Volume 5, No. 12, December 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
The founders of Marxism left a contradictory legacy on the National Question (see parts I-VII in this series, Pakistan Monthly Review, August 2021-February 2022). Lenin authored a clean break with this ambiguity by enshrining the principle of the right of nations to self-determination. The Second International stands accused of opportunism in failing to distinguish between the nationalism of oppressor nations and that of oppressed nations. In the colonies (over control of which, i.e. a redivision of the world between older and new rising imperialist powers, fed into WWI), the Second International stands charged with ‘social imperialism’ and with national chauvinism in the inter-imperialist WWI (the slogan of ‘defence of the fatherland’). Rosa Luxemberg rejected any notion of common ground between Marxism and the National Question. By the time the Third International (Comintern) came into existence in 1919 after the Russian Revolution, Marxism was confronted with the nationalism of the colonies and from then on, the National Question became inseparably associated with the Colonial Question. As a tragic end note, socialist countries fell out and even fought wars with each other, arguably fuelled by, and resting on, nationalism rather than Marxism in any of its extant varieties, thereby reasserting the sturdiness and longevity of nationalism rather than, as some Marxists believed, a simple, transitory expression of the rise of the bourgeoisie.
Lenin defined the origins of Marxism as springing from the 19th century contributions of German philosophy, English political economy and French revolutionary socialism. (1) These three sources provided Marxism with its progressive radical side, but also led to a lack of understanding or even mis-understanding of the National Question.
The German philosophy that underlay Marxism owed a great debt to Hegel, although Marx took from Hegelianism its dialectical method while rejecting its idealist core in favour of Materialism. Nevertheless Marx, and especially Engels, could not break definitively with Hegel’s notions of ‘historical’ (i.e. peoples destined to achieve modern – capitalist – nation-statehood) and ‘historyless’ peoples (i.e. those destined to disappear with the march of history or be absorbed by bigger nations). Implicit in the lingering effects of these notions was the idea of western capitalist developing or developed nations bringing to the rest of the world the ‘benefits’ of modernism (if not ‘civilisation’). Colonialism, despite these ‘derogatory’ views about ‘backward’ peoples held by the expanding western empires, proved a horrible tragedy for the peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America (the Third World). But it also produced its dialectical counter-consciousness and desire for independence amongst the colonised. Third World national liberation movements, especially after the collapse of colonial empires following WWII, made new departures in their contributions to Marxist theory on the National Question.
English political economy fundamentally shaped the development of the thought of Marx, but as a critique, whose finest outcome was his magnum opus Capital (Das Kapital). However, many of Marx’s followers fell into the trap of failing to see the epistemological break Marx had made from bourgeois political economy. This led to phenomena like economism, economic determinism, and the collective effect of such reductionism on the National Question, particularly the denial of ideology and politics as central to the revolutionary socialist project and a ‘supine’ reliance on seeing the economic base as central, of which ideology and politics are a pale reflection. The tendency towards economic determinism persuaded many Marxists to frame the discourse on the nation, the nation-state and the bourgeoisie in favour of big, capitalist states (implying the assimilation of smaller nationalities) and failure to comprehend entirely or correctly, or implement in practice, the right of national self-determination as the necessary stage or phase of history that the world would have to experience before the ideal of proletarian internationalism (even with socialist states having emerged worldwide) could be achieved.
The third source of Marxism, French socialism, emerged from the womb of the 18th century French Revolution, which had served as the model for the democratic revolution for Marx and his followers. The French nation-state’s consolidation as a result of the Revolution provided the classical pattern of centralisation of the state and standardisation of the national language. Despite the French Revolution being seen as the classic model for bourgeois democratic revolutions, it did not apply in the rest of even Europe. England, Germany and Italy, not to mention the multi-national states of Eastern Europe, followed quite distinct paths. In the Third World, the French model was even more inappropriate and a bad ‘fit’.
Those who argue that Lenin’s (and Stalin’s) formulations of the National Question are no longer adequate, are simply quoting the examples of new nationalisms that have emerged in contemporary times in the developed and the developing world. This would cause less of a stir if Marxists realised that the dialectic of history has moved on in the past hundred years or so. New questions, aspirations, nationalisms that do not conform to the classic Marxist definitions or past policies on the National Question require a new praxis by Marxist revolutionaries to take account of the emergent diversities in this regard.
In the contemporary era of global monopoly capitalism and imperialism, the struggles of minority oppressed nationalities within the states that have emerged in the last century arguably are part of the general democratic tasks of the world socialist revolution. The enemy is not another (even if oppressive) nationality but the centralised bourgeois state (even in cases where it cannot be considered a completely bourgeois state, i.e. with hangovers of pre-capitalist modes). Many Third World post-colonial states are multi-national in character, replicating the earlier formulation of nation-states in Eastern Europe emerging before having achieved fully developed capitalism. If the fraternal, nationalism-based wars in socialist Eastern Europe and Asia offer any lesson, it is the need to comprehend the correct approach to the nationalism of oppressed nationalities and ethnic minorities in the Third World and even in the developed world.
The three sources of Marxism have each produced a model or paradigm of nationalism that tends towards evolutionism (German philosophy, Hegel), economism (English political economy) and Eurocentrism (French revolutionary model). However, time, history and experience have shown that nationalism cannot be reduced to a mono-causal explanation. It is a complex political phenomenon that has proved resistant to being reduced to some underlying cause or a reflection of economic processes. It must therefore be understood in its own terms and all its contemporary diversity in the light of history.