Volume 5, No. 12, December 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
Marx and Engels’ legacy on the National Question answers to the charge of incompleteness and contradictoriness. Most controversial is their questionable distinction, inherited from Hegel, between peoples having a ‘history’ and those considered ‘historyless’, a distinction that Marx at least preferred to describe as ‘revolutionary’ and ‘non-revolutionary’ nations. These so-called ‘historyless’ peoples were to be found in Marx and Engels’ day in several areas of Europe, and were delineated by Engels as ‘ruined fragments of peoples’ whose destiny appeared to be their disappearance from the face of the earth (i.e. annihilation) or their absorption into larger, more advanced peoples (i.e. those whose societies/states had embarked on the road to capitalist development). Looking back at these notions today seems to suggest that the course of history has proved them wrong, reinforcing the view of the later Austrian Marxist Otto Bauer that even a nation without a history could still be capable of having a future due to the effects of the development of capitalism. That proved correct, although Bauer’s theory of ‘cultural-national autonomy’ as the solution to the National Question was roundly refuted in theory by Lenin and Stalin, and in practice by subsequent history.
Marx and Engels could also be differed with on their misplaced, erroneous faith in the progressive and ‘civilising’ role of capitalism in what was at one time called the Third World. Examples of such faith are to be found in their controversial support for the French conquest of Algeria (reversed in later years by Engels when the full horror of that colonial conquest became apparent) and the US’s invasion of Mexico. The exceptions to this view within the Europe of their day are provided by their support to the Irish and Polish national struggles. On Ireland, their historic declaration, aimed at the British working class, that “a people which oppresses another, cannot itself be free” may be seen as representing a decisive break with their earlier views. Marx’s study of Russia towards the end of his life indicates the break with mechanical evolutionism (the world-historic ‘mission’ of capitalism to bring ‘backward’ peoples into the light of the modern day) when he conceded the possibility of a revolution brewing there despite its barely incipient march towards capitalism amid the enormous hangovers of absolutism and feudalism.
Marx and Engels’ legacy on the National Question may therefore be summed up as contradictory but one requiring careful reconsideration.
The successors of Marx and Engels in the Second International founded in 1889 departed from even the founders’ paradigm in analysing nationalism. The critical factor in this change was the rise of imperialism and the Second International’s somewhat ambiguous but wrong attitudes towards it. Eduard Bernstein’s ‘revisionism’ was unequivocally in favour of imperialism and paid little attention to the nationalism of the oppressed. Karl Kautsky embraced Marxist ‘orthodoxy’ and was considered an established authority on the National Question. Kautsky was of the view that colonialism was a product of the era of mercantilist capitalism and reflected the policy of the old aristocratic state, and that with the development of industrial capitalism it would assume a less violent, more ‘progressive’ role. This of course was disproved over the course of subsequent history, as the peoples who were victims of colonialism know all too well.
Inter-imperialist rivalries over the redivision of the world in favour of the late rising powers such as Germany led to WWI, accompanied by the virtual collapse of the Second International into its national components. Rosa Luxemberg and the ‘radical left’s’ (Linksradikale’s) Joseph Strasser and Anton Pannekoek ignored the difference between imperialist and revolutionary wars, between the nationalism of the oppressor and oppressed nations. They equated the chauvinists’ ‘defence of the fatherland’ approach with the principle of self-determination. Their assumption was that the development of capitalism was rendering nationalism obsolete and henceforth only the class contradiction between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat should be taken into account. What is interesting about their position is that starting from diametrical opposition to the ‘revisionists’, they arrived at similar negative conclusions on the right of oppressed nations to self-determination.
Lenin’s approach on the other hand, was historical and concrete, while negating any ahistorical or abstract theory of nationalism. He laid great emphasis on the contradictions between oppressed and oppressor nations, and between bourgeois and revolutionary nationalism. His policy on nationalism was always in terms of the strategic interests of the working class (in this he was following the path delineated by Marx and Engels), and therefore he consistently located his analysis in the relationship between nationalism and the general democratic struggle, of which the struggles of the oppressed nations were an intrinsic part. For example, against the ‘purists’ in the Bolshevik Party, he supported the 1916 Easter Uprising in Ireland in the following words: “…to imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe…is to repudiate social revolution.”(1). In other words, Lenin argues that in the real class struggle (as opposed to the purely ‘theoretical’ approach of the ‘purists’), the National Question (and many other issues) that do not conform to an exclusively ‘class’ struggle, do raise their heads and can only be ignored or brushed aside at the peril of being reduced to irrelevance for being unable to recognize their importance (today, we can point to the women’s struggle, religious minorities’ oppression and similar terrains of social and political conflict to illustrate this truth).
Despite the lengthy debates on nationalism within Marxism, Lenin’s concept of the right of nations to self-determination has had the greatest effect in practice. Lenin developed this principle in polemics against the ‘leftist’ views of Rosa Luxemburg and the ‘rightist’ deviation of Bauer and Renner. Boiled down to its core essentials, Lenin enunciated the meaning of the right of nations to self-determination as resting on the right of secession. That did not mean secession was inevitable, which could and would be established in the light of the concrete circumstances in each case on the touchstone of whether a particular nation’s democratically voiced right to secede from a given state formation supported or hindered the general interests of the revolution. But the right to secede could not be denied under any circumstances. To do so, Lenin argued, was to ignore the core principles of Marx and Engels’ teachings and to become a party to the oppression of some nations by others, a circumstance Marx so brilliantly enunciated in the case of Ireland when he warned the English working class that a people that oppresses other nations forges the chains of its own slavery. Lenin reiterated this truth by refuting the notion of holding an oppressed nation within given state boundaries by force, comparing this to driving people into ‘heaven’ at the point of a bayonet. Lenin also developed the Marxist view of the National Question by stressing the particular and incremental urgency of this demand under imperialism, which expanded the scope to linking the National and Colonial Questions within the rubric of the right of (all) nations to self-determination, including the right to secede.
Lenin wrote: “Increased national oppression under imperialism does not mean that Social Democracy should reject what the bourgeoisie call the ‘utopian’ struggle for the freedom of nations to secede but, on the contrary, it should make greater use of the conflicts that arise in this sphere, too, as ground for mass action and for revolutionary attacks on the bourgeoisie.”(2) Russia under Tsarism being described as ‘a prison of nations’, the National and Agrarian Questions, along with the struggle for socialism of the working class, fed into the democratic revolution of February 1917. Lenin’s attitude to the complexity of the class composition, aims and leadership of the national movement of an oppressed nation was summed up as follows: “Insofar as the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation fights the oppressor, we are always, in every case, and more strongly than anyone else, in favour, for we are the staunchest and the most consistent enemies of oppression.”(3)
This statement unequivocally supports national rebellions, despite Lenin’s caveat that “…insofar as the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation stands for its own bourgeois nationalism, we stand against.”(4) Lenin’s interventions on the National Question clearly delineate the distinction between oppressor and oppressed nations, completely replacing the earlier categories of ‘historic’ and ‘historyless’ nations. For Lenin, socialism “…will remain a hollow phrase if it is not linked up with a revolutionary approach to all questions of democracy, including the national question.”(5) Lenin developed for his time a categorisation of the world into three types of countries where self-determination had a different meaning:
This three-fold categorisation forged a concrete national programme for the proletarian movement and brought to the fore the relationship between the colonial and national questions, a relationship that would from then on be inseparable. However, Lenin’s towering authority and legacy in the Marxist movement tended to freeze his dialectical and dynamic approach rooted in the exigencies of each particular case with an orthodoxy that could be said to originate from Stalin and then become fixed in the Third (Communist) International’s theory and practice. We shall explore this development in the next instalment of this series.
(To be continued)