Louis C. Fraina

Revolutionary Socialism

Class and Nation

REVOLUTIONARY Socialism adopts a policy of unrelenting antagonism toward nationalism in fully-developed capitalist nations, (only in pre-capitalistic nations that are the objectives of Imperialism, such as Egypt, China and India, is nationalism progressive). This is an acceptance of the fact that our attitude towards the nation is a decisive factor in the readjustment of Socialism; and our attitude towards the nation carries with it the reconstruction of our national and international policy, not simply in relation to war, but to the whole scope of the movement.

The nation is an historical product, and its significance and our attitude are determined by the prevailing historical conditions. It is this circumstance that makes necessary our opposition to nationalism in highly-developed imperialistic countries, and our favoring nationalism in the revolutionary sense in the pre-capitalistic countries that are the objectives of Imperialism.

The nation did not come into being because of mystical or cultural impulses; it was the product of a definite process of economic and class development, and its political reflex. Being the product of an historical process, it is futile to discuss whether the nation is or is not desirable in itself; the necessity of the nation, its character and function, are determined by the prevailing stage of social development. The nation, as such, is neither democratic nor reactionary in tendency, this depends upon the historical milieu and the social forces it expresses; under certain conditions the nation is progressive, under other conditions it may be compellingly reactionary. An important point to be stressed in our attitude toward the nation, accordingly, is the fundamental difference between the democratic nationalism of the era of bourgeois revolution and the reactionary nationalism of imperialistic Capitalism. Eduard Bernstein has proposed that Socialists oppose the “new capitalistic nationalism which culminates in Imperialism,” and not the “old ideology” of nationalism “which required the self-government of the nation as a centre of culture among other similar centres.” [1] Bernstein’s proposal neglects the economic and political aspects of the problem as determined by the development of Imperialism and its reactionary character. His attitude is abstract, and not realistic. Bernstein admits that nationalism culminates in Imperialism, but a certain cultural beauty in nationalism is dear to his soul: the proletarian revolution, however, sets its face toward the future, not the past. Imperialism annihilates “self-government of the nation” and its cultural value, and the struggle becomes a struggle for Socialism, which solves all problems. Moreover, it is no longer possible, it is even undesirable from the standpoint of the proletarian revolution, to revive the democratic ideology of nationalism, since the social conditions underlying its previous existence are not now dominant in the economy of industrially highlydeveloped nations, and since it is an ideology not at all compatible with the emancipation of the proletariat. The emphasis laid upon democratic nationalism leaves unconsidered the fact that Capitalism has turned its back upon the era of democratic aspirations, and that consequently the contemporary expression of nationalism is undemocratic and reactionary. And if we favor nationalism in pre-capitalistic countries, it is because nationalism there is a revolutionary factor and an historical necessity in the struggle against Imperialism: the necessity of national wars of liberation is recognized by Socialism, and colonial uprisings are national wars in the making. Whatever cultural value may inhere in the nation will be retained and released for further development by the proletarian revolution, which establishes a society internationally united, but which, being communistic, decrees the utmost in national, racial and local autonomy, initiative and individuality.

What is the nation, and what are its characteristic forms in the development of society?

The nation, the trend toward the nation, makes its appearance with Capitalism. Ascending Capitalism develops the nation-state, which plays an important part in the overthrow of Feudalism, is, in fact, one of its consequences. The effort to break the fetters placed upon industry organized on the basis of the city-state leads directly to the formation of the nationstate. Ascending Capitalism requires freedom of trade within as large a territorial unit as possible, national markets exclusively for the national bourgeoisie to develop and exploit; a common system of coinage, weights and measures; and a strong central government to maintain order, foster industry, and carve out the territorial limits of the nation. The nation-state develops a sense of solidarity in the people of a particular national group, and firmly establishes national institutions, a national literature and culture, and a national bourgeoisie. The nation conforms essentially to economic and geographical facts ; while race and language have been convenient expressions of the nation, the nation has itself created “race” and “language,” and often suppressed or amalgamated them in the fulfillment of its historic mission.

The early struggles of ascending Capitalism seek to create the national unit along as large territorial limits as possible, while maintaining order within the national domain. The industrialized unit within the developing nation seeks wider markets, new sources of raw materials, regions which it can bring within the sway of the internal market. The earlier process of expansion is accelerated by a series of bloody wars. All this, in conjunction with other favoring circumstances, including the growing power of the bourgeoisie and the decay of the feudal nobility, leads to the institution of absolute monarchy, directly traceable to the requirements of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie at this period, and after, is revolutionary, its revolutionary expressions assuming vitality in the measure that the carving out of the national frontiers is completed. But, this task accomplished, the social and political organization expressed in the dominance of absolute monarchy, itself based upon a compromise between bourgeoisie and feudal nobility, becomes a very real obstacle to the development of the forces of production. In the effort to destroy this obstacle, the bourgeoisie initiates a more intensive revolutionary era, one result of which is the organization of the nation along democratic and republican, or semirepublican lines. It is at this epoch that the nation assumes a definite and mature expression.

But the bourgeoisie becomes frightened of its own revolutionary impulses: bourgeois revolutions end in dictatorships, – which persist or disintegrate as conditions determine. Having accomplished the task of destroying the economic fetters upon its development, the bourgeoisie becomes largely indifferent to the form of government, as long as scope is allowed its economic development; questions of the form of government become means of expression for rival bourgeois group interests, issues in the immature struggles of the workers, and in older nations means of intrigue for the remnants of the feudal nobility. Fear of the proletariat, competition between nations, struggles of various groups within the ruling class itself, – all these and other circumstances incline the bourgeoisie toward “strong” government, leaving a merely sentimental and theoretical feeling for general liberal principles. A compromise is struck in constitutional monarchy or an oligarchical republic. In this process of developing the nation, bourgeois revolutions and liberal ideas are an incidence. When the bourgeoisie has completed the industrial revolution and established its supremacy, it discards liberal ideas and retains only that irreducible minimum necessary for social control. The minimum varies as historical requirements vary; but bourgeois democracy persists, until the era of Imperialism establishes a new autocracy, comparable in its fundamentals, if not in its forms, to the absolute monarchy.

In nations which completed their national bourgeois revolution sufficiently prior to the era of modern Imperialism to allow their democratic ideas scope for ascendancy, the reaction against liberal ideas was only partially successful. But in nations which completed their national revolution almost simultaneously with the advent of Imperialism, or which emerged into the modern era of Capitalism without such a revolution, democracy in government never established itself. Germany is the classic type of this development, with Japan a remarkably close parallel. The bourgeois revolution in Germany in 1848 was crushed by the cowardly hesitancy and treason of the middle class, the revolution being uncompromisingly adhered to only by the developing proletariat. National unity was achieved not as a revolt against the feudal class, but in a compromise with the feudal class of junkers. Bourgeois democracy did not materialize, and was lost. The industrial revolution strengthened, instead of weakening, the monarchical power. But the reaction against democracy might have proven temporary, as in previous periods, (the forces of “democracy” grew steadily, a whole movement, the Social Democracy, being devoted almost solely to the task of completing the bourgeois revolution,) had not a new set of circumstances intervened which, instead of finding an expression in the overthrow of autocracy, found its interests in the perpetuation of autocracy, – the advent of Imperialism. Germany was united in 1871, and a decade later its imperialistic era began; and this let loose all those reactionary tendencies which lead to a capitalist revival of autocracy in one form or another. Where “democratic” nations had to create a new autocracy, Germany simply adapted its prevailing autocracy to the new conditions.

Imperialism assumes objectively the form of a struggle for the control of territory rich in natural resources and capable of being industrially revolutionized by an industrial nation undertaking the work of “development.” Capitalism in the imperialistic era turns in on itself and in a certain way reproduces the period of its youth, when it struggled for a similar territorial objective, – with this difference, however: that where the former struggle created the nation, the contemporary struggle negates the nation. [2] This process carries with it an accessory fact: as the earlier struggles of Capitalism produced war and absolute monarchy, so today Imperialism not only produces war, but a tendency toward “strong” government, – autocracy disguised under a variety of political forms.

There is an assumption among some Socialists that, while the nation is the particular creation and form of expression of the bourgeoisie, the nation is just as necessary as the class, that it is a separate factor, and that the struggles of nation against nation as such function as dynamically as class struggles. History refutes the assumption: national struggles are a form of expression of the class struggle.

The historical generalizations concerning this problem may be summarized as follows:

  1. The nation is the expression of a particular social and economic system and the class representing that system, – historically, the era of competitive Capitalism and the bourgeoisie.
  2. The course of a nation is determined by the development of the economics of its social system and ruling class.
  3. Competing nations represent competing socialeconomic systems and ruling class interests.
  4. The hegemony of a nation at any particular epoch represents the hegemony of the most highly developed social system, consequently most powerful ruling class.
  5. The struggle between nations – national struggles – are an expression of a struggle between rival ruling classes using the nation in waging their disputes.
  6. In the era of Imperialism, these struggles between nations become active aspects of the class struggle against the proletariat, as “national” imperialistic wars have a general tendency to increase and intensify the exploitation of the proletariat and break up the proletarian movement by strengthening the class position of the capitalist. The ultimate objective of Imperialism is world power, and this power is to exploit more intensively the proletariat. While, accordingly, Imperialism and imperialistic wars are struggles of bourgeoisie against bourgeoisie, they are simultaneously and more fundamentally a single struggle against the proletariat.

These are the generalizations; the practice is not as concrete. Social progress is uneven ; nations do not develop simultaneously, although their development is along essentially parallel lines; remnants of the preceding social system persist into the new and affect events; a ruling class often disputes supremacy with, its predecessor or potential successor, and is itself often divided into warring groups; nor is Capitalism static, its various stages of development being a distinct factor and affecting the course of events. Then, again, the nation, a product of historic factors, becomes itself an historic factor, and at times must be considered as a distinct category. But all the historic factors are synthesized in the dominance of class and the struggle of class against class, and are fundamentally determined by the process of the class struggle.

The series of bloody wars which signalized the advent of the bourgeoisie and the nation-state was essentially the expression of the class interests of the bourgeoisie in conflict with Feudalism. The struggles of many years between France and England, marked by the battles of Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt, were fundamentally a class struggle in the form of war between the rising bourgeoisie of England struggling for territorial conquest and markets, and the Feudalism of France, – the triumph of the English yeomanry over the flower of the French nobility is symbolical of the character of the wars. It is true that England and France at this period had much in common, historically, both being at the era of territorial consolidation, politically a distinguishing feature of the formation of the nation. But England was much more advanced than France economically, its bourgeoisie having acquired a larger share of power, the commercial interests stronger; while in France Feudalism was still largely unshaken by the bourgeoisie. The flourishing manufacturing interests of England were encouraged and protected by the government, and the extensive trade in wool with the manufacturing towns of Flanders was a direct cause of the wars. Undoubtedly, these wars were not purely capitalist wars, feudal interests being involved; but what distinguishes them from previous wars and gives them their distinctive historic character was the emergence of bourgeois interests. The national struggles of the era of the Reformation were another expression of the interests of the class struggle of the bourgeoisie. The Reformation was a revolt against the “universal empire” of Rome and a factor in the development of the nation, a product of the national impulses of the oncoming bourgeois social system ; the wars it let loose were national wars waged to destroy the moral, political and economic system of Feudalism as synthesized in the Papacy: they were wars that promoted bourgeois class interests in the process of securing social supremacy.

The wars of the French Revolution offer the finest illustration of the essentially class character of the nation and its wars. These wars were an extension and continuation of the struggle waged by the bourgeoisie within France against the absolute monarchy and Feudalism. The revolution that overthrew the monarchy and its remaining feudal relations struck a terrific blow at monarchy and Feudalism throughout Europe. Clearly and absolutely, the national struggles that followed were determined by class interests – the class interests of the bourgeoisie, incarnated in France, in conflict with the class interests of Feudalism, incarnated in monarchical Europe. The class struggle waged by the bourgeoisie in France by means of revolution was converted into an international class struggle waged by means of war. The revolutionary and Napoleonic wars were the death-grapple of two social-economic systems struggling for supremacy. [3]

The class struggle is a struggle between a dominant economic system and its ruling class, and a rising economic system and its class representative. The national struggles cited were of this character, – struggles between Feudalism and Capitalism, each seeking control, a struggle, moreover, which was proceeding equally within the states representing feudal interests. But once all states become bourgeois nations, the national struggles become struggles of the same ruling class for international supremacy, – national bourgeoisie against national bourgeoisie, as in the great clash between Napoleonic France and England. This struggle between bourgeois nations waged in the form of war is as much an aspect of the class struggle as the struggles between groups of the ruling class within a nation. This is particularly so in the struggles of Imperialism.

An important phase of Capitalism is the expropriation of the capitalist by the capitalist. In national economics this expropriation proceeds by means of concentration of industry and centralization of capital. But Capitalism reaches a point where, along with other factors, this process of expropriation develops into a higher form. Expropriation and concentration along national lines become insufficient; big capital and small capital compromise through monopoly and State Capitalism; and instead of the expropriation of the individual capitalist within the nation there comes the struggle to expropriate the capitalist class of another nation by means of diplomatic pressure, Imperialism and war. The process of expropriation assumes a new aspect: it becomes dominantly international, instead of national.

The national struggles of Imperialism, accordingly, are struggles of class against class, of bourgeoisie against bourgeoisie for the robbery and mastery of the world.

But these struggles are equally and more dynamically aspects of the proletarian class struggle, imposing the neccesity of an uncompromising war of the proletariat against Imperialism and the imperialistic nation. The struggle of nation against nation converts itself into a struggle of proletariat against bourgeoisie, in which the relative class power decides the issue. A victorious imperialistic nation strengthens its class power not only against a rival bourgeoisie, but as against its own proletariat and the proletariat in the countries it has acquired fordevelopment.” The “penetration” of capital in new territory subjects new peoples, a new proletariat, to the rule of capital, to the system of capitalist exploitation; and the significance of this new system is not simply in added numbers of exploitable workers, but in an increase of power of the capitalist, an altering of the relations of class power in the older capitalist countries to the disadvantage of the proletariat. It is quite obvious that a general imperialistic war oppresses the proletariat; but this general war was prepared by a series of minor, colonial wars, by years of imperialistic exploitation, during a period when the workers of capitalistic nations tolerated the subjection of colonial peoples because of a smug and illusory sense of accruing “prosperity.” The general capitalist tendency is to impose the rule of capital over the whole world; the ultimate stake of Imperialism is world power, and this power depends upon the subjection and exploitation of the proletariat, furthering and intensifying this subjection and exploitation. A general imperialistic war is fundamentally, accordingly, a phase of the class struggle waged by the capitalist class against the workers of the world.

In two senses, then, are national struggles today class struggles: they are, incidentally, struggles of bourgeois class against bourgeois class for world supremacy; and they are, fundamentally, struggles for the subjection of the proletariat.

As an expression of the bourgeoisie, the nation must conform to the requirements of bourgeois supremacy. Imperialism is a revolt against the national fetters placed upon the development of the productive forces. Capitalism has developed a world economy, the parts of which are dependent each upon the other. The world is agonizing in the contradiction of a world economy which national states are trying to bend to their purposes to promote the profits of the national bourgeoisie. The only method conceivable to Capitalism is Imperialism, – the extension of the limits of the nation by fire and sword and the annexation of as much new territory as possible within a particular nation. But when this is done, the nation ceases as a nation, and a political monstrosity takes its place. The great, the overwhelming fact is that the nation has out-lived its usefulness, that it is now decrepit as an economic and political entity. The bourgeoisie itself is in revolt against the nation, its own particular product: and against international Imperialism the proletariat must oppose international Socialism.

Imperialism fundamentally excludes the democratic federation of nations. The increasing volume of surplus-values develops the capitalist necessity of rivalry and destruction. Imperialistic Capitalism is compelled to discover new means of waste, of destruction, it must throw the world into continual and increasingly gigantic struggles to perpetuate itself. Capitalism has generated the forces of internationality; it remains for Socialism, however, to effectively organize the forces into a world-state through proletarian communism. It is inconceivable that Capitalism should produce an actual unity of nations, which would have to include those nations and territory that are objectives of Imperialism, and pre-suppose the dissolution of the nation in its present bourgeois form and the abandonment of national-imperialistic interests, – and that, clearly, means the end of capitalist domination. Identically as with parliamentary government, the nation is the particular form of expression of Capitalism. Capitalism finds its essential expression in the nation and parliamentary government; the proletariat in the world-state and industrial government.

The nation, or nationality, will remain as a cultural, ideological and psychological fact; its economic and political necessity has passed away. And it is this cultural and psychological fact that confuses the problem of the nation in the eyes of many. The Socialist does not deny that the nation has performed a cultural mission, but as a phase of the general process of human development. Whatever of cultural value may inhere in the nation, or nationality, will persist under Socialism, just as the proletarian revolution, in annihilating Capitalism, does not annihilate that which is of value in Capitalism. Socialism is the cultural heir of the ages. At the present moment, however, the greatest menace to these cultural contributions lies in the perpetuation of the nation in its bourgeois, imperialistic form, symbol of a decrepit industrial and social system.

In the coming decisive struggles against Capitalism, revolutionary Socialism recognizes and emphasizes that the class struggle determines all our action – that the national ideology is a fetter upon the emancipation of the proletariat – and that the Social Revolution is international in scope and purpose.


1. Eduard Bernstein. Revisionism and Nationalism, in the New Review, Sepember 1, 1915.

2. The negation of the nation is not peculiar to German Imperialism: it is an attribute of all Imperialism. An Italian imperialist declaims as follows: “It remains for us to conquer. It is said that all the other territories are ‘occupied.’ But there have never been any territories res nullius. Strong nations, or nations on the path of progress, conquer nations in decadence.” British domination in Egypt was established at a period when Egypt was on the verge of a national revival, and the British bave ruthlessly suppressed national aspirations and unity, as they have in India. Turkey has the necessary materials for becoming a strong modern nation; but the Great Powers have consciously and brutally kept it in a state of decadence, – all because of imperialistic interests. This is the identical policy being pursued in China.

3. The supremacy of Napoleon and the national uprisings that finally accomplished his overthrow, do not alter this interpretation. Under Napoleon the struggle gradually assumed a new form: the class interests and national interests of the European bourgeoisie, which the Napoleonic wars had stirred into life by riding rough-shod over feudal institutions, fought against the plans of France to establish an hegemony in Europe and subordinate other nations to its interests. The very factor that underlay the Napoleonic epoch, the destruction of feudal relations wherever the French armies conquered, at the same time developed the force that overthrew Napoleon – the more definite emergence of the nation and its bourgeois character. At this stage, the struggle was essentially between rival groups of the same ruling class in different nations: the struggle between England and Napoleon was of this character, England participating in the wars against Napoleon not to conserve monarchy in Europe, but to protect its industrial and commercial supremacy.


Last updated on 14.10.2007