Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Communist Workers Group (Marxist-Leninist)

Our Tasks on the National Question

Against Nationalist Deviations in Our Movement


A. The Class Content of the Rights of Nations

Whether or not a nation is “overwhelmingly” proletarian, peasant, or bourgeois, the fact remains that every nation is composed of various classes. The national movement stirs all classes into action, each exerting its interests for or against the movement. Each vies for dominance, using the national movement as a vehicle for its own aspirations. The nation being a complex of social classes, it follows that the rights of nations are rights of a people as a whole, and not the rights of any particular class within that people. Further, the rights of nations are rights concerning relations between nations, between large and small, advanced and backward, and between nations of the same size or stage of development. Nations of whatever size or stage of development should be entitled to political independence, free to determine their own internal affairs. That is the general meaning of the right of nations to self-determination.

Of all social classes, only the proletariat can give the right to self-determination this objective interpretation. Only the workingclass has nothing to gain by national oppression or national privilege, and is thus the only truly democratic force within the national movement. We must distinguish, then, between the interpretation of the right of nations to self-determination as it is given by the imperialist bourgeoisie, by the national bourgeoisie, and by the proletariat.

For the imperialists, the right to self-determination is the right to exert the “national will” throughout the world. The English imperialist bourgeoisie called for the preservation of the Empire. The American imperialist bourgeoisie declares the American Century. “National Security” is the official cover for military and political subjugation and annexations. During World War I, the social chauvinists raised the slogan of self-determination as a justification for rallying the workingclass of each nation behind “their own” imperialist bourgeoisie. In reality, the presence of German troops on French soil, or vice versa, revealed not a contest over European land, but over re-division of French and German colonial possessions. “Defense of the Fatherland” in this case was a call by the bourgeoisie for defense of imperialism, imperialist “self-determination”, and the freedom to maintain colonial holdings.

In the oppressed nations, the demand for self-determination put forward by the national bourgeoisie is quite distinct from the self-determination appropriate to the nation as a whole. As the national movement develops, the bourgeoisie issues various political and economic demands that reflect its own class interests. The political demands, such as the demand for political independence, serve the interests of the workingclass and petty bourgeoisie of the subject nation to the extent that political independence lifts the burden of foreign rule, and allows the free use of language, customs, etc. The economic demands, however, serve the bourgeoisie alone, since its economic program is a program of capitalist development, of securing the home market. By self-determination, the bourgeoisie means freedom to develop as an independent capital, freedom to retain exclusive rights over its own workingclass. That these economic demands cannot be fully realized under imperialism does not stop the national bourgeoisie from having these aspirations. Imperialism negates economic self-determination by simply buying up as much of the domestic market as it wishes. The national bourgeoisie cannot legislate against imperialist economic penetration without cutting itself adrift from international finance capital.

For the proletariat, the rights of nations, being the rights of all classes within a nation, can mean nothing more than the right to political self-determination.

Consequently, if we want to grasp the meaning of self-determination of nations, not by juggling with legal definitions, or ’inventing’ abstract definitions, but by examining the historico-economic conditions of the national movement, we must inevitably reach the conclusion that the self-determination of nations means the political separation of these nations from alien national bodies, and the formation of an independent national state. Lenin The Right of Nations to Self-Determination CW Vol. 20 p.397

The exercise of the right to political self-determination will result in a nation either seceding from a multi-national state, or remaining within that state on an equal footing with the great-nation.

The workingclass supports the right of nations to political independence, but in no way encourages separatism, special privileges or the economic demands of the national bourgeoisie.

To the workers the important thing is to distinguish the principles of the two trends. Insofar as the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation fights the oppressor, we are always in every case, and more strongly than anyone else, in favor, for we are the staunchest and most consistent enemies of oppression. But insofar as the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation stands for its own bourgeois nationalism, we stand against. We fight against the privileges and violence of the oppressor nation, and do not in any way condone strivings for privileges on the part of the oppressed nation. Lenin The Right of Nations to Self-Determination CW Vol. 20 p.411

It is in that sense that as a general principle of the working-class movement, the demand for the right to self-determination is a negative demand. Whether this negativity is more or less pronounced depends on the degree of bourgeois nationalism at work within the national movement.

The bourgeoisie always places its national demands in the forefront, and does so in a categorical fashion. With the proletariat, however, these demands are subordinated to the interests of the class struggle. Theoretically, you cannot say in advance whether the bourgeois-democratic revolution will end in a given nation seceding from another nation, or in its equality with the latter; in either case, the important thing for the proletariat is to ensure the development of its class. For the bourgeoisie it is important to hamper this development by pushing the aims of its “own” nation before those of the proletariat.

That is why the proletariat confines itself, so to speak, to the negative demand for recognition of the right to self-determination, without giving guarantees to any nation, and without undertaking to give anything at the expense of another nation. Lenin The Right of Nations to Self-Determination CW Vol. 20 p.410

The right of nations to self-determination is thus a principle of the workingclass, and like all fundamental principles, acts as a dividing line between the interests of the workingclass and the interests of the bourgeoisie. It is in the class interests of the workers of the oppressor nation to support the national movement insofar as that movement weakens imperialism and draws the workers of both nations closer. It is in the class interests of the workers of the oppressed nation to ally with the national bourgeoisie only to the extent that the latter are an active force against imperialism. Beyond that we support nothing. Once the domestic arena is free from foreign domination, the workingclass immediately begins to consolidate its own position in the internal class relations and by one means or another settles accounts with the remaining national bourgeoisie. The struggle for national liberation and self-determination is thus transformed into a struggle for socialism.

B. Self-Determination in the Imperialist Era

We have seen that the right to self-determination is the right of a people, and so of all classes within that people, including the national bourgeoisie. The right embraces the interests of the nation as a whole. It is in this sense a bourgeois-democratic right, a formal right irrespective of class. Bourgeois democracy governs through the illusion of equality between unequal social classes. This form of class rule is especially suited to the period of developing capitalism, since it formalizes laissez-faire relations between capitalists, and reduces the class struggle to parliamentary and legal maneuvering. With the development of imperialism, however, the passage of capitalism from laissez-faire to monopoly finds its expression in political affairs in the general negation of even ’official’ and illusory democracy, and the development of political oligarchy. The turn towards reaction, towards denial of bourgeois-democratic rights, is an effort by the imperialist bourgeoisie to consolidate its position, to resolve the contradiction between its new monopoly status and the pre-monopoly political forms.

The democratic republic ’logically’ contradicts capitalism, because ’officially’ it puts the rich and the poor on an equal footing. That is a contradiction between the economic system and the political superstructure. There is the same contradiction between imperialism and the republic, deepened or aggravated by the fact that the change-over from free competition to monopoly makes the realisation of political freedoms even more ’difficult’. Lenin A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism CW Vol. 23 p.47

Imperialism is the negation of bourgeois political liberties, both within the imperialist nations and in their foreign holdings. Political domination of oppressed nations facilitates imperialist economic domination, eliminates the middlemen, national bourgeois democratic apparatus, etc. that encumber the exploitative process. In this sense, the right to self-determination, even as a bourgeois-democratic right, is much harder to achieve under imperialism than, say, for the Eastern European nationalities under pre-monopoly capitalism.

The question arises, then, and in fact is continually posed by the Trotskyites, why communists should support the right of nations to self-determination, since it is a bourgeois-democratic right, and which, besides, is difficult to achieve under imperialism. Why ally with the national bourgeoisie for a two-stage revolution, for national independence first and socialist revolution second? Why encumber the movement with a democratic phase, and why not push directly for socialism? Lenin answers:

Only those who cannot think straight or have no knowledge of Marxism will conclude: so there is no point in having a republic, no point in freedom of divorce, no point in democracy, no point in self-determination of nations! But Marxists know that democracy does not abolish class oppression. It only makes the class struggle more direct, wider, more open and pronounced, and that is what we need. The fuller the freedom of divorce, the clearer will women see that the source of their ’domestic slavery’ is capitalism, not lack of rights. The more democratic the system of government, the clearer will the workers see that the root evil is capitalism, not lack of rights. The fuller the national equality (and it is not complete without freedom of secession), the clearer will the workers of the oppressed nations see that the cause of their oppression is capitalism, not lack of rights, etc. Lenin A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism CW Vol. 23 p.73

The right of nations to self-determination is a principle we uphold no matter how difficult it may be to achieve. The oppressed nations still have before them the democratic task of self-determination before the class struggles within those nations can be fully resolved. It is a natural facet of imperialism that the resolution of the first task, anti-imperialist revolution and self-determination, in most cases demands the leadership of the workingclass within the national liberation movement. The first stage then passes fairly rapidly into the second, and national independence is thus complemented by economic independence. While this is true in the majority of national liberation movements, this is not to say that all national movements will follow the same course. At times it is in the interests of imperialism to facilitate national political independence in order to retain the oppressed nation within the imperialist sphere of influence. Imperialist policy is aimed not primarily against national independence, but against national economic independence. It will thus use whatever policies guarantee the economic domination.

It is only from the point of view of imperialist Economism, i.e. caricaturised Marxism, that one can ignore for instance, this specific aspect of imperialist policy: on the one hand, the present imperialist war offers examples of how the force of financial ties and economic interests draws a small, politically independent state into the struggle of the Great Powers (Britain and Portugal) . On the other hand, the violation of democracy with regard to small nations, much weaker (both economically and politically) than their imperialist ’patrons’, leads either to revolt (Ireland) or to defection of whole regiments to the enemy (the Czechs). In this situation it is not only ’achievable’, from the point of view of finance capital, but sometimes even profitable for the trusts, for their imperialist policy, for their imperialist war, to allow individual small nations as much democratic freedom as they can, right down to political independence, so as not to risk damaging their ’own’ military operations. To overlook the peculiarity of political and strategic relationships and to repeat indiscriminately a word learned by rote, ’imperialism’, is anything but Marxism. Lenin A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism CW Vol. 23 p.51

Imperialism attempts in every instance to restrict political liberties as much as possible, but when forced to will accommodate political independence in order to consolidate economic domination. Regardless of such maneuvers, the workingclass always stands for the greatest political freedom, for the most extensive democracy. Our aim is not to contain the class struggle within bourgeois-democratic limits, but by attaining such rights show why they are ineffective in ending the real source of class oppression.