Revolution or War n°10

(Biannual September 2018)

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Marxism and the National Question

The end of 2017 was marked by the renewal of nationalist quarrels in Europe. After Scotland, then Flanders in Belgium, Catalan separatism resurfaced in its turn, as did, to a lesser extent, Corsican separatism. These independence movements affecting ’old capitalist nations’ follow the creation of new nations after the explosion of the Eastern bloc, the Baltic countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the former Yugoslavia. Very often, these nationalist movements are supported, not always (Catalonia and Scotland) [1], by extreme right-wing parties. What do these nationalist movements represent and what are the stakes, and especially what danger do they pose to the international proletariat, and particularly that of the countries or regions under consideration?

Most groups of the Communist Left have been able to respond to the nationalist poison with an uncompromising internationalism [2]. Some groups, in particular the blog Nuevo Curso [3], have been able to correctly analyze the political situation and draw from it appropriate guidelines, fundamental tasks of any revolutionary organization. Among other things, Nuevo Curso has been able to point out in its various publications the danger of war as a covert feature of the Spanish situation if the proletariat were ever to join one or the other nationalist camp on a massive scale. We fully share this perspective.

Other groups such as Robin Goodfellow and the Communist Workers’ Organisation have expressed more or less confused positions on certain aspects on this occasion. The first group, despite its ’ Bordigist ’ tradition, a movement that cannot be accused of democratic tendencies, gives the Catalans the right to self-determination because the Democratic Republic could constitute a field for the proletariat’s struggle against the bourgeoisie [4]. Among other things, it can be read in their position that the proletariat must "demand the dismissal of Philip VI, the immediate abolition of the monarchy and the proclamation of the republic" and "demand the holding of a constituent assembly to elaborate the forms of this republic (unitary, federal...). " All this in the name of a ’return to Marx’ of 1848, that is, in an attachment to the letter of the writings of Marx and Engels against the very spirit of those writings kept alive by the Italian left!

The CWO’s position opened the door to confusion by suggesting that a proletarian breach could open up from the struggles between nationalisms [5]. Indeed, it called for the establishment of workers’ assemblies in the midst of a nationalist ’strike’. The political danger being to attach a revolutionary label to the nationalist movement, and thus unwittingly participate in the engagement of proletarians in the bourgeois dynamics of the Catalanists, instead of denouncing it for what it really is, as we can see in the following passage: "(…) we need an international organisation, a party, which can effectively intervene in events such as the strike in Catalonia – to push the struggle beyond the control of unions and institutional parties, and declare independence from all strata of the ruling class, whatever their nationality."

The purpose of this text is therefore to resume the debate on the national question, but from a point of view that is more theoretical than topical. Not that the second option is bad in itself: the blog Nuevo Curso has already fulfilled this task in a more than adequate way. We only want here to take up the thread of revolutionary theory on the national question from the perspective of Marx, Engels and especially the Communist Left and thus continue the political debate and confrontation.

1. Marx and Engels on International Relations in Europe

The Nation as the Preferred Terrain for the Bourgeoisie’s Struggle Against Feudalism

Throughout the many debates on the national question, especially at the time of the Second International, one element was constantly underestimated at best, completely forgotten at worst. Indeed, during these debates, there was a tortuous attempt to give a well-founded definition of the concept of nation that could then provide the basis for social democracy for a correct orientation on the national question. For some, the national fact is primarily cultural, for others it would be linguistic or legal. Some advocated national autonomy, others self-determination. These attempts at a definition that were not very fruitful from a revolutionary point of view were more an expression of the penetration of bourgeois ideology, gradual but certain, into social democracy than a Marxist political continuity with the ’founding fathers’. For Marx and Engels, and this is the guiding principle of all their militant activity [6] in the second half of the 19th century, the nation is above all an historical and political product. In fact, it is the field par excellence for the economic-political development of the bourgeoisie and its struggle against decadent feudalism.

Thus, in the class conflict that brought the bourgeoisie and feudalism into conflict, it was literally two civilizations that were opposed, as Marx and Engels stated in the New Rhine Gazette in 1848 "in Germany, the struggle for centralization against a federal system is the struggle between modern civilization and feudalism." The bourgeoisie advocated the establishment of a body centralizing and delimiting economic life, the nation with an internal market, governed by a unitary political body, the democratic republic [7]. The feudal system, for its part, tried by all means to cling to its last remnants of domination through the small princedom of the Middle Ages and the absolute monarchy.

Against all the moralizing, romantic and mythical conceptions of the nation associated with multiple forms of nationalism, Marx and Engels developed a materialistic and historical theory of international relations that took into account the national fact. The principle is more than simple. The proletariat must ally itself with the bourgeoisie first to defeat the common enemy, the aristocracy, in a struggle that necessarily takes on a national and democratic form. Under these conditions, the proletariat supports the demands linked to national liberation. Once feudalism is defeated and the bourgeoisie in power, the proletariat can direct its struggle directly against the bourgeoisie. The content of its struggle thus becomes intrinsically international and internationalist because the proletariat no longer fights with and for another class of civil society as a ’people’, but fights autonomously as an ’international proletariat’.

Historic Nations against Fragments of Peoples

Similarly, Marx and Engels used terminology at the time that would have made many Third Worldist leftists shout out, even though they claim to be ’Marxists’. The nations that set out against the aristocracy were called historical nations or viable nations. They had the support of Marx and Engels in their national struggle. In contrast, the ’fragments of peoples’ that always ended up supporting feudalism in one way or another were characterized as nations without history or strength. Marx and Engels did not support them in any way, in fact they denounced them as the basis for the European reaction. Their ideology, for example pan-Slavism, was for them a vestige of medieval particularisms.

The conception of capital in two distinct phases associated with the theory of the decadence of capitalism is fundamental. Marx and Engels recognized the revolutionary nature of the bourgeoisie’s struggle against feudalism. In the period of the bourgeoisie’s rise to power, the proletariat, although already tending to defend its own class interests, could also occasionally ’ally’ with it in its struggle against the remnants of pre-capitalist society – particularly against feudalism – in order to accelerate or even to enable the definitive domination of national capital and the creation of real nation states necessary for the development of national capital in countries where the bourgeoisie was too ’weak’. This historical period gradually ended with the apogee of capitalism that can be traced back to the constitution of the German state following the Franco-Prussian war from 1870 to 1914. During this one, the international proletariat has increasingly asserted itself through its class struggle as a revolutionary class in frontal opposition against the bourgeoisie and the remnants of aristocratic classes now linked to the former.

In its second phase, decadence, the development of capitalism passes from ’historically necessary’ to reactionary because the bourgeoisie, now in power and with its system of domination in place, wants to defend its mode of production tooth and nail against the new revolutionary class emerging from the very development of capitalism, the proletariat. From the political point of view, having ’nothing to gain’ and everything to lose from establishing any alliances with the bourgeoisie, and the material conditions for communism having matured sufficiently, it can thus more directly display and fight for its own autonomous political programme, the communist programme. In its daily struggles, the proletariat obviously defends its living conditions, but the development of capitalism allows the perspective of communism to appear as the final necessity of its struggles. Thus, all democratic or national demands become obsolete in the sense that they were the expression of the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy, thus the expression of an earlier and past phase of history, an antagonism that is replaced by the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

Centralization, Democracy, Big Nations and the Republic

Thus Marx and Engels supported Poland’s independence in the second half of the 19th century. Their support was not based on moral considerations about oppressed nations, but above all on the prospect of the development of democracy in Europe and the weakening of the Tsarist regime, considered precisely as the ultimate fortress of the feudal reaction in Europe. Any democratic development of an ’historical nation’ represented the development of the bourgeoisie against the aristocracy and therefore a battle won by capitalism against feudalism.

Marx and Engels have also always tended to support the ’great nations’, the large centralized states as the purest political expressions of the bourgeoisie’s rise to power. As Engels notes, "There is no power of any importance in Europe that has not incorporated parts of other nations into its territory … Nobody will venture to say that the map of Europe is definitively established. But any changes, if they are to endure, must increasingly tend by and large to give the big and viable European nations their real natural frontiers to be determined by language and fellow-feeling, while at the same time the remnants of peoples that can still be found here and there and that are no longer capable of national existence, remain incorporated into the larger nations and either merge into them or are conserved as merely ethnographic relics with no political significance. Military considerations can apply only secondarily. " [8] As much as particularism, federalism and division were the expressions of feudalism ; the rise of capital must take place within the framework of the nation, its centralization and its unity.

The breaking point between the two phases of capital is usually set at 1914, when the First World War broke out. What the year 1914 expresses is that from a geopolitical point of view, capital had conquered and colonized the entire planet. A nation no longer has any other place for its expansion that is not already conquered by another nation, hence the global and imperialist character of this war. But the process of moving from the ascendancy of capitalism to its decadence was already underway before 1914 and continued even after that. It is precisely for this reason, since the years 1910-1920-1930 were a pivotal period between ascendancy and decadence during which the characteristics of the first period could still persist, that it was difficult for the revolutionaries of that time to have a definitive position on a series of questions that today seem obvious [9].

It is also necessary to underline all the boldness of Rosa Luxemburg’s position on Poland which, during this pivotal period when most revolutionaries defended the principle of national liberation, managed to forcefully stop advocating independence for Poland, but in the spirit of the arguments and with the same method as Marx and Engels ! Indeed, for Luxemburg, the development of capital in Russia and Poland, lagging behind the rest of Europe but of a very concentrated nature, and its corollary, the rise of a class of proletarians throughout Eastern Europe, made Poland’s independence obsolete. It should be remembered that for Marx and Engels, Poland’s independence was primarily for the development of democracy and capitalism in Europe against Tsarism. The rise of capital, slow but certain, was beginning to undermine the very foundations of absolutism in Russia, despite a cowardly bourgeoisie [10]. The rise of a class of proletarians also meant the rise of social democracy throughout the country. Thus Luxemburg advocated the unity of all the social democrats of the Tsarist empire, according to the same conception as Marx and Engels on the large centralized states against national particularisms that go against the progress of history.

It is necessary to be careful not to stick to the letter of the writings of Marx and Engels, but on the contrary to continue to apply the method that underlies their writings and expresses their political ’spirit’. In this respect, Rosa Luxemburg was a living example of political continuity in relation to Marxism : "All the manifestations and factors of social progress in Poland, above all its principal factor, the Polish proletariat and its part in the general revolution in the Tsarist Empire, have grown out of the foundations of this same bourgeois-capitalistic development. The social progress and development of Poland are in this way united with the capitalistic process by unbreakable historical ties, which united Poland and Russia, and which buried the Polish national idea. Consequently, all separatist aspirations directed at raising an artificial barrier between Poland and Russia, are by nature directed against the interests of social progress and revolutionary development; or in other words, they are manifestations of reaction. But at the same time, the national idea, after the final failure of the program of the nation-state and national independence, was reduced to a general and undefined idea of national separation, and, as such, Polish nationalism became a form of social reaction blessed by tradition." [11]

2. Lenin and the 3rd International

The 1st World War

With the outbreak of the First World War, the extent of the failure of Social Democracy was exposed to a proletariat that was more than helpless. The scale of this bankruptcy clearly showed that the adoption of ’Marxism’ by social democracy was quite formal (the Kautskyist centre is the best example), when it was not simply rejected by the Bernstein right. Moreover, if we formally take the writings of Marx and Engels and abstract them from their method, we can justify any counter-revolutionary policy. Thus, in 1914, German Social Democracy could justify the adoption of war credits for its government by the argument of the war of ’German civilization’ against ’tsarist barbarism’. Wasn’t Marx himself violently against the tsarist regime? Similarly, French socialism could also participate in the sacred union under the pretext of defending the ’Republic and the values of the French Revolution’ against the Prussian militarism of the Junkers. Wasn’t Marx first and foremost a democrat in 1848?

It was therefore the radical left within the social democracy that was the true successor of the revolutionary Marxist current. Its militants, fully trained in the Marxist method, recognized the period change marked by 1914 and the imperialist character of this war. The left-wing militants, under Lenin’s leadership, were able to draw the only revolutionary tactic possible from the events, defeatism. That Lenin took a stand for the right of nations to self-determination is completely secondary in that his position on the war was perfectly clear. As we have seen above, the years 1910-1920-1930 were really the pivotal period between the ascendancy and decadence of capital. So ’transitional’ positions like Lenin’s are understandable. The mistake of the ’Leninists’ is to take up the tactic of the right to self-determination and make it an absolute position, good at all times and in all places, whereas this position is completely obsolete today.

Concessions to Third Worldism

Where the Third International really began to distance itself from Marxism on the national question was when the principle of support for any nationalism of oppressed peoples was adopted. Indeed, since the Baku Congress on the Peoples of the East (1920), a distinction had begun to be made between the nationalism of oppressed peoples, which would be progressive by nature, and the nationalism of oppressor peoples, which would be reactionary to it. This distinction was first theorized by Lenin: "A distinction must necessarily be made between the nationalism of an oppressor nation and that of an oppressed nation, the nationalism of a big nation and that of a small nation." [12] This conception, which is really the antithesis of Marxist positions on the national question, expressed the penetration of bourgeois ideology within the communist movement, here in the form of Third Worldism.

In addition, the adoption by the CI of the orientation towards the development of anti-colonial national revolutions in the East as a support for Soviet power was a step, only one step among many, towards abandoning the principle of world revolution and replacing it with the use of inter-imperialist antagonism in favour of the Soviet state. The USSR using anti-colonialist struggles thought it would weaken imperialism in this way. In fact, it was only gradually inserting itself into the shackles of world imperialism until it eventually became one of the dominant imperialist poles after the principle of socialism in a single country was put forward and the USSR had participated in the Second World War.

3. Communist Will Abolish National Frontiers

It is fashionable in leftist circles to put forward the hollow formula that communism will abolish national oppression. However, this half-truth hides well the reactionary role of leftism, that is, to always try to bring back the fringes of the proletariat that are being politically set in motion on the ground of capitalism. Similarly, it is reductive to denounce nationalism in that it divides the proletariat. Not only does nationalism divide, but it ideologically and politically unites the proletariat with its own national bourgeoisie, which implies as an ultimate consequence the commitment of the proletariat to the imperialist war.

However, the purpose of communism is not to free each nation from the history of humanity or to make all nations equal, but to abolish national borders so that in the long run a world culture can be formed in a society without class or state. As Luxemburg pointed out, "if socialist society makes the masses of the people cultured, it will also give them the opportunity to master several languages, world languages, and thus to participate in the whole international culture of our cultural milieu and not only in the particular culture of a single national linguistic community. " [13]

Robin, July 2018



[1. In the province of Quebec (Canada), there is still an independence movement promoted by the social democrats of Québec Solidaire and the Parti Québecois.

[2. For our part, see Revolution or War #9 : The situation in Spain and the Catalan Question.

[3. For an English translation of their statement on Catalonia :

[6. See among others their ’journalistic’ work in Neue Rheinische Zeitung.

[7. Obviously, the democratic republic is the most pure, the most perfect form of bourgeois domination. However, it is not the only one. Constitutional monarchy, fascism and stalinism are ’alternative’ forms of the domination of capital, dependent on the particular historical conditions.

[8. Friedrich Engels, 1859, Po and Rhine (part IV).

[9. For example, on trade unionism, parliamentarism and national liberation, etc. All positions that were definitively clarified well after 1914.

[10. This was the situation in some nations where development of capital was backward and where the bourgeois revolution was not yet completed as the phase of decadence approached. The bourgeoisie, instead of moving forward with its revolution, allied itself with the aristocracy against an increasingly threatening proletariat. The tasks of the bourgeoisie revolution then fall to the proletariat. Several revolutionaries tried to deal with this problem, for example Trotsky with ’The Revolution permanent’.

[11. Rosa Luxemburg, 1909, The National Question (The Nation-State and the Proletariat).

[13. Rosa Luxemburg, 1909, The National Question and Autonomy. [translated from the French version on Marxists Internet Archive]