Marx-Engels Correspondence 1882

Nationalism, Internationalism and the Polish Question

A letter to Karl Kautsky, 7 February 1882, originally published in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Briefe an A Bebel, W Liebknecht, K Kautsky und andere (Moscow, 1933), and with a short introductory statement by Karl Kautsky in his book, Aus der Frühzeit des Marxismus (Prague, 1935), pp 66-72. From Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Russian Menace to Europe, edited by Paul Blackstock and Bert Hoselitz, and published by George Allen and Unwin, London, 1953, pp 116-20. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Kautsky wrote in Aus der Frühzeit des Marxismus: ‘For a long time it had been self-evident among Polish revolutionaries of all shades that the reconstitution of Poland, or at least the establishment of a Polish national state, formed the first and most important article of their programme. But in 1877 a socialist movement arose among the Poles, which soon split in two factions, one more nationally oriented and clinging to the old nationalist revolutionary programme, and another which took on a more internationalist character and which demanded above all an international social revolution the success of which would also free the enslaved nationalities. The members of this last-named socialist faction did not speak of a special Polish national programme. In October 1879, they took over the journal Równosc (Equality) which appeared in Geneva. The battle between nationalists and internationalists among the Polish socialists continued to be fought without issue. Finally the Zurich Sozialdemokrat [the organ of the then exiled German Social-Democratic Party, of which Kautsky was one of the editors] had to take a position in this quarrel. I asked Engels for his current opinion on the Polish question. His reply was the letter of 7 February 1882.’

One of the real tasks of the Revolution of 1848 – and the real, and not illusory tasks of a revolution are always solved as a consequence of this revolution – was the constitution of the suppressed and scattered nationalities of Central Europe, provided they were at all viable and provided especially that they were ripe for independence. This task was accomplished by the executors of the revolution, Bonaparte, Cavour and Bismarck for Italy, Hungary and Germany in accordance with the then prevailing conditions. There remained Ireland and Poland. We may leave Ireland out of consideration here, since it affects the situation on the European continent only very indirectly. But Poland is situated in the centre of the continent, and the maintenance of its partition is the very tie which binds the Holy Alliance together again and again. We have, therefore, great interest in Poland.

It is historically impossible for a great people even to discuss internal problems of any kind seriously, as long as it lacks national independence. Before 1859, there was no question of socialism in Italy; even the number of Republicans was small, although they formed the most active element. Only after 1861 the Republicans increased in influence and later transferred their best elements to the Socialists. The same was true in Germany. Lassalle was at the point of giving up his work as a failure, when he had the fortune of being shot. Only when in the year 1866 the greater Prussian unity of petty Germany [die grosspreussische Einheit Kleindeutschlands – ed] had been actually decided, the Lassallean, as well as the so-called Eisenach parties assumed some importance. And only after 1870 when the Bonapartist appetite of intervention had been removed definitively the thing got really going. If we still had the old Bundestag, where would be our Party? The same happened in Hungary. Only after 1860 it was drawn into the modern movement: fraud on top, socialism below.

An international movement of the proletariat is possible only among independent nations. The little bit of republican internationalism between 1830 and 1848, was grouped around France which was destined to free Europe. Hence it increased French chauvinism in such a way as to cause the world-liberating mission of France and with it France’s native right to be in the lead to get in our way every day even now. (The Blanquists present a caricature of this view, but it is still very strong also among Malon and company.) Also in the International the Frenchmen considered this point of view as fairly obvious. Only historical events could teach them – and several others also – and still must teach them daily that international cooperation is possible only among equals, and even a primus inter pares can exist at best for immediate action.

So long as Poland is partitioned and subjugated, therefore, neither a strong socialist party can develop in the country itself, nor can there arise real international intercourse between the proletarian parties in Germany, etc, with other than émigré Poles. Every Polish peasant or worker who wakes up from the general gloom and participates in the common interest, encounters first the fact of national subjugation. This fact is in his way everywhere as the first barrier. To remove it is the basic condition of every healthy and free development. Polish socialists who do not place the liberation of their country at the head of their programme, appear to me as would German socialists who do not demand first and foremost repeal of the socialist law, freedom of the press, association and assembly. In order to be able to fight one needs first a soil to stand on, air, light and space. Otherwise all is idle chatter.

It is unimportant whether a reconstitution of Poland is possible before the next revolution. We have in no case the task to deter the Poles from their efforts to fight for the vital conditions of their future development, or to persuade them that national independence is a very secondary matter from the international point of view. On the contrary, independence is the basis of any common international action. Moreover in 1873 a war between Germany and Russia was at the point of breaking out, and the constitution of some kind of a Polish state, which could form the core of a later real one, very much within the realm of possibility. And if my lords, the Russians, do not stop soon their Panslavist intrigues and agitation in Herzegovina, they may be drawn into a war which will put to shame their own, Austria’s and Bismarck’s worst fears. Only the Russian Panslavist party and the Tsar have an interest to let the matter in Herzegovina become serious. We can have as little interest in the gang of Bosnian robbers as in the stupid Austrian ministers and bureaucrats who are now making so much noise there. Thus even without revolution, merely through a European collision the constitution of an independent Poland proper [Kleinpolen – ed] would not be so far from possible, just as the Prussian Germany proper [Kleindeutschland – ed] which was invented by the bourgeois was not reached by way of the revolutionary or parliamentary path of their dream, but as a result of war.

Thus I hold the view that there are two nations in Europe which do not only have the right but the duty to be nationalistic before they become internationalists: the Irish and the Poles. They are internationalists of the best kind if they are very nationalistic. The Poles have understood this in all crises and have proved it on the battlefields of all revolutions. Take away their expectation to re-establish Poland; or persuade them that the new Poland will soon fall into their laps by itself, and they are finished with their interest in the European Revolution.

We, in particular, have no reason whatever to block their irrefutable striving for independence. In the first place, they have invented and applied in 1863 the method of fighting which the Russians are now imitating with such great success (see Berlin und Petersburg, appendix 2); and secondly they were the only reliable and capable lieutenants in the Paris Commune.

Who are, by the way, the people who fight against the nationalist strivings of the Poles? Firstly the European bourgeois with whom the Poles have lost all credit since the insurrection of 1846 with its socialist tendencies; and secondly the Russian Panslavists and people influenced by them, such as Proudhon who looked through the coloured glasses of Herzen. Among the Russians, even the best, there are today only very few who are free from Panslavist leanings or memories. They are so firmly convinced of the Panslavist mission of Russia, as the French are of the innate revolutionary initiative of France. But in truth Panslavism is a smokescreen for world dominion, appearing in the cloak of a non-existent Slavic nationality, and therefore our, as well as the Russian people’s, worst enemy. This smokescreen will go up in thin air in its day, but in the meantime it may become very unpleasant for us. A Panslavist war, as the last sheet-anchor of Russian Tsarism and Russian reaction, is being prepared at this very moment. It is very questionable whether it will come off, but if war breaks out one thing is certain: the splendidly progressing development in a revolutionary direction in Germany, Austria and even Russia, will become totally deranged and will be pushed onto another, at first unpredictable, path. At best we lose three to ten years, a respite for a constitutional ‘new era’ in Germany, and perhaps also in Russia. The most probable outcome seems to be the establishment of a small Polish state [Kleinpolen – ed] under German hegemony, a war of revenge with France, a renewal of national antagonisms, and finally the establishment of a new Holy Alliance. Thus, Panslavism is now, more than ever before, our most deadly enemy, even though it is on the brink of its grave, or rather just because of this. For the Katkoff, Aksakoff, Ignatieff and company know this one thing: that their rule is forever finished, as soon as Tsarism is overthrown and the Russian people takes the centre of the stage. Hence this fiery zeal for war, at a time when the public exchequer is negative and when no banker is willing to loan even a penny to the Russian government.

This is the reason why all Panslavists carry such a deadly hatred for the Poles. They are the only anti-Panslavist Slavs. Hence they are traitors to the sacred cause of Slavdom and they must be fitted by force into the Greater Slavic realm of the Tsar, the future capital of which is Tsarigrad, that is, Constantinople.

Now you, may ask me, whether I have no sympathy whatever for the small Slavic peoples, and remnants of peoples, which have been severed asunder by the three wedges driven in the flesh of Slavdom: the Germans, Magyars and Turks? In fact I have damned little sympathy for them. The Czecho-Slovak cry of distress ‘Boze ak jus nikto nenj’ na zemi ktoby Slavom [sic] spraviedlivost cinil?’ ['Is there, oh God, no man on earth who will render the Slavs their due?’ – ed] is answered from Petersburg, and the entire Czech national movement tends in a direction in which the Tsar will spraviedlivost ciniti [render them their due – ed]. The same with the others, Serbs, Bulgarians, Slovenes, Galician Ruthenes (at least in part). But we cannot stand for these aims. Only when with the collapse of Tsarism the nationalist ambitions of these dwarfs of peoples will be freed from association with Panslavist tendencies of world domination, only then we can let them take their fate in their own hands. And I am certain that six months of independence will suffice for most Austro-Hungarian Slavs to bring them to a point where they will beg to be readmitted. But these tiny nations can never be granted the right, which they now assign to themselves in Serbia, Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia, to prevent the extension of the European railroad net to Constantinople.

As concerns the differences between the Poles in Switzerland, those are quarrels between émigrés, which are rarely of importance, and least so among an émigré group which in three years will celebrate its hundredth anniversary, and among which, with the impulse of all émigrés to do, or at least to plan something new, one plan has followed another, one allegedly new theory has replaced another. From what I have already said, it becomes clear that we do not share the views of the people associated with Równosc and we have told them this in a declaration on the occasion of the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of 29 November 1830, which was read at the Geneva meeting. You find this declaration printed in Polish in the Report of the meeting (Sprawozdanie z miedzynarodowego zebrania zwolanego w 50 letnia rocznice listopadowego powstania przez redakcje Równosci w Genewie, Biblijoteka Równosc: Nr 1, Geneva, 1881, pp 30 ff). It appears that the Równosc group has been impressed by the radically sounding phrases of the Geneva Russians, and now want to prove also that the reproach of chauvinist nationalism does not touch them. This deviation founded on purely local and passing causes will play itself out without much effect in Poland itself and does not deserve to be refuted in detail.

By the way, we do not take any position at this time on any future settlement between the Poles and the Lithuanians, Byelorussians and Ukrainians of the old [greater] Poland, nor on the frontier settlement with Germany.

The splendid cooperation among German and Czech workers in Bohemia proves, moreover, how little the workers themselves in the allegedly ‘subjugated’ countries are infected by the Panslavist appetites of the professors and bourgeois.