Marxism and the national question

01 July 1999

From Ireland to Kosova in Europe, from East Timor to Quebec across the globe, people are taking up nationalist ideologies and fighting for independent nation states. Was Karl Marx wrong when he wrote in the Communist Manifesto that “the working class has no fatherland”?

The Marxist tradition has never underestimated the importance of national liberation struggles (the national question, as it is known) nor of nationalism. Marxism is rich in its analysis of, and tactics towards, the national question. Even in the epoch of socialism Marxism recognises that aspirations for national liberation will continue.

Writing more than 20 years after the Russian revolution, Leon Trotsky said of Ukrainian nationalism, “the national struggle, one of the most labyrinthine and complex but at the same time extremely important forms of the class struggle, cannot be suspended by bare references to the future world revolution”.

Trotsky’s insight here, which he shared with all the great Marxists, was that the national struggle is not something separate from the class struggle, but an integral part of it.

National oppression is the systematic denial of basic democratic rights, above all the right to independence, by one national group to another. Although this oppression is exercised by the ruling class of the oppressor nation, the granting of relative, even minor, privileges to its “own” working class has the effect of weakening these workers’ fighting capacity. Marx noted this in relation to Britain’s oldest colony, Ireland:

“The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker because he sees in him a competitor who lowers his standard of life. Compared with the Irish worker he feels himself a member of the ruling nation and for this very reason he makes himself into a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland and thus strengthens their domination over himself. [… The International must] arouse the consciousness in the English working class that for them the national emancipation of Ireland is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation.”

This is not to say that Marx did not care about the cruel sufferings of the Irish people; he did. But he wanted to emphasise that it was in the self-interest of the British workers and the international working class to support Ireland’s independence. So long as British workers failed to take up the cause of Ireland—even if they were not themselves instrumental in denying Irish people their rights—they would remain ideologically chained to their “own” bosses. As Marx famously wrote, “Any nation that oppresses another forges its own chains”.

Further, if the Irish and British workers were to unite in their fight against capitalism, then British workers had to show their Irish sisters and brothers that they were with them and against their British oppressors. Class unity and real proletarian internationalism could not be forged by ignoring the national question.

Marx, and his close collaborator Frederick Engels, believed that the socialist revolution would begin in those countries where capitalism was most developed and there was a strong working class—in Britain, Germany and France. They expected this to render the national question a mere episode on the road to working class power. This perspective, not their insights into nationalism, proved to be false.

In the early years of the twentieth century, a new generation of socialists had to come to terms with the fact that capitalism had developed into a world system in which a handful of robber nations controlled the world’s markets at the expense of the less developed nations. To maintain their privileged position, these nations, the imperialist powers, actively held back the rounded development of the emerging nations.

Despite opening up countries to capitalist exploitation, the imperialists did everything in their power to prevent the “native” bourgeoisie from attaining the economic and political means to become rivals. In particular, imperialism denied the colonial peoples the right to their own sovereign nation-states. The new epoch of imperialism, therefore, saw the mushrooming of national liberation movements not their disappearance from the stage of history.

The Russian Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin analysed the national question most completely in two pamphlets, Critical Remarks on the National Question (1913) and The Right of Nations to Self-Determination (1914). Like Marx, Lenin took as his starting point not the ideas in the heads of those fighting for independence, but the real historical and material basis of that fight:

“Developing capitalism knows two historical tendencies in the national question. The first is the awakening of national life and national movements, the struggle against all national oppression and the creation of national states. The second is the development and growing frequency of international intercourse in every form, the breakdown of national barriers, the creation of international unity of capital, of economic life in general, of politics, science, etc. […]

“The Marxists’ national programme takes both these tendencies into account, and advocates firstly, the equality of nations and languages and the impermissibility of all privileges in this respect . . . secondly, the principle of internationalism and uncompromising struggle against contamination of the proletariat by bourgeois nationalism, even of the most refined kind.”

Under imperialist capitalism both of these historical tendencies exist side by side. This led some Marxists like Rosa Luxemburg, while opposing discrimination and privilege, to insist that the struggle for national self-determination (i.e. independence) was both utopian and reactionary: utopian because small nations would always remain economically dependent on the big powers and any formal independence would be a sham; reactionary because separation along national lines divides the working class and promotes bourgeois nationalism. Lenin, however, defended the slogan, “For the right of all nations to self-determination”.

Who was the utopian? Lenin never denied that the demand for equal rights for all nations, including the right to form one’s own nation state, was compatible with capitalist development, but he urged that:

“in opposition to the practicality of the bourgeoisie, the proletarians advance their principles in the national question; they always give the bourgeoisie only conditional support.”

In fact it was Luxemburg who was the utopian in this regard. National oppression strangles the development of capitalism, and, consequently, the divisions between the different classes in the oppressed nations.

Look at Kosova today: the land-owners and the capitalists, the peasants and the workers, are all reduced to one mass of people whose main, in fact sole, immediate concern is to get rid of the Serbian oppressors. To demand that the Kosovar workers forget about independence and unite with Serbian workers against Milosevic and the imperialists multinationals is like demanding a different reality!

The point about the struggle against national oppression is to prepare the best conditions for the class struggle. At the moment, Kosovar workers see the Kosovar bourgeoisie as an ally against the Serbian oppressor and the Serbian worker as party of a hostile force. Abstract propaganda will not change this, only living experience will. And only the successful struggle for independence can provide that experience.

The first question an independent Kosova will have to answer is, how can future ethnic tension be avoided? Consistent democracy, with full and equal rights for the Serbian minority, and an armed people, as opposed to an unaccountable paramilitary police force, is the best guarantee. This will drive a wedge between the workers and peasants and the nationalist warlord Thaci.

How can Kosova’s smashed economy be rebuilt to satisfy the needs of the people? Workers’ control of the mines and factories, control of the land and an emergency plan drawn up by the masses are the only solutions will stop this will drive a wedge between the workers and peasants on the one hand and the aristocratic Ibrahim Rugova and profit hungry multinationals on the other.

How can future Balkan wars be avoided? The closest ties with the workers’ movements of the surrounding states—including most importantly Serbia–with the aim of creating a voluntary federation of socialist republics, are clearly paramount. Again this will bring the workers into conflict with the nationalist demagogues.

But none of these questions can even be asked, let alone answered, until the Kosovars have won their right to self-determination.

And what of Luxemburg’s second point that support for all nations’ right to self-determination is reactionary since it will divide workers along national lines and strengthen bourgeois nationalism?

Arguing against this, Lenin drew a parallel with the right to divorce, a right all socialists supported. Only a complete reactionary would argue that the democratic demand for the right to divorce was the same as advocating divorce! On the other hand, to deny the right to divorce on the grounds that it might lead to separation could only lead to the imprisonment of some people in oppressive marriages.

Luxemburg was also failing to draw the vital distinction between the nationalism of the oppressors and the nationalism of the oppressed. This was most obvious in the case of Poland, which was oppressed by Tsarist Russia.

“When, in her anxiety not to ‘assist’ the nationalist bourgeoisie of Poland, Rosa Luxemburg rejects the right to secession in the programme of the Marxists in Russia, she is in fact assisting the Great-Russian Black Hundreds [Russian fascists] . . . The bourgeois nationalism of any oppressed nation has a general democratic content that his direction against oppression, and it is this content that we unconditionally support.”

Lenin went on to show what this meant in practice. After the October revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks immediately granted the right of all nations in the Tsarist empire the right to break away, while encouraging them not to exercise this fright. Lenin and Trotsky adhered to this policy in Finland in 1918, where a bourgeois regime seized power and crushed the workers’ soviets, killing 100,000 workers. Yet even this tragedy, according to the Russian revolutionaries, was a lesser evil than reasserting the years of oppressive rule by Russia over the Finnish people.

The Bolsheviks sought to accelerate the differentiation of the classes in the oppressed nations through granting them full democratic rights, and then aiding their fellow proletarians in those nations by every means possible. Such a strategy would not have been feasible if the workers of the oppressed nations remained under the yoke of Russian rule.

For Lenin and Trotsky one of the first signs of the degeneration of the Bolshevik Party was when Stalin began to abandon the right of nations to self-determination. They saw this as a fundamental threat to the revolution in Russia and beyond. Tragically they were proved to be correct. Small wonder that for revolutionaries today the national question remains a key political litmus test.

The legacy of the Bolsheviks, and of Marx and Engels, means that revolutionary socialists have an answer to the national question; one which supports the rights of the oppressed, seeks to divide the workers from the bosses, and creates the conditions in which the class struggle can be most effectively fought—after all, workers have a world, not a nation, to win.

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