would finally succeed in imposing its will. But the pressure of the Jewish settlers, as we predicted, has led to one crisis after another. The government of Tel Aviv, having failed to make any progress with the Palestinians, attempted to negotiate a deal with Syria over the Golan Heights. But no sooner was the question of handing back the Golan heights raised than there were mass demonstrations in Israel against it. The talks with Syria broke down, leading to a new outbreak of hostilities in South Lebanon.

Most seriously, the growing discontent of the masses on the West Bank and in Gaza threatens to provoke a new Intifada. This is implicit in the situation. A new Intifada would contain a clear revolutionary potential, on one condition: that it possesses a firm revolutionary leadership that stands for an internationalist solution. On the basis of nationalism, no solution is possible. A far-sighted leadership would strive to link the revolutionary movement of the Palestinians with the movement of the Israeli working class. It would explain that the common enemy of both Arab and Israeli working people are the Israeli bankers and capitalists. It would make clear that the Palestinian revolutionary movement is not directed against ordinary Israeli citizens. It would systematically seek points of support in Israeli society: among the students and progressive youth, in the factories and army barracks. The central idea must be the necessity for a fundamental transformation of society, not only in Palestine but also in Israel, as the only way out of the impasse.

The fate of the Palestinians has been a terrible tragedy. For more than 30 years, the Palestinians have been fighting for self-determination and where has it led on a nationalist basis? To a complete catastrophe and a betrayal. The lesson is clear and must be learnt: the national problem in Palestine cannot be solved on a capitalist basis. The only way to solve that problem would be by revolutionary means, by a socialist revolution in Israel and socialist revolutions in all the surrounding Arab countries, beginning with Jordan where the PLO could have taken power 30 years ago, if the PLO leaders had not betrayed the revolution. The only way to solve that problem is on the basis of the Socialist Federation of the Middle East with full autonomy for the Palestinians and also for the Israelis.

Petty bourgeois cynics will say that this is not "practical". But have we not seen enough of the kind of "practical" solutions advocated by these smart-Alecs over the past thirty years—and not just in the Middle East. Everywhere, without exception, these "practical" policies—which boil down to the madness of individual terrorism and nationalist stupidity—have brought nothing but disasters and betrayals. We see this yet again in the capitulation of the Kurdish nationalists leaders of the PKK and the sell-out of Mandela and Mbeki of the aspirations of the black proletariat in South Africa. Lenin was a thousand times correct when he poured scorn on the so-called "practical" policies of the nationalists. The plain fact is that the only way out for the Palestinians is on the basis of a revolutionary, internationalist class policy. Any other solution spells new disasters. The only really practical programme is the programme of socialist revolution.

Self-determination as a reactionary slogan

 Marxism has nothing in common with pacifism. We are not opposed to all wars in principle, and recognise that some wars are progressive. But "all that glisters is not gold". And not every war that is fought under the banner of self-determination has a progressive character. In each particular case, Marxists must examine the precise class content of a war, or national struggle, determine what interests lie behind it and what implications it has for the cause of the working class and world socialism. Only then is it possible to determine our attitude to a war, to say whether it is progressive or reactionary, and to take up a position in line with this determination.

During the American Civil War, would it have been correct to support the Confederacy on the grounds of the right to self-determination? The question answers itself. Under the given conditions, the fight to maintain the Union had a progressive and semi-revolutionary character. By imposing its will on the South, the Northern states undoubtedly violated the South's right to determine its destiny freely. But such considerations are entirely secondary when compared to the fundamental issues, that is, the class issues. Who was behind the demand for self-determination in this case? The slave-owners of the South. The working class had to support the North, because the maintenance of the Union furthered the development of capitalism and therefore the proletariat. The freeing of the black slaves was a necessary and progressive step in this direction. This case is very clear and no sane person would argue with it. But there are many other instances in which the demand for self-determination is advanced for entirely reactionary purposes, and must be decisively rejected. For example, the demand of the Northern League in Italy that they should have the right to break away and constitute a separate state has a clearly reactionary character.

These examples are quite sufficient to establish the fact that national aspirations and the right to self-determination are not, and cannot be, absolute. Such a demand, in a given historical context, may have a progressive character. But it may be entirely reactionary and retrograde. It is necessary in each case to examine the concrete content, determine which class interests are involved, and work out what effects a particular movement would have on the general interests of the working class and the fight for socialism on an international scale. Although the national question is very complicated, it is usually sufficient to pose the question in concrete terms to arrive at the correct position. In 1991, at the very beginning of the collapse of Yugoslavia, the authors of the present document participated in a debate with some self-styled Marxists, in the course of which one sectarian interrupted Ted Grant, with a shout from the back of the hall: "What's your position on self-determination for Croatia?" Ted swiftly retorted with an appropriate counter-question: "What do you mean? You mean, do we support the Ushtasi or the Chetniks?" (that is to say the Serb fascists or the Croat fascists). The heckler didn't ask any more questions.

Anyone who has any knowledge of the history of wars and diplomacy (the two things are closely related) will know that it is necessary to cut though the fog of lies and half-truths whereby one side or another attempts to fool public opinion in relation to the nature of a war, and to lay bare the real war aims of the contending parties. Woe betide the person who approaches a war from the standpoint of the slogans of diplomacy! The slogan of self-determination may have a progressive and revolutionary content, as Lenin explained. But not in every case. There have been many cases when the slogan of self-determination has been used for reactionary purposes, as a convenient disguise for imperialist intrigues. During the First World War, British imperialism sent its agent Lawrence of Arabia to stir up the Arabs against Turkey, promising them self-determination. London promised Palestine to the Arabs, and simultaneously to the Jews, and then promptly betrayed both of them by installing itself as the new colonial master after the War. The monstrous Treaty of Versailles that enslaved Europe and prepared the conditions for a new world war, also inscribed on its banner the right of nations to self-determination. Later, Hitler used the slogan of the right to self-determination of the Sudetenland Germans, Croats, Albanians and others to further his policy of imperialist expansion and enslavement of the peoples. His police chief Heinrich Himmler wrote: "…In dealing with the foreign peoples in the East we must foster as many single national groups as possible; Poles, Jews (sic!), Ukrainians, White Russians, Kashchuben and as many other small nationalities as can be found."

There is nothing particularly new in this. The Romans long ago worked out the simple formula later brilliantly used by the British ruling class everywhere it set foot: "Divide et impera"—"Divide and rule". The policy of dividing states, and of setting one nationality or race against another has long been an essential tool of imperialism. By contrast, the revolutionaries have striven to unite the working class and all oppressed people against the exploiters everywhere.

The national question today is much more complicated than in Lenin's day. Lenin used to give the example of Norway, which split away from Sweden in 1905. Norway had been ceded to Sweden as part of the reactionary settlement agreed by the Congress of Vienna in 1815 after the defeat of Napoleon. This was not a voluntary union. The Norwegians opposed it and had to be forcibly incorporated by the Swedish army. Although the Swedish and Norwegian languages are fairly close, and the Norwegians enjoyed considerable autonomy, they still smarted under Swedish domination. In August 1905, the Norwegian parliament resolved that the Swedish king was no longer king of Norway and the people voted overwhelmingly in a referendum for separation from Sweden. Of this Lenin wrote: "This example shows us on what grounds cases of the secession of nations are possible, and actually occur, under modern economic and political relationships, and the form secession assumes under conditions of political freedom and democracy." (LCW, The Right of Nations to Self-determination, February-May 1914, vol. 20.)

The fact that the Swedish workers defended the democratic right of the Norwegian people to secede disarmed the Swedish reactionaries who, after some initial hesitation, decided not to intervene. This served to consolidate the solidarity between the Swedish and Norwegian workers. But, although Lenin regarded this case as a model of how the national question should be settled, it is, in fact, an historical exception. The form in which the national question presents itself at the present time has a different character altogether. And Lenin himself frequently pointed out that Marxists take up a position on this according to the concrete conditions of each case. What happened in Norway in 1905 was a simple matter, and child's play in comparison to situations like Northern Ireland, the Lebanon or the Balkans today. Norway was an ethnically homogenous country with no such complications. The Norwegians just passed a vote in the Parliament and they got independence. That was a simple matter. It bears no relation whatsoever to a situation like Northern Ireland, where the population is split and the withdrawal of British troops would have meant a religious war between Catholics and Protestants. An even clearer example is the recent history of the Balkans, as we shall see.

A malicious misrepresentation of Marxism

As we have shown, from the standpoint of Marxist theory, the national question is not something new that was invented yesterday. There is a huge volume of literature on the national question in the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. Yet, paradoxically, there is probably no area of Marxist theory that is so poorly understood and so maliciously misrepresented. It is better not even to talk about the Stalinists, whose theory of socialism in one country of itself signifies a direct abandonment of the Marxist standpoint. Incredible as it may seem, today every single one of the sectarian groups that call themselves Marxists and "Trotskyists" have a radically false position on the national question.

In the case of the Balkans almost all of the sects supported either one group of gangsters or another, allegedly on the basis of supporting Lenin's position on the national question. In particular, their alleged support of "self-determination" for Kosovo led most of these people to capitulate to US imperialism and become the most enthusiastic cheer-leaders for the KLA. From the very beginning we warned that this stance would inevitably lead to the most reactionary conclusions. We predicted that, far from self-determination, NATO's reactionary war against Yugoslavia could only end up in the establishment of a US "protectorate" in Kosovo. Today we invite those ladies and gentlemen who so enthusiastically backed the KLA to indicate whether they consider that the present situation has advanced or harmed the cause of socialism on the Balkans. From a Marxist point of view there is not an atom of progressive content in all this. Not only has US imperialism established a firm base for its operations in the Balkans, but the KLA has itself engaged in massive "ethnic cleansing" and pogroms against defenceless Serb men, women and children. To such monstrosities does the abandonment of a class position on the national question lead.

None of this is new, of course. In the case of Ireland these same self-styled "Marxists" supported the IRA in its campaign of individual terrorism for the last 30 years. This was an abject capitulation to nationalism, in complete violation of the most elementary principles of Leninism. And where has it all led? After a generation of so-called "armed struggle", with more than 3,000 dead, the IRA has not gained a single one of its aims. The working class in Northern Ireland is more bitterly divided now than at any time in the past. Catholic and Protestant children live and study separately. The two communities are separated by walls and razor-wire. And the prospect of the re-unification of Ireland is further off now than ever.

In Afghanistan, the same people scandalously defended the so-called Mujahadeen "freedom fighters" in their war against the Stalinist regime in Kabul—once again alleging as an excuse the "right of self-determination" of the Afghan people. This same "right" was also defended by US imperialism and feudal-reactionary Pakistan, who armed and financed these counter-revolutionary gangsters. Now the affair has ended in the victory of Islamic-fundamentalist reaction in its most nightmarish form. In what way can the victory of undisguised reaction under the Taliban be justified by referring to the right of self-determination?

These are only a few examples to show where the abandonment of the Marxist position on the national question inevitably leads. The sum total of the wisdom of the sects amounts to a parrot-like repetition of the same phrase: "After all, didn't Lenin advocate self-determination?" Having read a couple of lines of Lenin these sectarians imagine themselves to be great geniuses. One is forcibly reminded of the old English proverb "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing". They are like a not very bright schoolkid who shows off his knowledge by constantly repeating "ABC". But after "ABC" there are other letters in the alphabet. Lenin, as we shall see, was far from supporting the right to self-determination in each and every case, but carefully distinguished between what is progressive and what is reactionary, basing himself on a careful study of the concrete conditions.

Paradoxically, those who have long ago gone down that road, and ditched the class and internationalist position of Marx and Lenin in favour of petty-bourgeois nationalism, have attempted to criticise the genuine Marxists for allegedly departing from the "correct" line. To such critics we say only this: that we are proud of the fact that only the Marxist tendency represented by Socialist Appeal and In Defence of Marxism has kept its head and maintained the classical position of Marxism on this question—and on all others. Our record speaks for itself. We are not ashamed to re-publish today anything we have written for the past fifty years. The problem is that those who speak in the name of Lenin on this question merely demonstrate their ignorance of the position of the Bolshevik Party on the national question. The purpose of this document is to put the record straight. It is, of course, not addressed to the sects who are incapable of learning anything.

Marxists and the Irish question

As on the question of the Balkans, so on the question of Northern Ireland, the Marxist tendency can be proud of its record. For 30 years we have kept our heads and consistently defended a class position. The same cannot be said of others. When "the Troubles" exploded in Ireland in 1969 the Communist Party, the SWP, the Mandelites of the IMG, and all the other sects supported the sending of British troops to the north of Ireland, on the grounds that they were going to protect the Catholics. They would all prefer to forget this nowadays. But facts are stubborn things. The Marxists in the Labour Party were the only ones who denounced it. We were the only ones who moved a resolution at Labour Party Conference in the Autumn of 1969 opposing the sending of British troops. We said that the British army could not play a progressive role, that the troops were being sent to defend the interests of imperialism.

These same ladies and gentlemen who supported the sending of British troops to Northern Ireland later went to the other extreme, forming the so-called Troops Out Movement. All of them capitulated to the individual terrorism of the IRA. This so-called armed struggle went on for three decades. In 1970, the IRA thought they could defeat British imperialism by force of arms and bomb Northern Ireland into accepting unity with the South. We pointed out at the time that this was impossible. A united Ireland could never have been achieved on this basis, because the Protestants were armed and would fight to resist it. If it came to a war between the Catholics and the Protestants, the IRA would be defeated and the Catholics would be driven out. All that would happen would be a re-drawing of the frontier. But this could not be done that peacefully. It would mean a terrible slaughter, on the lines of what we have recently seen in the former Yugoslavia. This would end up with a 100 per cent Protestant regime in the North, and a 100 per cent Catholic regime in the South. Under these circumstances both North and South would probably end up as military police dictatorships. That would be the only possible outcome of an attempt to solve the Irish question on a capitalist basis.

The lessons of Yugoslavia are a terrible confirmation of this. Precisely for that reason, there was, and is, no question of London withdrawing its troops from the North. It is an irony of history that British imperialism now has no interest in maintaining its hold on Northern Ireland. Unlike in 1922, there are neither economic nor strategic reasons for remaining there. But the problem is that withdrawal would provoke a bloody chaos which would spill over into the rest of the United kingdom. This is the nightmare scenario which London cannot permit to happen. Therefore they are condemned to remain. And if the IRA continues to fight for another 30 years, it will have just the same result. The policy of the IRA has led to a complete impasse with negative results for the working class and socialism. What was the result? Three thousand dead, a whole generation lost, the working class entirely split on religious lines. The western media talked a lot about the Berlin wall that divided Berlin. But nobody talks of the wall that divides Belfast between Protestants and Catholics. They do not speak to each other, they cannot meet. This is the so-called "peace line", the most monstrous expression of the madness of national divisions. This was the direct result of the IRA's campaign of individual terror.

The Marxist tendency stood on a class basis and fought for the unity of the working class. This was possible. In the factories in 1969 there was an instinctive movement of the workers for unity which could have succeeded, if a conscious leadership had been present. We demanded the formation of a workers' militia based on the unions—the only organisations which still united Catholics and Protestants. Of course, in the concrete circumstances, it would have to be armed for defence against the sectarian lunatics on both sides. Our slogan was a revolutionary slogan "For a united armed workers' defence force!" This was the only way to combat the sectarians. The ultra-lefts found this amusing. They always find the Leninist position funny. But then when Lenin was alive, the petty bourgeois nationalists also used to ridicule his position on the national question as utopian. Lenin answered these "practical" people with the contempt they so richly deserved.

And what do they now say about the situation in Northern Ireland? The IRA agreed to a truce, for the simple reason that the so-called "armed struggle" was getting nowhere. The idea that they could expel the British army by such means was completely unrealistic, as we pointed out from the beginning. And now where has it all ended? Like the leaders of the PLO in Palestine and Mandela and Mbeki in South Africa, the leaders of Sinn Fein exchanged the bomb and the gun for "politics"—that is to say, for a smart suit and a Minister's salary. They are quite prepared to abandon the cause for which their supporters sacrificed everything, for the sake of a nice career and bourgeois respectability. This is where the so-called "armed struggle" (i.e. individual terrorism) always ends up. The Russian Marxists always characterised the terrorists as "Liberals with bombs". Now we can see the literal truth of this assertion. Thirty years later, the IRA was no further along the road of a United Ireland. Incredibly, the leaders of Sinn Fein (the political arm of the IRA) signed up to the Good Friday Agreement, which specifically ratifies the status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. The "concession" of the so-called "Cross-Border Agreement" with the South was merely a sop to republican aspirations, since the North-South body has no significant powers.

Even this deal was too much for many Unionists, who finally dug their heels in over the so-called question of "decommissioning of arms" (in practice, disarmament by the IRA). This has caused a crisis, since the IRA has no serious intention of disarming. The guns are necessary, apart from any other consideration, because the Republican movement has a long tradition of splits and internecine feuds in which yesterday's leaders become today's customers for the undertaker. Already breakaway groups like the "Continuity IRA" have staged bombings to show that they are still in business. By demanding immediate disarmament, the Unionists were clearly engaging in a provocative action, which was bound to be rejected by the IRA. This has led to the breakdown of the Good Friday Agreement and the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the reintroduction of direct rule from London.

Our allegedly utopian policies in relation to Ireland correspond to those of Lenin and Marx which we have already referred to. A particularly shameful role in Ireland has been played by the sects in Britain and internationally on the question of Ireland. Pursuing a so-called "practical" policy, they shamefully tail-ended the IRA, completely abandoning any pretence of a class position and acting as the unpaid advocates for terrorism. This was all the more despicable because they ran no risks themselves This amounted to a capitulation to petty bourgeois nationalism and individual terrorism, which in every single case led to a disaster on the national question. Lenin spoke with utter contempt about these alleged "practical" policies on the national question. Life itself has shown that the so-called practical policy of capitulating to the petty bourgeois is not a practical policy at all. It is a shameful betrayal of the working class and in every case leads to disaster. Let us be clear about this. Marxists are for the unification of Ireland. But the unification of Ireland now is further away than in the whole history of Ireland. That is the only result of the tactics of individual terrorism and petty bourgeois nationalism for the last thirty years.

At the moment of writing, the situation is highly unstable. It is possible that, having looked into the abyss, both sides may draw back. Some compromise may be struck involving the handing over of some weapons by the IRA. If there is a renewal of hostilities, the British will crack down viciously. Moreover, such a development would be deeply unpopular with both sides of the sectarian divide. After 30 years of bloodshed, both Catholics and Protestants are war-weary. The IRA would run the risk of losing many people as a result of denunciations. It is not an inviting prospect. But the acceptance of a compromise will solve nothing fundamental. The question will inevitably be raised in the ranks of the republicans: "What were we fighting and dying for for the last 30 years?"

There will undoubtedly be the beginning of a ferment in the ranks of Republicanism. The most thinking elements, who are critical of the policies of the leadership but do not want to return to the blind alley of individual terrorism, will be more open to the alternative of class politics. The only way out is to return to the ideas of James Connolly, to the banner of socialism. That is the only banner that can unite the working class, Orange and Green, North and South, and also across the Irish Sea, in England, Scotland and Wales, in struggle against out common enemy: the banks, the monopolies and British imperialism. Not a return to the "armed struggle" but a return to the best traditions of Irish Labour, to Marxism—that is the way forward. In the past, the idea was put forward: "First solve the question of the border, then we'll talk about socialism!" But the experience of three decades has shown this to be a false way of posing the question. Now we are entitled to say: the solution of the tasks left over from Ireland's bourgeois democratic revolution—by which we mean Irish reunification—can only be solved by the proletariat coming to power in both Ireland and Britain. The Irish bourgeoisie has shown itself to be incapable of solving the question. God knows they have had long enough to do so! It is time to look in an entirely different direction. Marx long ago explained that the fate of the revolution in Ireland and Britain were inextricably linked. Today that affirmation is more true than ever.


In Spain there is the national question of the Basques, Catalans and Galicians. For decades under the Franco dictatorship the languages, rights and national aspirations of these peoples were crushed underfoot. It was natural that the overthrow of the old regime should give a powerful impulse to the national movements of the nationalities. Not for nothing did Trotsky say that the nationalism of oppressed nationalities was only the outer shell of an immature Bolshevism. With correct policies, tactics and methods, it is possible to win the best of the nationalist youth for Marxism. But the prior condition is that a firm position must be maintained. While standing firm in defence of the oppressed nationality, it is necessary to criticise the confused ideas of nationalism.

A big part of the problem here is the collapse of the moral authority of Marxism on a world scale. Marx, Lenin and Trotsky had a correct position on the national question. This could easily find a response in the ranks of the militant nationalists. But the nationalist youth are repelled by the crass policies of the reformist leaders of the workers' organisations who inevitably adopt the line of the ruling class on the national question as on every other issue.

The Second International, as we have seen, had a very confused position on the national question. We saw the results of that in 1914. In Spain, the PSOE even in its best period had a very poor understanding of the national question, despite the fact that it had a solid base of support in the Basque Country. Now, of course, the right wing leaders of the PSOE have abandoned all pretence at a socialist position on the national question, just as they have abandoned it in relation to everything else. When he was in power Felipe Gonzalez and other "socialist" leaders actively backed the dirty war conducted by the secret services of the Spanish state against ETA. No wonder the Basque youth are repelled by "Socialism" in this guise.

In the past it would have been natural for the militant nationalist youth to gravitate towards the Communist Party. The revolutionary banner of October and the Bolshevik Party offered a way out on revolutionary lines. But as a result of the crimes of Stalinism, the movement has been thrown back. The ideological decay of Stalinism has produced all manner of confused and grotesque distortions—Maoism, Castroism, guerrillaism—which have muddied the water and introduced the most frightful confusionism into the minds of the radicalised youth. Now with the collapse of Stalinism, if anything, the confusion is still greater, with the spread of all kinds of anarchist and terrorist moods. Ideas which belong to the prehistory of the movement and which were long ago answered by Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, have re-emerged, disguised as "new and modern" theories, to further addle the brains of confused individuals.

To all this must be added the monstrous degeneration of the so-called Fourth International after the death of Trotsky. The complete abandonment of the most elementary ideas of Lenin and Trotsky by the so-called "Trotskyists" is nowhere clearer than on the national question. The sects have flirted with every petty bourgeois nationalist and terrorist outfit in the world, acting as cheer-leaders and unpaid (and usually unwanted) "advisors" to the IRA, ETA, PLO or ANC. In those (mercifully few) cases where they got some influence, they merely served to reinforce the prejudices of the youth and led them to disaster. This was the case, for example, in Argentina and Uruguay in the 1970s, when these elements played with terrorism and so-called "urban guerrillaism". The result of these adventures was the crushing of the movement and the victory of the most murderous military dictatorships. As a result, a large number of young cadres lost their lives and the revolution was set back for years.

Given the total lack of authority of Marxism, it is logical that young people in the Basque country, repelled by Stalinism and Social Democracy, look for an alternative in ETA and Herri Batasuna. There are some very heroic young people in the ranks of the radical Basque Nationalists. Our task is to establish a dialogue with these people and convince them that the only way to achieve their goal is by fighting for a socialist revolution. Inevitably, the best elements will come to this conclusion. We must help them to do so, by friendly and patient argument, and by uniting in action on all questions where we have principled agreement, while stressing the need for the unity in struggle of workers and youth throughout the Spanish state.

It seems to be a law that mass nationalist movements, like Herri Batasuna, when they grow to a certain size always tend to split along class lines. Such movements always have a heterogeneous composition. On the one hand there may be extreme right wing elements—usually, though not always, associated with the most "militarist" wing—but the left wing will contain many honest fighters and potential revolutionaries. About 30 years ago, at the sixth congress of ETA, there was a split to the left. In the absence of a real Marxist alternative the Mandelites oriented towards ETA and won many of them over. Thousands of good fighters moved towards Trotskyism. These were good people. With a correct policy and perspective a real Marxist organisation of 10,000 people in Spain could have played a crucial role. But with the false policies of the Mandelites, that position was lost. These petty bourgeois threw away an opportunity. and have paid for that crime. They no longer exist. They have been liquidated, along with all the other sects. Thus, the road is open for the development of a genuine Marxist tendency in Euskadi. It is clear that many of the best cadres for this will come from the ranks and the periphery of the abertzales (radical Basque nationalists).

With the signing of the truce, there has been a development in Herri Batasuna, they have changed their name to Euskal Herritarrok (Basque Citizens). This is quite a big movement. There was genuine enthusiasm for EH. But now things have begun to change. The political leaders of EH opportunistically linked themselves to the party of the big Basque bourgeoisie, the PNV. As always, the petty bourgeois nationalists act as a mechanism to subordinate the working class to "our" bourgeoisie. But every Basque worker knows that the Basque bankers and industrialists are just as bad as the Spanish capitalists. There is nothing to chose between them. All honest members of EH must be repelled by this monstrous bloc with the PNV.

To make matters worse, the truce has now broken down. There is the prospect of more terrorist actions, met by more state repression and more political prisoners. The old infernal cycle that has poisoned Basque social and political life for decades without achieving its declared aims. On this road, there is no way out for Euskadi! Now that ETA has called off the truce, there must be a ferment of discussion in the ranks. Without doubt they will be looking for an explanation and a way out. It is necessary to explain to them in a firm but friendly way that there cannot be independence for the Basque Country on a capitalist basis. In order to succeed, there has to be a revolution in both Spain and France. And in order to achieve this, we must adopt a class and internationalist position and abandon the blind alley of individual terrorism.

The Marxists of the Spanish state have a very proud record of standing on a firm principled class position. They have consistently defended the national rights of the Basques—including the right to self-determination. Recently, they produced a very good document on the national question in Basque and Spanish. Our books which were both translated into Spanish were enthusiastically reviewed in Egin the daily newspaper of Herri Batasuna. This shows that there is a layer of the Basque Nationalists which are looking towards the Marxist tendency. It is possible that the Marxists can win over a sizeable layer of militant youth, on the basis of an energetic campaign.

From the standpoint of Marxism, the national problem is a challenge, but also an opportunity. Trotsky one said that the nationalism of oppressed peoples was only the "outer shell of an immature Bolshevism". If we take a principled stand on the problems facing nationally oppressed people, energetically fighting against all forms of national oppression, while firmly linking the solution of the problem to the perspective of the socialist transformation of society, it will be possible to win the best of them to Marxism and build a strong organisation that can offer a real solution to the national problem of Euskal Herria on a revolutionary socialist basis.

The national question and the Balkans

The most appalling example of the consequences of a false position on the national question is the fate of the former Yugoslavia. The bloody morass of wars, chauvinist madness and "ethnic cleansing" in what was an advanced and developed European state ought to give food for thought to those who constantly beat the drum for so-called "self-determination" as a universal panacea. Unfortunately, it appears that some people are organically incapable of thinking about anything. On the question of the Balkans, the Marxist tendency represented by Socialist Appeal and In Defence of Marxism has kept its head over the past decade, taking a firm Leninist position in relation to Balkans. We explained from the beginning that there was not one atom of progressive content in the break-up of the former Yugoslavia (see Crisis in the Balkans: a Marxist analysis for a full collection of our texts  on the issue). By contrast, every single one of the sects either supported the Croats, or the Serbs, or poor little Bosnia, like poor little Belgium, or ran around with KLA flags, and every single one of them fell into a reactionary position.

Western propaganda—whether in relation to Africa, or Russia or the Balkans—tries to portray these struggles, as the product of the national character, alleged backwardness, race etc. It is alleged that the Serbs, Croats, Bosnians etc. cannot live together, hate each other, and all the rest of it. This is a lie. During the Second World War, there was a terrible conflict between Serbs and Croats. In which, by the way, the Serbs were the victims, viciously persecuted by the Croatian fascist Ushtasi regime whose brutality caused even the German nazis to protest. Yet under Tito, the national problem in Yugoslavia was largely resolved. On the basis of the nationalised planned economy and the development of the productive forces and the fairly intelligent policy that Tito conducted, giving autonomy to each of the republics which tried to avoid one nationality having more power than another, the problem receded into the background. There was an intermingling of the peoples; the tensions between Serbs and Croats declined, almost to nothing. This was predicated upon an annual growth rate of 10-11 per cent rising living standards, because as Lenin explains, in essence, the national question is a question of bread.

With the crisis of Stalinism, the emergence of mass unemployment in Yugoslavia of inflation in the 1970s all the old demons began to re-emerge. Now, if one looks at the history of the last 50 years in particular one has to draw the conclusion that neither the bourgeoisie nor the Stalinists can solve the national question. Tito succeeded for a while, but chauvinism is an integral part of Stalinism. It is the Achilles heel of Stalinist regimes, like Ethiopia where the regime of Mengistu collapsed precisely on the basis of the national question. They cannot solve it.

Tito established different republics, each with its own national bureaucracy which played up the national question as a means of reinforcing its own power and privileges. There is an inescapable logic to this which flows directly from the theory of socialism in one country. This thoroughly anti-Marxist theory, nationalist to the core, played a fatal role in the disintegration of Yugoslavia. The nationalist tendencies of the Serb, Croat, Slovene and other rival bureaucracies enthusiastically embraced this "theory"—for their own Republics. They deliberately played up national differences: if you can have Russian "socialism", Chinese "socialism", and so on, why not have "socialism" also in Slovenia, and in Croatia and in Macedonia? With the economic crisis of the bureaucratic regime in Yugoslavia, the tensions between the Republics grew. Each regional clique strove to improve the position of "its" Republic at the expense of the others. This sowed the seeds for the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Particularly monstrous was the role of the reactionary and privileged bureaucracies of Croatia and Slovenia. Although their industry was built up by the labour and collective resources of all Yugoslavia, they wanted to keep it all for themselves. But this was only one element in the equation. The history of Yugoslavia and of the Balkans in general shows that all the national struggles for so called self-determination, that have taken place in the 20th century involved one or other of the great powers. Russian tsarism, German imperialism, British and French imperialism—all used the struggles of small nations as so much small change in their intrigues.

Trotsky on the Balkans

What was the position of the Marxists at the time of the Balkan wars of 1912-1914? Despite the fact that, at least initially, there was a semi-progressive content in the struggle of the Balkan Slavs for national emancipation against the Turks, you will look in vain in the writings of Lenin and Trotsky for any support for any of these nations. Trotsky, who was in the Balkans as a war correspondent, wrote many articles on the Balkan wars in which he denounced the barbarous conduct of all the belligerent powers. But there is no hint of support for any of these rival nationalist gangs. These were reactionary wars predatory wars on all sides. And if that was the case then, what would Lenin have said about the present position in Yugoslavia?

The sects who profess to be Marxist appear to suffer from a kind of nervous tic. As soon as a war breaks out, they immediately start shouting: "Who do you support?" As if Marxists were under some kind of absolute obligation to take one side or another in conflicts between warring ruling cliques! The position of Marxism on war was already clearly explained by Lenin. War is the continuation of politics by other means. Whether we support one side or another in a war depends on whether the war has a progressive or reactionary content. Such a judgement is determined, not by general proclamations of the "right to self-determination", but exclusively by the general interests of the proletariat and the world revolution.

The position of the Marxists in the Balkans wars of 1912-13 was not to take the part of one group or another but to fight for a democratic federation of the Balkans. That was the position of Lenin, Trotsky and that great Balkan Marxist and internationalist, Christian Rakovsky, who became a leading Trotskyist and was purged and shot on Stalin's orders in 1941. Rakovsky had a long history as a leading figure in the Balkan socialist movement. In 1903, the same year that the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party split into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, there was a similar split in the Bulgarian Party between the "Broad" and "Narrow" tendencies. The left wing ("tesnyaki") was led by the veteran Marxist Blagoev, together with the outstanding Balkan Marxist Christian Rakovsky. After the October Revolution the Communist International stood for a Socialist Federation of the Balkans. This idea was developed by Christian Rakovsky even before 1917. The Marxists always fought against the splintering of the Balkans into a host of petty states which inevitably became the pawns of one imperialist power or another. That is, they fought against Balkanisation, for federation. Before the Second World War, when Trotsky was a correspondent in the Balkans, following the situation very closely and at first-hand, he wrote:

"It is not its national diversity but the fact of its splintering into many states that weighs upon [the Balkans] like a curse. Customs frontiers divide it artificially into separate bits. The machinations of the capitalist powers are interwoven with the bloody intrigues of the Balkan dynasties. If these conditions continue, the Balkan Peninsula will go on being a Pandora's box." (Trotsky, The Balkan Wars, p. 12.)

When Austro-Hungary seized Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia was gripped with war fever and the thirst for revenge, the Serbian Social Democracy kept its head and stood firmly against the chauvinist hysteria. Likewise the Bulgarian Social Democrats opposed their own ruling clique and Russian meddling in the Balkans. A congress of Balkan socialist parties was held in Belgrade in January 1910 with representatives from the Social Democratic parties of Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and the Yugoslav Social Democratic Parties of Austro-Hungary and a small group of Social Democrats from Montenegro. In its programme the congress establishes as the objectives of the Balkan Social Democracy: "To free ourselves from particularism and narrowness; to abolish frontiers that divide people who are in part identical in language and culture, in part economically bound up together; finally, to sweep away forms of foreign domination both direct and indirect that deprive the people of their right to determine their destiny for themselves." (Ibid., p. 30.)

And again: "The requirements of capitalist development continually clash with the narrow limitations of particularisms in the Balkans, and federation has become an idea mediated by the ruling circles themselves. More than that; the tsarist government, unable to play an independent role in the peninsula, is trying to come forward as the instigator and patron of a Bulgaro-Serbo-Turkish league, with its point directed against Austro-Hungary. But these are only vague plans for a temporary alliance of the Balkan dynasties and political parties which by their very nature are incapable of guaranteeing freedom and peace in the Balkans. The programme of the proletariat has nothing in common with all that. It is aimed against the Balkan dynasties and political cliques, against the militarism of the Balkan states no less than against European imperialism; against official Russia no less than against the Austria of the Hapsburgs. Its method is not diplomatic combinations but class struggle, not Balkan wars but Balkan revolutions." (Ibid., p. 30, our emphasis.)

How modern these lines are! And how relevant to the present crisis in the Balkans!

The Balkans were divided into midget states and crushed by the burden of militarism. In his article The Balkan Question and Social Democracy, Trotsky wrote:

"The only way out of the national and state chaos and the bloody confusion of Balkan life is a union of all the peoples of the Peninsula in a single economic and political entity, on the basis of national autonomy of the constituent parts. Only within the framework of a single Balkan state can the Serbs of Macedonia, the Sanjak, Serbia, and Montenegro be united in a single national-cultural community, enjoying at the same time the advantage of a Balkan common market. Only the united Balkan peoples can give a real rebuff to the shameless pretensions of tsarism and European imperialism."

And Trotsky adds a prophetic warning: "State unity of the Balkan peninsula can be achieved in two ways: either from above, by expanding one Balkan state, whichever proves strongest, at the expense of the weaker ones—this is the road of wars of extermination and oppression of weak nations, a road that consolidates monarchism and militarism; or from below, through the peoples themselves coming together—this is the road that means overthrowing the Balkan dynasties and unfurling the banner of a Balkan federal republic." (Ibid., p. 40.)

This was always the position of the Marxists in relation to the Balkan question. Not the position of supporting one or other national clique on the alleged basis of "self-determination" but the revolutionary programme of a Balkans federation. Every one of the national groups in the Balkans always likes to present itself in the role of the victim and the aggrieved party, fighting against injustice for supposed "national rights" and "sovereignty". In fact, however, behind the slogan of "national rights" lurks the vested interests of the ruling clique, which is interested only in seizing the territories of other states and oppressing other, weaker nations. Thus, what is "national rights" for some always turns out to be national oppression for others. Moreover, behind each ruling national clique there always stands some "big brother" or other. Thus the supposed struggle for "national sovereignty" always turns out to mean the subordination of the nation to one of the big foreign powers:

"The policy followed by each of these pint-sized Balkan monarchies, with their ministers and ruling parties, has as its ostensible aim the unification of the greater part of the Balkan Peninsula under one king. 'Greater Bulgaria', 'Greater Serbia', 'Greater Greece', are the slogans of this policy. Actually, though, nobody takes such slogans seriously. They are semi-official lies put out to win popularity among the people. The Balkan dynasties, artificially installed by European diplomacy and lacking any sort of roots in history, are too insignificant and too insecure on their thrones to venture on a broad policy such as Bismarck's when he united Germany by blood and iron. The first serious shock could sweep away for good the Karageorgeviches, Coburgs, and other crowned Lilliputians of the Balkans. The Balkan bourgeoisie, as in all countries that have come too late on the road of capitalist development, is politically sterile, cowardly, talentless, and rotten through and through with chauvinism. The peasant masses are too scattered, too ignorant, and too indifferent to politics for any political initiative to be looked for from them. Accordingly, the task of creating normal relations of national and state existence in the Balkans falls with all its historical weight on the shoulders of the Balkan proletariat." (Ibid. p. 40.)

The national question in the Balkans can only be solved by the proletariat, standing firmly on the programme of class independence, socialist revolution and internationalism. As Trotsky put it: "The historical guarantee of the independence of the Balkans and of the freedom of Russia lies in a revolutionary collaboration between the workers of Petersburg and Warsaw and the workers of Belgrade and Sofia." (Ibid., pp. 41-2.) And again: "Just as in Russia the main brunt of the struggle against the patriarchal-bureaucratic regime falls on the shoulders of the proletariat, so in the Balkans the proletariat alone is taking on the immense task of establishing normal conditions for coexistence and collaboration between the many peoples and races of the peninsula." (Ibid., p. 30.)

For a Socialist Federation of the Balkans!

The experience of Yugoslavia entirely confirms the Marxist position outlined above. It is only necessary to pose the question concretely to get the right answer. Eight years after the commencement of hostilities, what is the real balance sheet of the dismemberment of Yugoslavia? Has it led to a strengthening of the working class and the revolutionary movement? Has it brought the peoples closer together? Has it resolved any of the problems? Has it developed the means of production? The questions answer themselves. The break-up of Yugoslavia is an absolute catastrophe and a disaster from the standpoint of the working class. And this crime against the working class can never be justified by references to the right of any nation to self-determination. And now we have the new monstrous struggle going on in Kosovo. Of course we support the self-determination for the Kosovars. They have a right to their own territory, they have a right not to be oppressed and slaughtered. But the thing is not so simple as that. One must always tell the truth. And the truth is this: that, once again the fate of a small people has been cynically manipulated and exploited by imperialism for its own purposes. As we predicted from the beginning, having used the Kosovars, NATO will abandon and betray them. Thus it was; thus it will ever be.

If Kosovo is allowed to be independent, it would inevitably tend to fuse with the Albanian state, thus creating the monster of Greater Albania—following in the footsteps of Greater Croatia, Greater Serbia, Greater Bulgaria, Greater Greece. The small Macedonian state is very fragile, and has a big Albanian minority. And if Macedonia breaks up, which would be inevitable under those circumstances, then it would mean war. And it would be a different kind of war to what we have seen so far in the Balkans. The war in Yugoslavia was in the main a war between militias. If Macedonia breaks up, the Serbs, the Albanians, the Bulgarians, the Greeks, and ultimately, the Turks, would all be involved. A war between Greece and Turkey—two members of NATO—would be a catastrophe for all the peoples and a nightmare for the Americans. This is something that Washington could not tolerate. They tried to put pressure on Milosevic to make concessions. When this failed, they blundered into a war with no plan or perspective. Clinton was informed by the CIA that bombing would bring Milosevic to his knees in a few days. This plan failed and the position of the USA was only saved when Russia put pressure on Milosevic to arrive at a compromise. But with what results?

The Kosovars have the right to self-determination, just as the Serbs have, or the Bosnians, or the Kurds, the Macedonians, the Palestinians. There is just one little problem. How is this self-determination going to be achieved? How is this right going to be exercised in practice? The Serbs will not voluntarily renounce control of Kosovo, they regard it as an inalienable part of Serb territory. The problem is that the Kosovars—or at least the KLA—looked to American imperialism to help them. What did NATO's military adventure in Kosovo solve? Nothing. It made the situation a thousand times worse, sowing the seeds of new wars and nightmares. Nationalism and chauvinism on the Balkans, as always, plays a pernicious role and leads to a bloody impasse. The reactionary leaders of the KLA, having been installed in positions of power by US imperialism, are now playing a most monstrous role. While murdering and oppressing Serb workers and peasants, they are striving to occupy all the key positions, while filling their pockets through plunder, extortion, drug dealing and assorted crime. But there are limits to what the KLA will be permitted to achieve. The Albanians of Kosovo will live to regret the trust they so blindly placed in the good faith of the imperialists.

Although Washington is desperate to get out of Kosovo, they are stuck there and will remain so for some time. Then there is the other "big brother" lurking in the background, Russia, which has an interest in that area. The contradictions between Russia and America are increasing all the time. Consequently, Moscow is now encouraging Milosevic to raise the question of Serb control of Kosovo again. Indeed, in international law, according to the compromise deal arrived at between Belgrade and NATO to end the hostilities, Kosovo remains formally part of the territory of Yugoslavia. For its part, NATO (that is, US imperialism) does not want an independent Albanian Kosovo, because it fears (not without reason) that this would lead to the formation of a Greater Albania, which would immediately destabilise Macedonia and Montenegro, sparking off new and even more destructive wars. This contradiction will inevitably mean that the Albanian Kosovars will enter into conflict with the NATO forces at a certain stage. We predicted this in advance, and it is already beginning, as the clashes in Mitrovica show. Thus, the whole business has solved absolutely nothing and has turned into a nightmare for all concerned. Yet again, the attempt to solve the national problem on a capitalist basis has ended in a catastrophe.

Long ago, Engels explained that the prior condition for solving the national problem in the Balkans was the elimination of the interference of foreign powers. At that time he was thinking mainly of tsarist Russia. Later Germany and Italy played the same pernicious role. Now it is the USA and Germany. Only by the overthrow of capitalism is it possible to break the stranglehold of imperialism on the Balkans and permit a genuinely democratic alternative to the monstrosity known to history by the name of "Balkanisation". Only in this way can we reach the position where, as Engels wrote: "Magyars, Roumanians, Serbians, Bulgarians, Arnauts [the Turkish name for Albanians], Greeks, Armenians, and Turks, will then, at last, be in a position to settle their mutual differences without the interference of foreign Powers, to establish among themselves to their own necessities and wishes." (MECW, vol. 27, p. 47.)

There is only one way forward is to return to the position of Lenin. He was not afraid to tell the Poles in 1916 that independence was not the solution, that it was utopian that the only way they could get genuine independence is revolution in Russia and revolution in Germany. The same truth must be told to the Kosovars today. The attempt to solve their problems on a narrow nationalist basis has led nowhere. The only way out consists in the establishment of workers' power in Serbia and in the whole of the former Yugoslavia. This can only be achieved by the fighting unity of the workers and peasants of Yugoslavia.

The workers and peasants of Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia—and even Kosovo—must now be looking back wistfully at the period of Tito which must seem like a dream in comparison to the present bloody mess. The restoration of a federation of all the peoples, based on a nationalised planned economy, is an absolute necessity. But such a federation must be democratically controlled and administered by the working people themselves, and not by cliques of privileged bureaucrats with a vested interest in playing on national differences in their own selfish interests—that is, a Socialist Federation of the Balkans. Only the working people have no interest in oppressing people of other nationalities. That is why, as Lenin so often repeated, the solution of the national question can only be achieved by the proletariat taking power into its own hands. Any other solution will lead, at best to only a partial and unstable advance, at worst to a complete catastrophe. The fate of the former Yugoslavia is a grim warning to all workers in this respect.

For an internationalist policy!

"He alone has a country who is a property owner or at any rate has the liberty and the means to become one. He who has not that, has no country." (Weitling)

"The worker has no country." (The Communist Manifesto)

The national question is such a vast subject that the present document does not pretend to do more than summarise the main points of the Marxist position. It is the starting-point of a more general debate on this question through which the labour movement can arrive at a clear and principled position. Through a serious discussion of the national question we can raise the level of advanced workers and youth, we can have a big impact on a world scale, and lay the basis for the building of an international movement on the solid rock of Marxist theory. In The Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels point out that the first task of the proletariat is to "settle accounts with its own bourgeoisie"—to overthrow the bourgeoisie of its own country, and put itself at the head of the nation. But they added that "though not in substance, yet in form, the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle". What does this mean? It is obvious that the working class must first conquer power in its own country. "Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is so far itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word."

But, according to Marx, this is only the form and not the content of the socialist revolution. Once having conquered power in one country, the workers will be confronted with the opposition of the bourgeoisie of other countries. The inner meaning of the proletarian revolution is thus not national, but international, and cannot ultimately succeed until it has spread to the main countries of capitalism.

The uncompromising internationalism of The Communist Manifesto blazes forth from every line:

"National differences and antagonisms between peoples are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production, and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto.

"The supremacy of the proletariat will cause them to vanish still faster. United action of the leading civilised countries, at least, is one of the first conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat.

"In proportion as the exploitation of one individual by another is put an end to, the exploitation of one nation by another will also be put an end to. In proportion as the antagonism between classes within the nation vanishes, the hostility of one nation to another will come to an end."

Of course, for Marxists, theory is a guide to action. It is an elementary obligation to fight against each and every manifestation of national oppression, racism, discrimination and injustice. It is necessary to work out in each country a concrete programme of demands in this respect. Without the day-to-day struggle for advance under capitalism, the socialist revolution would be an utopia. The masses can only become trained and steeled for the final battle through participation in a whole series of partial battles and skirmishes—strikes, demonstrations, etc. It is obviously correct and necessary to struggle for every advance, no matter how partial, that tends to improve the conditions of the masses. That applies not only to social reforms, education, health and housing, pensions etc., but also to democratic demands to the degree that these retain the slightest vitality.

In Britain, for example, it is necessary to fight for the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords—those reactionary relics of feudalism. In every country we stand for the rights of women and will fight for the most advanced legislation in fields such as abortion and divorce. That also applies to the national question. The British Marxists give critical support to autonomy for Scotland and Wales. This is an elementary democratic demand, and it is, of course, obligatory for Marxists to support any democratic demand that has the slightest progressive content. Of course, the conceding of a parliament for Wales and Scotland will not solve anything fundamental, but it was nevertheless a partial democratic reform which no socialist could oppose.

However, this is not enough. Under modern conditions, no reform, whether economic, social or democratic, can be long-lasting unless it leads to a fundamental change in society. As long ago as 1920, at the Second Congress of the Communist International, Lenin pointed out that the national question could only be solved by the victory of the proletariat, and he demonstratively removed from the programme of the International the slogan of the bourgeois-democratic movement, substituting it for the expression: "national liberation movements". The significance of this has been entirely lost on those sorry "Marxists" who have capitulated to the pressure of the bourgeois and petty bourgeois nationalist leaders who demand that the working class set aside its struggle for socialism and subordinate itself to the "national struggle"—that is, accept the leadership of the bourgeois and middle-class nationalist elements. By contrast, Lenin explained that in the modern epoch the bourgeoisie was incapable of solving the national question. The Leninist position was summed up by Trotsky thus: "The right of national self-determination is, of course, a democratic and not a socialist principle. But genuinely democratic principles are supported and realised in our era only by the revolutionary proletariat; it is for this very reason that they interlace with socialist tasks." (Trotsky, Writings, 1939-40, p. 45, our emphasis.)

That is the position of genuine Marxism which we defend. Under present-day conditions, it is necessary at every stage to link the struggle for democratic demands firmly to the perspective of the socialist transformation of society—to the expropriation of the bankers and capitalists. And the prior condition for this is the unconditional unity of the working class and its organisations. Our fighting slogan is not "nation against nation" but "Class against class!" Moreover, our goal is not confined to one nation. It is world-wide socialism. That was the position of all the great Marxists of the past. In 1916, in a period of black reaction when Europe was in the throes of a catastrophic war, Lenin wrote: "The aim of socialism is not only to end the division of mankind into tiny states and the isolation of nations in all its forms, it is also the rapprochement of nations but also their fusion." (LCW, The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-determination, January-February 1916, vol. 22, our emphasis.)

Despite all the evidence, the apologists of capitalism do not want to acknowledge what is increasingly evident to all thinking people: that the nation state itself now plays the same retrograde role that was played by the old feudal particularism, local barriers and toll-roads of the past. The further development of human culture and civilisation will only be possible through the total destruction of these archaic barriers and their replacement by the planned and harmonious development of the productive forces on a world scale. Not outmoded nationalism, but socialist internationalism is the only hope for the human race. As Leon Trotsky explained, the goal of socialists is not the erection of new frontiers—that is, new barriers in the way of human progress—but the abolition of all frontiers and the creation of a new socialist world order:

"All state frontiers are only fetters upon the productive forces. The task of the proletariat is not to preserve the status quo, i.e., to perpetuate the frontiers, but on the contrary to work for their revolutionary elimination with the aim of creating the Socialist United States of Europe and of the entire world." (Trotsky, Writings 1935-36.)

London, February 25 2000.