Leon Trotsky

On the National Question


Written: May or June 1938.
Source: Fourth International [New York], Vol. 6 No. 8, August 1945, pp. 254.
Transcription/HTML Markup: David Walters.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2008. This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Trotskism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

Trotsky elucidated the National Question in his article, A Fresh Lesson, printed in 1938:

An imperialist war, no matter in what corner it begins, will be waged not for “national independence” but for a redivision of the world in the interests of separate cliques of finance capital. This does not exclude that in passing the imperialist war may improve or worsen the position of this or that “nation”; or, more exactly, of one nation at the expense of another. Thus, the Versailles treaty dismembered Germany. A new peace may dismember France. Social patriots invoke precisely this possible “national” peril of the future as an argument for supporting “their” imperialist bandits of the present ...

In reality all speculative arguments of this sort and raising bogies of impending national calamities for the sake of supporting this or that imperialist bourgeoisie flow from the tacit rejection of the revolutionary perspective and a revolutionary policy. Naturally, if a new war ends only in a military victory of this or that imperialist camp; if a war calls forth neither a revolutionary uprising nor a victory of the proletariat; if a new imperialist peace more terrible than that of Versailles places new chains for decades upon the people; if unfortunate humanity bears all this in silence and submission – then not only Czechoslovakia or Belgium but also France can be thrown back into the position of an oppressed nation (the same hypothesis may be drawn in regard to Germany). In this eventuality the further frightful decomposition of capitalism will drag all peoples backward for many decades to come. Of course if this perspective of passivity, capitulation, defeats and decline comes to pass, the oppressed masses and entire peoples will be forced to climb anew, paying out their sweat and blood, retracing on their hands and knees the historic road once already travelled.

Is such a perspective excluded? If the proletariat suffers without end the leadership of social-imperialists and communo-chauvinists; if the Fourth International is unable to find a way to the masses; if the horrors of war do not drive the workers and soldiers to rebellion; if the colonial peoples continue to bleed patiently in the interests of the slaveholders, then under these conditions the level of civilization will inevitably be lowered and the general retrogression and decomposition may again place national wars on the order of the day for Europe. But then we, or rather our sons, will have to determine their policy in relation to future wars on the basis of the new situation. Today we proceed not from the perspective of decline but that of revolution. We are defeatists at the expense of the imperialists and not at the expense of the proletariat. We do not link the question of the fate of the Czechs, Belgians, French and Germans as nations with episodic shifts of military fronts during a new brawl of the imperialists, but with the uprising of the proletariat and its victory over all the imperialists. We look forward and not backward. The program of the Fourth International states that the freedom of all European nations, small and large, can be assured only within the framework of the Socialist United States of Europe.

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Last updated on: 12 September 2015