Communists are against Nationalism. However, many on the left, following Marx, have given tactical support to various kinds of nationalism to clear the way to capitalist development or assist workers struggles. Paradoxically, some have even seen some forms of nationalism as proletarian. But are these tactical concessions and approaches to nationalism correct ? After all, nationalism has not only prevented an alternative to capitalism from emerging from class struggles, but has directly contributed to the bloody suppression of attempts to overthrow capitalism. The aim of communism is freeing humanity from exploitation and oppression : ” Nationalism is the doctrine that upholds loyalty to a particular nation above universal respect and support for humanity in general”. (1)
The nation appears be a natural category, a primordial fact . But ethnic and cultural continuity is a historically recent invention by elites. when we try to define a nation, the answer is unclear and artificial. What has been accepted as constituting a nation has changed throughout history. Is it unity stuck together with language or religion; when there have been nations with more than one language and one Religion. How can there be a shared culture with class antagonism ? It cannot be an ancient common territory when we are aware nations and nation states in many parts of the world were lines drawn arbitrarily on maps by imperialists. Is it ultimately a subjective identity of a group of people, an imagined community ? But this definition can collapse into a subjectivity free from objectivity. “Neither objective nor subjective definitions are satisfactory”. (2)
There is Joseph Stalin’s famous Bolshevik check list, which lumps together all the elements considered over many years as necessary for a nation : ” a nation is a historically constituted stable community of people formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make up manifested in a common culture” ( 3 ) Stalin’s definition accepts and expresses nationalist assumptions . It seems to have been accepted by Lenin, if not promoted by him, and influenced by Bukharin. But historically nations have not always conformed to this static and dogmatic definition.
The origins of the modern nation and nation-state are historically novel and specific to the origins of capitalism and capitalist development in western Europe in the Sixteenth to Eighteenth centuries. “Nationalism grew up as part of the ideology of capitalist development, the idea of a nation is inseparable from a range of ideas associated with the bourgeois revolution” . (4) The Dutch republic became was the first modern commercial nation following a war of national liberation. There was the Bourgeois Revolution in England in the 1640’s, consolidated by the so-called glorious Revolution in 1688 which cleared the way to a capitalist nation-state. And of course the great French revolution of 1789, which established a nation of citizens. By the “Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries the European powers had forced the state system on the rest of the world”. (5)
Following the revolutions of 1848, ” neither Marx or Engels seem to have grasped what a new historical phenomena the nation was”. (6) This is a polite way of saying that Marx and Engels shared some bourgeois nationalist assumptions. Indeed , part of their assessment of nationalities contained characteristics which were not free of racism. This is particularly the case with Engels. At one point, he painted “the entire conflict in Europe since 1848 as one between Pan- Slavism and the Roman Celtic Germanic races”. (7) ‘Southern Slaves’ or entire Peoples were deemed to be counter-revolutionary. There was also racism underneath Engel’s notion of unhistoric Peoples. This included the Czechs! Apparently they did not have the national characteristic to form a viable historic nation. The main enemy of those civilised states developing capitalism in western Europe was seen as uncivilised Russia, a bastion of barbarism. The creators of historical materialism applied it inconsistently.
Marx and Engels view of Russia was partly tactical : factually for many years Russia was the stronghold of reaction. Nonetheless, behind the tactical stance was a view of Russia and Russian history, which was at odds with the approach of historical materialism and a class focused analysis. The development of the distinctive approach of Marx and to a lesser extent his friend Engels, gave way to passionate involvement in the politics and indeed prejudices of the time. In Marx’s book , Secret Diplomatic History of the Eighteenth Century, Russia appeared to be immune from internal revolution. The Russian government was considered to be synonymous with the Russian people; it was a history of dynastic ambition and intrigue. Tsar Peter the Great’s regime was understood to be a product of Mongol barbarism and the people shared the government’s values of arrogance and guile.
Following the defeated revolutions of 1848, Engels, “saw Germany as having a civilising mission to fulfil in relation to her eastern neighbours “. (8) This was mainly, but not exclusively, directed at Russia. These kind of comments were later influential in German Social Democracy, which used them out of context to justify support for Germany’s First World War aims. The Main eastern nationality not considered to be destined to be destroyed in a war- revolution was Poland. The Polish national idea was not tied to capitalist development internally, but was the ideology of the Polish agrarian nobility, who were not agrarian capitalists, as in England. For Marx and Engels, an independent Poland would be a barrier to reactionary Russia.
In their view, this would help the revolutionary nationalism of Western Europe. As late as 1867, Marx declared :” There is only one alternative left in Europe, Asiatic barbarism under Muscovite leadership….or must restore Poland,that places between herself and Asia, 20 million heroes, gaining breathing time for the accomplishment of her social generation”. (9)
This kind of support for non proletarian social forces and supporting the lesser evil between great powers was to set a dangerous precedent, not only for German Social Democracy, but also for Russian Social Democracy and Bolshevism. Marx and Engels were writing at the time when modern capitalism was in its infancy in Europe, not to mention the world, and the working class and the alternative to capitalism were only at the start of their development. Nonetheless, were these tactics, which were a departure from direct class politics, justified even at the time? The politics underlying the tactics were an exaggerated view of the role of capitalist forces in Bourgeois Revolutions. But in the revolutions of 1848 the European bourgeoisie turned away from revolution and undermined national democratic revolution from below, which was the banner of Marx and Engels.
German Unification was not achieved by a national revolutionary war from below, but by counter-revolution from above. The support for national unification and centralisation, to aid capitalist development, became detached from a revolutionary struggle from below. Reactionaries modernised from above. One example is Prince Otto Von Bismark, and the aristocratic Prussian Junkers in Germany. Bismark , the state chancellor in 1862, made the politics clear when he stated : ” if revolution there is to be, let us undertake it, rather than undergo it”. ( 10) Giving tactical support to national selfdetermination, which in the abstract might provide indirect aid to the development of capitalism and the working class, in the long run, comes unstuck when these politics become tools for reactionaries.
Many Marxists have an uncritical, even religious approach to Marx. Rosa Luxemburg was not one of them. She regarded the views of Marx and Engels on the National Question as outdated. Russia had been transformed by capitalist industrialism and internal revolution was a growing possibility. There was no longer a need to support Polish Independence. Marx had been wrong to argue “that without an independent Poland, there can be no independent and united Germany” . (11) A united Germany had changed things. The development of imperialism had transformed politics in Europe. Furthermore, ” as long as imperialist world politics determine and regulate the inner and outer life of a nation, there will be no national self-determination”. (12) Rosa Luxemburg considered that a general right of self-determination was utopian. The modern state was not about freedom, but class dominance of the bourgeoisie.
Lenin’s response to Luxemburg in the debates shortly before and after the First World War was to pin a label on her. Luxemburg’s position on self -determination was considered to be a political deviation called ‘ Imperialist Economism’ : politics as a reflex of economics. But outside the name calling Lenin acknowledged that Self determination was a bourgeois demand, “the domination of finance capitalism in general is not to be abolished by any reforms in the sphere of political democracy ; and self-determination belongs wholly and exclusively to this sphere “. (13) Following, Karl Kautsky, Lenin emphasised the extension of democracy in capitalism and the democratic political revolution, which was his mistaken perspective for the coming Russian Revolution. In other words, educating the working class in parliamentary politics and the minimum programme. Echoing Kautsky, he insisted that “a proletariat not schooled in the struggle for democracy is incapable of performing an economic revolution” . (14)
Trotsky also took part in this debate on the national question. His intuition was that the Nation State had outlived itself as a political framework for the productive forces. In his view, in the coming Russian Revolution the working class would find itself at the head of the nation. Lenin mocked this perspective : ” if in Russia the proletariat already stands counterpoised to the bourgeois nation, then Russia is facing a socialist revolution”. (15 ) Lenin’s critics on self-determination in the Bolshevik party advocated a proletarian self-determination. But Lenin was able to aim a powerful blow against this notion : “a nation means the bourgeois together with the proletariat. There would be no sense in restricting the exercise of self-determination to the labouring class”. (16) Self determination would then become an expression of the nation, as if it was independent of the bourgeoisie : a working class nationalism.
How could Bourgeois Democratic demands, which could be met without overthrowing capitalism, relate to those of a direct revolutionary working class struggle against imperialism ? “How could Bourgeois Democracy be so kind or foolish to allow Communist parties to direct independent mass class based movements under the banner of a national revolution”. (17 ) Although Lenin hedged his support for Bourgeois National Liberation in China and elsewhere with revolutionary sounding qualifications, in practice the independence of working class forces were undermined, compromised and damaged by counter-revolutionary nationalism before the establishment of Stalinism. To consolidate the Bolshevik regime, Lenin supported and conducted diplomatic business as usual with Turkish nationalism, even though Kemal Pasha ( Ataturk ) murdered the leadership of the Communist Party of Turkey. Lenin also allowed the right of national to self-determination to be crushed in in the Ukraine and elsewhere in the Soviet Union.
Rosa Luxemburg understood that the problem of nationalism could not be solved as long as imperialism and a world system of Capitalist States existed. Only socialism or a communist alternative could resolve national antagonisms. National liberation in the old colonial empires, following the Second World War, liberated new elites not the impoverished masses. The evolution of Vietnam from an oppressed nation, in relation to American imperialism, to its own imperialism, and oppression of its neighbouring countries, demonstrates the national antagonism implicit in all nationalisms in the world Capitalist system.
In Britain today, the mainstream socialist left, in defiance of history, still regards internationalism as abstract propaganda and is campaigning for a yes vote for Scottish nationalism and independence for Scotland, which is not an oppressed nation. In a globally integrated world economy, dominated by transnational corporations and world financial organisations, such as the International Monetary Fund, the entire question of national independence becomes hollowed out as in Greece. And how can the creation of another capitalist state, based on cutting business rates and corporation tax, and other measures to attract capitalist investment, benefit the working class ? Loyalty to a new Capitalist State would renew nationalism and class collaboration and blunt any class struggle for a post Capitalist alternative.
Independence lite, the programme of the SNP, sharing the Bank of England, the army, the Monarchy and a currency will not represent the break up of the British State. Yet the left in Scotland is putting its hopes on steering the state left . The Radical Independence Campaign is “a coalition that does not even pretend to be based on the goal of Socialism. Indeed, this emerging coalition is very much in the tradition of welfare provision in Scotland and England for a century. (18) Nationalism given a Social Democratic gloss to attract the working class. “The only way in which the grip of a capitalist world system on individual countries, can be broken, is that if the system itself is destroyed. And no national struggle can achieve this, only the international working class” (19) Working class self emancipation from below cannot be built on a nation, utilize the nation-state, or be confined to the nation-state.
1 Hillel Ticktin, Marxism, Nationalism and the National Question after Stalinism, in Critique 36-37. p.16
2 Eric J Hobsbawn, Nations and Nationalism since 1780, Cambridge University Press. (Cambridge 1991) p.8
3 John Hutchinson and Anthony D Smith, edited, Nationalism, Oxford University press, ( Oxford 1994 ) p.20.
4 Chris Harman, The Return Of The National Question, International Socialism 56, 1992, p.11. It is important to add that Bourgeois Revolutions are understood to be about consequences, not revolutions led by the bourgeoisie.
5 Nigel Harris, National Liberation, Penguin Books , ( London 1990 ) p.32.
6 Chris Harman, The Return of the National Question, International Socialism, 56, Autumn 1992. p.18.
7 Kevin B Anderson, Marx at the Margins, University of Chicago Press, (London 2010 ) p.49.
8 Ian Cummins, Marx, Engels and National Movements , Croom Helm, (London 1980 ) p 45.
9 Kevin B Anderson, Marx at the Margins, University of Chicago Press, (London 2010) p.76. Marx did advocate a general European war against Russia. In effect he was giving advice to leaders of nation states.
10 Neil Davidson, How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions ? Haymarket Books, ( chicago 2012 ) p. 162 .
11 Karl Marx, the First International, Introduction David Fernbach, Verso , ( London 2010) With his focus not to say obsession with Russia, Marx missed the origins of the growing antagonism between Germany and Britain. But later in his life, he did move to a more positive view of the Russian Village community, rather than the view that it shored up despotism.
12 Peter Hudis and Kevin Anderson, (edited) The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, Monthly Review Press. (New York 2004 ) p.325. Marx and Engels did not argue for a general right of self-determination.
13 Lenin’s Struggle for an International, Pathfinder Press, (London and New York 1986 ) p.355
14 Ibid, p.367
15 Ibid, p 394. Trotsky did have his own definition of a nation : “a national community is the living hearth of culture, as the national language is its living organ, and there will still retain this significance through indefinitely long historical periods” . This definition seems at odds with his idea of Permanent Revolution.
16 Nigel Harris, National Liberation, penguin Books, ( London 1990 ) p 88. Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky with their emphasis on the working class as the head of the nation, did have an element of proletarian nationalism about their politics. In other words, they stretched the boundaries of Social Democracy, but did not break entirely with its theoretical framework.
17 ibid p 123.
Rosa Luxemburg did predict that the right of self- determination in the Soviet Union would become a choice between revolution and counter-revolution.
18 Eric Chester, From Syriza to Scotland,The Commune 26/12/2012.
19 Alex Callinicos, Marxism and the National Question, in Scotland, Class or Nation, edited by Chris Bambery, Bookmarks ( London 1999) p.46