Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Communist Workers Group (Marxist-Leninist)

Our Tasks on the National Question

Against Nationalist Deviations in Our Movement


A. Two Kinds of State Formation in Relation to the National Question

We must here distinguish between two distinct forms of state structures, and the national movements associated with each. In Western Europe, the development of nations was an integral and contemporary process of the development of capitalism. This occurred in the period of rising capitalism, when the aim of the emergent bourgeoisie in each country was to overthrow feudal relations and establish a home market. In Western Europe, the nations thus established were state formations that governed over fairly homogeneous territories. Each nation developed into a politically independent state. This form of national development and state structure is the classic form of nation-building, since there is a direct correspondence between the development of capitalism and the development of the nation.

But capitalism did not everywhere develop at the same rate. Corresponding to this uneven development of capitalist relations there was an uneven development of nations and national movements. In Eastern Europe and Russia, the most politically and militarily advanced countries formed state structures that included many less advanced nationalities.

This peculiar method of formation of states could take place only where feudalism had not yet been eliminated, where capitalism was feebly developed, where the nationalities which had been forced into the background had not yet been able to consolidate themselves economically into integral nations. Stalin Marxism and the National Question p.18

The multi-national state was ill-suited to both the dominant and oppressed nations. For their part, the bourgeoisie of the dominant nation attempted to establish complete hegemony over the territories under their control, homogenize the home market, and eliminate any competition to their rule. The ruling class of the oppressor nation thus attempted in every way to root out national peculiarities of the oppressed nationalities, passed laws against the use of minority languages, religion, customs, etc. The bourgeoisie of the oppressed nations were at a clear disadvantage. In order to be independent capitalists, they had to develop a home market of their own, a market that was already in the hands of the oppressor nation.

But the ousted nations, aroused to independent life, could no longer shape themselves into Independent national states; they encountered the powerful resistance of the ruling strata of the dominant nations, which had long ago assumed control of the state. They were too late! Stalin Marxism and the National Question p.18

Thus national movements rose in contradiction to more powerful and long established multi-national states. Such was the case with Ireland in relation to England, and with the Czechs, Poles and Croats in Eastern Europe. These movements were led by the bourgeoisie or petty bourgeoisie of the oppressed nations, and were aimed against the bourgeoisie of the dominant nation.

The two types of state structures and their corresponding national composition were the two basic forms of nation-building in Europe. The single nation state rose where capitalism was most developed. The multi-national states were less advanced and loaded with the residue of semi-feudal relations. Both are characteristic of pre-monopoly capitalist development.

B. The Class Content of the National Movement

In the period we are discussing, the national movements are led by the bourgeoisie or petty bourgeoisie of the emergent nations. In the classic movements of single nation states, such as England or France, the bourgeoisie strikes directly against the feudal nobility and landed aristocracy. Feudal relations inhibit the development of capitalist productive forces, and the former must be overthrown so that the latter can be given free development. What occurs at first as an economic struggle erupts into an open political struggle, a contest over state power. The mass of the population, the peasantry, artisans, semi-proletarians and bourgeoisie all have a common interest in overthrowing the feudal system. But it is the bourgeoisie, as the most advanced class within the Third Estate, that gives the anti-feudal movement a specific direction and specific political demands. It rallies the masses behind the slogans of Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, and against the despotism of the feudalists. Of course, the aim of the bourgeoisie is not to establish political liberty for the masses, but merely to abolish feudal property and establish capitalist private property: freedom to exploit labor-power, equality amongst the bourgeoisie, and fraternity between the bourgeoisie in their rule over the proletarians.

The national movements that occur within the multi-national states are likewise led by the bourgeoisie, but are aimed against the established bourgeoisie of the oppressor nation and against feudal remnants. The national bourgeoisie

...appeals to its native folk and begins to cry out about the fatherland, claiming that its own cause is the cause of the nation as a whole. It recruits itself an array from among its countrymen in the interests of...the fatherland. Nor do the folk always remain unresponsive to its appeals; they rally around its banner: the repression from above effects them also and provokes their discontent.

Thus the national movement begins. Stalin Marxism and the National Question p.19

For the masses within the oppressed nation, the national movement is a means to end national oppression. For the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation, the national movement is a means to end one sort of oppression and commence their own oppression of their own people. For the movement to be successful, the national bourgeoisie must have the masses behind it. The bourgeoisie therefore puts the national line in the forefront and attempts to obscure class contradictions between itself and the masses. It evolves nationalism, the ideology that binds the interests of the bourgeoisie with the interests of the proletariat and peasantry.

As we will see below, the development of imperialism alters the content of the national movement. These movements are often still led by the national bourgeoisie, the difference being in the outcome of the movement as a whole.

C. Two Tendencies of Capitalism and Three Phases of the National Question

In distinguishing between the two general forms of nation-states and the movements associated with each, we must also place these formations in their proper historical context. There are two tendencies of capitalism that effect the nature of the national question:

The first is the awakening of national life and national movements, the struggle against all national oppression, and the creation of national states. The second is the development and growing frequency of international intercourse in every form, the breakdown of national barriers, the creation of the international unity of capital, of economic life in general, of politics, science, etc.

Both tendencies are a universal law of capitalism. The former predominates in the beginning of its development, the latter characterizes a mature capitalism that is moving towards its transformation into socialist society. Lenin Critical Remarks on the National Question CW Vol.20 p.27

The movements we have described so far generally fall within the first phase of capitalist development. The first phase, the period of bourgeois nation-building, began to slow shortly after the First World War. The phase of “breakdown of national barriers” had begun a few decades prior to the War, with the development of imperialism. As Lenin states, there is no wall separating these two tendencies, which overlap historically, and nation-building continues to occur during the imperialist era. What is peculiar to the second, imperialist tendency of capitalism is the internationalist (socialist) content of the national liberation movement.

The second, imperialist, tendency of capitalism is accompanied by the growth of the international socialist movement, and the development of socialist revolutions which break the chain of international capital at its weakest links. In terms of the national question, this second tendency has two aspects: the spread of imperialism and national oppression throughout the world, and the resolution of both imperialism and national oppression through socialist revolution. The historical development of the national question is thus divided into three general periods, corresponding to the two tendencies of capitalism:

1) The first period marks the break-up of feudalism and the establishment of nation-states and multi-national states. “These multi-national states of the East (Europe) were the birthplace of that national oppression which gave rise to national conflicts, national movements, the national problems, and the various methods of solving that problem.” (Stalin Report on Immediate Tasks M&NQ p.99)

2) The second period marks the development of national oppression and the means to combat it. The appearance of imperialism. The old national states – England, Italy, France – cease to be single nation states and “become multi-national, colony-owning states, and thereby come to be an arena for that national and colonial oppression which already exists in Eastern Europe.” (Stalin Report on Immediate Tasks M&NQ p.99) Likewise, the national movements in Eastern Europe dissolve the old multi-national states and form new national states.

3) The third period is the socialist period. It marks the destruction of capitalism and consequently the abolition of all national oppression.

What is the nature of the national question in each of these three periods?

In the first period, it is primarily a European question. It was an internal affair, with national movements occurring within the boundaries of multi-national states. In this first, or European phase, we have the creation of nations and multi-national states, the creation of nationalism and the conditions for national oppression.

In the second period, national oppression becomes universal, involving new forms of multi-national, imperialist states whose status is determined by colonial holdings in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Thus the national problem, which was formerly of moment only in the more cultured countries, lost its isolated character in this period and merged with the general problem of the colonies. Stalin Report on Immediate Tasks of the Party in Connection with the National Problem M&NQ p. 101

This second period generates the most significant changes in the content of the national question. Here we have the division of the world into a handful of oppressor nations and a majority of oppressed nations. The power of the imperialist bourgeoisie is based on the exploitation of both “their own” workingclass and the masses in the semi-colonies. Where formerly the class struggle was conducted in the domestic arena, it now spills out of the national boundaries and becomes an international struggle against imperialism. The practical resolution of the contradictions of imperialism now demand a revolutionary alliance between the workers’ movements in the West and the anti-imperialist movements in the East. This alliance continues into the third period, as victorious socialism aids and allies with the democratic movements in the colonies and semi-colonies.

In the third period proper, we no longer have bourgeois relations between nationalities, but socialist relations between socialist republics and autonomous regions. The class line dominates over national line, and the backward nationalities are lifted into socialist construction.

D. Peculiarities of the National Question in the Second Period

In the first period, the national question was approached by socialists in a social-democratic way, through the resolutions of the Second International. Like other resolutions of the Second International, the national question was a passive one, a matter of formal posturing towards the bourgeois national movements in Eastern Europe and Ireland. It was not a matter of concretely supporting the oppressed nations, but of taking official positions on ”the equality of nations”. In the imperialist period, the national question ceases to be passive and becomes an active and vital question. Just as the development of imperialism shifted the center of gravity of the revolutionary movement to the East, to the less developed capitalist countries, it likewise transformed the national question into a colonial and anti-imperialist question. Where formerly the national question was solely a matter of bourgeois political democracy, it has now become an essential part of proletarian revolution and proletarian democracy.

Leninism has proved, and the imperialist war and the revolution in Russia have confirmed, that the national question can be solved only in connection with and on the basis of the proletarian revolution, and that the road to victory of the revolution in the West lies through the revolutionary alliance with the liberation movements of the colonies and dependent countries against imperialism. The national question is a part of the general question of the proletarian revolution, a part of the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Stalin Foundations of Leninism p.73

This transformation of the national question has two aspects. One is that without a general struggle against imperialism there can be no talk of proletarian revolution in the advanced countries. The other is that without a consistent and independent socialist initiative within the revolutionary national movements, there can be no talk of ending national oppression.

The broadening of the proletarian revolution into a general anti-imperialist movement, a development corresponding directly to the development of imperialism, in turn transforms the character of the national and colonial movements. These movements may still be initiated and partly led by the national bourgeoisie for their own ends, but unlike the national movements of the first period, such movements as bourgeois movements have little possibility of success. The traditional bourgeois movements were aimed at creating an independent national capital and home market, a basis for international competition. The national bourgeoisie in the colonies and semi-colonies have the same aspirations, but must confront a world market already in the hands of imperialism.

But its attempt to establish a state under the rule of the national bourgeoisie is quite impracticable, because the present world situation is such that the two major forces, revolution and counter-revolution, are locked in final struggle. Each has hoisted a huge banner: one is the red banner of revolution held aloft by the Third International as the rallying point for all the oppressed classes of the world, the other is the white banner of counter-revolution held aloft by the League of Nations as the rallying point for all the counter-revolutionaries of the world. The intermediate classes are bound to disintegrate quickly, some sections turning left to join the revolution, others turning right to join the counter-revolution; there is no room for them to remain ’independent’. Therefore, the idea cherished by China’s middle bourgeoisie of an ’independent’ revolution in which it would play the primary role is a mere illusion. Mao Tse-Tung Analysis of the Classes in Chinese Society Selected Works Vol. I p.14

The national bourgeoisie of the oppressed nations during the imperialist era face the same choice as the petty bourgeoisie in the advanced nations. Either they must side with the proletarian revolution, in which case they are eased out of social production during the new democratic period and integrated into socialism. Or they must become a comprador bourgeoisie, domestic agents of imperialism against the national liberation movement. The aim of the old national movements was to clear a path for the development of capitalism. The aim of the new, anti-imperialist national movements is to clear a path for the development of socialism. The driving force of the old national movement was the national bourgeoisie and its aspirations. The driving force of the new national movements must necessarily be the workingclass and peasantry.

Because of the vacillating tendency of the national bourgeoisie towards the anti-imperialist movement, we must distinguish between the movement as such, and the role of the national bourgeoisie within it. These movements still have a strong bourgeois-democratic content in so far as their main social base is the peasantry, i.e. small producers. They do not aim directly for socialist revolution, but must pass through a temporary new democratic phase. Unlike the old bourgeois-democratic movements, the bourgeoisie does not play the leading role during this phase, a role that has fallen to the most consistently democratic class, the proletariat. Because of the two-stage nature of these movements, and the predominant role of the workingclass and peasantry, the anti-imperialist movements are neither bourgeois-democratic of the old type, nor completely socialist. The Comintern made this distinction when it called such progressive national movements “national-revolutionary” rather than bourgeois-democratic.

The meaning of this change is that we, as Communists, should and will support bourgeois liberation movements in the colonies only when they are genuinely revolutionary, and when their exponents do not hinder our work of educating and organizing the peasantry and the broad mass of the exploited in a revolutionary spirit. Lenin On the National and Colonial Questions p.33

The Chinese experience is the classic form of the “national-revolutionary” movement. The national bourgeoisie, in the form of the Kuomintang, vacillated between alliance with the Communist Party, and alliance with the Japanese, and later, American, imperialists. It persistently attempted to place itself in the lead, and just as persistently failed. In the imperialist era, the national movement will give way to a general anti-imperialist movement with socialist leadership, r it will settle for one or another form of compromise with imperialism. There is no middle ground.

In discussing the national question in the imperialist era, Stalin, in New Features of the National Question, cites four principal distinctions between the first and second periods. First, that the scope of the national question is broadened to include the colonies. From an internal state problem it becomes an inter-state conflict between the imperialist powers and the colonies. Second, the vague posturing of the Second International, of ”equality of nations”, is replaced by the precise Leninist interpretation of the slogan of “the right of nations to self-determination”. Self-determination means the right to political secession and the formation of an independent state. Third, that the national question and proletarian revolution cease to be separate spheres, but become inseparably bound together by imperialism. The revolutionary movement in the West must ally with the anti-imperialist movements of the East. Fourth, that the equality of nations demands concrete, and not merely formal, support of the oppressed nationalities. In revolutionary Russia this took the form of material aid between the workingclass of the great-nation and the less advanced nationalities.

There is another factor in the imperialist era that follows from the broadening of the question. Stalin states that in the imperialist era, “in essence the national question is a peasant question.” Since the anti-imperialist movements in the colonies are based on the mass of peasantry, those movements will naturally take the form of peasant movements in which the land question plays a vital role. The peasantry has a direct interest in the anti-imperialist movement, since it is the imperialist bourgeoisie that supports the local landed aristocracy and thus perpetuates semi-feudal conditions. In being “in essence” a peasant question, the national question is by no means solely a peasant question. Other classes also exist in the oppressed nations, and in varying proportions, which also take an active role in the anti-imperialist movements. Likewise, not all oppressed nations are predominantly peasant in composition, nor does the national question cease to apply to other, non-colonial oppressed peoples. We stress this point since, as we will see, confusion here can, and in fact has, resulted in major deviations on the national question as a whole.

E. Three Types of Countries in Regard to the National Question

In 1916, Lenin described three basic types of countries in relation to the national question. (The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination CW Vol. 22 p.150).

1) The advanced capitalist countries of Western Europe and the U.S. We would today include the USSR in this category. In these countries progressive bourgeois movements ceased long ago. They have now become multi-national states, oppressing other nations and semi-colonies.

2) The Eastern European countries, including (in 1916) Russia. These countries were the birthplace of national oppression and hence of the national question. They have since Lenin’s time developed into politically independent states, and except for Albania, are under economic bondage to social-imperialism. Northern Ireland is the only area still falling within this European category.

3) The semi-colonies, with predominantly peasant composition. These countries are kept in semi-feudal, semi-colonial conditions by imperialism, and are the main ground for anti-imperialist national movements. Today, China and most of Indochina have fallen out of this category, having ousted imperialism and begun socialist construction.

We also have a number of hybrid nation-states created by the contradiction between imperialism and socialism, the division of integral nations into separate states: East and West Germany, North and South Korea, North and South Vietnam, and Taiwan. We also have the creation of states without nations, i.e. Israel.

Such are the general features of nations and national movements in the two broad periods of capitalist development. We now turn to the relation between the workingclass and the various national movements, and the right of nations to self-determination.