Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Communist Workers Group (Marxist-Leninist)

Our Tasks on the National Question

Against Nationalist Deviations in Our Movement


The classic definition of a nation is given in Stalin’s Marxism and the National Question. Stalin defines a nation as:

...a historically evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a community of culture. Stalin Marxism and the National Question p.12

We have, then, four criteria for nationhood, criteria that develop organically and with historical continuity:

1) Language. For a people to exist as a nation, and function in the daily routine of national life, they must have a common language. Otherwise there can be no social intercourse, transaction or continuity. Every nation has its own language, but two separate and distinct nations may speak the same language (England and the U.S.). Language is a condition, a necessity for national existence, and evolves as a product of generations of economic and social intercourse. This development occurs either peacefully, through the demands of the market, or violently through the suppression of minority languages. If there is no repression of minority languages, then, as Lenin states, “the requirements of economic exchange will themselves decide which language of the given country it is to the advantage of the majority to know in the interests of commercial relations.” (Critical Remarks on the National Question CW Vol.20 p.21).

2) Territory. For a people to develop production and trade within a national framework, they necessarily must inhabit the same area, share the same territory. Factories, houses, cities, roads, shops, railways, farms, etc. all require ground beneath them, and it is on such an earthy basis that nations are built. Those points at which neighbors cease to engage in an integral dialogue and exchange, where one sort of housing and language stop and other sorts of language and housing begin, are naturally part of boundaries or border area of a nation. This should be a commonplace even to non-communists. Without territory, there can be no nation.

3) Economic cohesion. Along with a common language and territory, a nation must have an internal economic bond. The economic category includes a division of labor between various parts of a nation, the development of urban commerce and agriculture, communications and transportation systems, a national class structure, etc. Since the development of money signifies a strengthening of ties between producers, an advanced nation will have its own monetary system, banks, taxes, etc. An oppressed nation may be forced to use the monetary units of the oppressor nation, but that does not prevent it from having its own internal economic community. It only indicates the relative degree of economic integrity of a nation. A nation may have political independence, and yet be economically oppressed by an imperialist nation if it lacks control over its basic industry and home market. What concerns us here is whether or not a people share in the same economic life, engage in mutual production and exchange. The drive for economic cohesion is the motor-force of nation-building. In order to compete on a capitalist basis, the national bourgeoisie must first secure its own home market. As Stalin says, “the market is the first school in which the bourgeoisie learns its nationalism.” (Marxism and the National Question p. 19)

4) Community of psychological make-up. Stalin calls this “specific spiritual complexion” a product of differing conditions of existence which gives rise to peculiarities of national character.

Of course by itself the psychological make-up, or, as it is otherwise called, ’the national character’, is something indefinable to the observer, but inasmuch as it manifests itself in a distinctive culture common to the nation it is definable and cannot be ignored.

Needless to say, ’national character’ is not a thing that is fixed once and for all, but is modified by changes in the conditions of life; but since it exists at every given moment, it leaves its imprint on the physiognomy of a nation. Stalin Marxism and the National Question p.12

National character is revealed in the habits and customs of daily life, from the most mundane to the most refined. It is a specific product, suited to the environment and sequence of development of a people. If we say that the Germans are philosophical, the French romantic, the English sedate, or the Yankees ingenious, those are all ways of expressing the distinctive characteristics of a people.

National character is a very general attribute, common to the people as a whole. It should not be confused with national culture, which is more particular and bound to class relations. Every national culture is in reality two cultures, two traditions. In modern society the bourgeoisie develops its own literature, art, fashion, etc. reflecting its class interests and values. Likewise, the workingclass of each country develops a specific culture and tradition expressing its aspirations and conditions of life.

The category of psychological make-up must not be confused with a people’s national identity. A common life, language, territory and economy naturally give a people a common identity. But a people need not be nationalistic or nation-minded in order to share such common traits. The fact that a certain people may have a strong sense of nationhood is not enough to make them a nation, nor is it sufficient to satisfy the criteria of ’national character’. The voluntarist approach, which identifies nationality with nationalist psychology immediately puts the national question on a subjective and arbitrary basis. Whether or not a people have a strong national identity has nothing at all to do with their objective status as a nation. We find nationalists without nations, and nations without nationalism. The criteria of nationhood are completely objective and independent of a people’s subjective view of themselves.

Each nation, then, is an ensemble of these four basic categories or characteristics. Nations are distinguished from one another by the specific composition of each criteria, and by the pronounced nature of one or more criteria. The distinguishing characteristic of one nation may be its territory (mountainous or arid), for another its language and culture, or for another its degree of economic development or peculiarities of production. One or another feature may predominate, but all four features must be present for a nation to exist. In Stalin’s words:

It goes without saying that a nation, like every other historical phenomenon, is subject to the law of change, has its history, its beginning and end.

It must be emphasized that none of the above characteristics is by itself sufficient to define a nation. On the other hand, it is sufficient for a single one of these characteristics to be absent and the nation ceases to be a nation. Stalin Marxism and the National Question p.12

Nowhere in Marxism and the National Question or in his later writings does Stalin state that the criteria of nationhood undergo significant alteration or change. The ensemble of the four criteria forms the basic definition of a nation, and continues throughout the existence of a people as a national unit. The content of the national question as a whole does change in the imperialist era, in that the scope of the national question is broadened to include the colonies and semi-colonies. But that in no way alters the basic and essential criteria for our definition of a nation. It only describes the new world-historical conditions within which nations develop.