Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Communist Workers Group (Marxist-Leninist)

Our Tasks on the National Question

Against Nationalist Deviations in Our Movement


A. National-Cultural Autonomy

In order to develop a correct line on the national question, the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party had to struggle internally with the nationalist tendencies of the Jewish Bund, and against the Austria Social-Democratic Party, from which the Bund drew its theoretical positions. It was in the struggle against the Bund and other nationalist deviations that Lenin and Stalin developed the general principles on the self-determination of nations, and defined the correct attitude of the workingclass towards nationalism.

What was the composition of the Bund? It was organized in 1897 by Jewish artisans and semi-proletarians in Western Russia as an independent representative of Jewish workers. In 1898 it joined the R.S.D.L.P. as its First Congress as “an autonomous organization, independent only in respect of questions affecting the Jewish proletariat specifically.” Its organizational integrity centered on being the leading voice for Jewish workers, regardless of where those workers resided. The R.S.D.L.P. rejected this demand for sole representation and the Bund withdrew, only to rejoin later and side with the Mensheviks.

The rights of nations are precisely that. They do not apply to non-nations, or to a people who have ceased to be a nation. Such was the case with the Jewish classes in Europe, who had migrated throughout Russia, the Balkans and Western Europe. They no longer spoke the same language, engaged in coherent economic exchange, and except for religious culture no longer shared a common national psychology. The criteria for nationhood did not apply. For the Jewish petty bourgeoisie, then, who had strong nationalist leanings, it was a matter of altering the basic criteria. This new criteria, and a program adapted to it, were provided by the Austrian party with the concept of “national-cultural autonomy”.

National-cultural autonomy has two aspects. First, it grants autonomy not to specific regions, but to peoples with a common national ancestry. It is therefore national autonomy, but not territorial autonomy. Secondly, it centers on cultural questions, on language and customs, and not on economic or political questions. Both aspects are dependent on a specific definition of a nation, a definition freed from territoriality and from actual nationhood. The theoreticians of the Austrian party, Springer and Bauer, defined a nation as an “autonomous union of persons”, or a “community of persons” which “does not enjoy exclusive sovereignty in any particular region.” The definition of a nation is thus put on a completely subjective basis, and attempts to create nations and national rights where none exist. This is the main characteristic of Bundism as a political trend.

It is capitalism which drives them [the nationalities] into other regions and cities in search of a livelihood. But when they enter foreign national territories and there form minorities, these groups are made to suffer by the local national majorities in the way of limitations on their language, schools, etc. Hence national collisions. Hence the ’unsuitability’ of territorial autonomy. The only solution to such a situation, according to Springer and Bauer, is to organize the minorities of the given nationality dispersed over various parts of the state into a single, general, interclass national union. Such a union alone, in their opinion, can protect the cultural interests of national minorities, and it alone is capable of putting an end to national discord. Stalin Marxism and the National Question p.33

How are these “nations of a new type” to be arranged? Everyone will be lined up and given a “certificate of nationality”, entitling them to one vote in their respective “cultural parliaments”. With their democratic rights thus safeguarded, each national minority can then participate in a parliamentary way in their very own National Councils, whose duty it will be to assume guardianship over the national education and culture, to form academies, museums, galleries, etc. honoring the national culture. For every nationality, so many theatres and galleries.

Such nation-building on a cultural basis is a retrograde tendency, and plays the same role in the national question that Proudhonism plays in political economy. If the petty bourgeoisie cannot move forward, it attempts to turn history backward. It would like to return to the early, laissez-faire stage of capitalism and start the whole process over again while assigning itself a predominant role. When the natural course of capitalism deprives it of national status, a home market and all the trimmings of a national capital, it devises the most bizarre schemes to reclaim national status, national rights, and the promise of some paltry power-base. Nothing is too small for the petty bourgeoisie. In any case, the petty bourgeoisie will not sit still while history drives it towards extinction, and attempts at every turn to regain lost ground.

It is the normal course of capitalist development that both engenders and disperses nations. National-cultural autonomy fabricates nationality and national rights where they no longer exist. It

...is contrary to the whole course of the development of nations. It calls for the organization of nations; but can they be artificially welded if in actual reality, by virtue of economic development, whole groups are torn from them and dispersed over various regions? There is do doubt that in the early stages of capitalism nations become welded. But there is also no doubt that in the higher stages of capitalism a process of dispersion of nations sets in, a process whereby whole groups, in search of a livelihood separate from nations, subsequently settling finally in other regions of the state; in the course of which they lose their old contacts, acquire new contacts in their new domicile, from generation to generation acquire new habits and new tastes, and possibly a new language... Stalin Marxism and the National Question p.36

Stalin’s criticism of national-cultural autonomy applies to any attempt to justify national status for a dispersed peoples. Migration is an essential facet of the “international” phase of capitalism, indicative of a breaking down of national barriers. There cannot be, and from the standpoint of Marxism should not be, any attempt to reverse this tendency.

Our sole concern here is to eliminate the chauvinism and prejudice directed against a dispersed or minority peoples, and definitely not to regroup them into nations. It is not the business of the workingclass to go rebuilding a home market for the national bourgeoisie. In Lenin’s words:

Combat all national oppression? Yes, of course! Fight for any kind of national development, for “national culture” in general? —Of course not. Lenin Critical Remarks on the National Question CW Vol.20 p.35

We see, then, that the slogan of ’national-cultural autonomy’, as well as any other slogan that demands national rights for non-nations, is an expression of the nationalist strivings of a dispersed petty bourgeoisie. Why petty bourgeoisie? Because a dispersed nationality rarely has a powerful and developed national bourgeoisie. The more oppressed a nation, the weaker is “its own” ruling class, and the more vulnerable is the minority petty bourgeoisie to economic extermination. The desperation of the petty bourgeoisie becomes acute, and its tendencies therefore all the stronger. In some cases they assume, as with the Bund, a socialist coloring.

True, such nationalism is not so transparent, for it is skillfully masked by socialist phrases, but it is all the more harmful to the proletariat for that reason. We can always cope with open nationalism, for it can easily be discerned. It is much more difficult to combat a nationalism which is masked and unrecognizable beneath its mask. Protected by an armour of socialism, it is less vulnerable and poisons the atmosphere and spreads noxious ideas, of mutual distrust and aloofness among the workers of the different nationalities. Stalin Marxism and the National Question p.38

The strategy of the bourgeoisie is to divide the ranks of the workingclass, to sow “mutual distrust and aloofness”, and thus prevent the workingclass from becoming a class conscious and united force. Nationalism is only one tactic within this general strategy. When it appears within the workingclass in a “socialist” form it heightens the contradictions along national lines and threatens to turn contradiction into antagonism.

B. National Culture

The second aspect of national-cultural autonomy is its emphasis on national culture. Such a slogan is, in Lenin’s words, a “bourgeois fraud”. The Bundists put forward the position that national culture should be strengthened, since it is only through the particular national cultures than an international culture can emerge. A typical “Marxist-sounding” proposition. In reality, however, every national culture is two cultures, a bourgeois and a proletarian cultures. To support “national culture” in the abstract is to support the dominant culture of every nation, the culture of the bourgeoisie. Such a line obscures the class struggle, and attempts to pull the workingclass under the ideology of the bourgeoisie.

This fundamental and, for a Marxist, elementary truth was kept in the background by the Bundist, who ’drowned’ it in his jumble of words, i.e. instead of revealing and clarifying the class gulf to the reader, he in fact obscured it. In fact, the Bundist acted like a bourgeois, whose every interest requires the spreading of a belief in a non-class national culture. Lenin Critical Remarks on the National Question CW Vol. 20 p.24

This is an all the more successful tactic when the nation in question is an oppressed minority. The progressive aspects of the minority bourgeoisie become exaggerated as their competition with the dominant bourgeoisie sharpens. Since the minority nation as a whole shares its general opposition to the oppressor nation, it gives the appearance of having a unified, non-class culture, essentially a culture of resistance. The contrast is bolder when the two nations are compared, since the dominant culture of the oppressor nation is the culture of the imperialist bourgeoisie. This simple relation engenders the belief that all, or nearly all cultural aspects of the subject nation are progressive and democratic, when in reality it is only its proletarian culture that is consistently democratic. The Bundist line on non-class culture is the means by which this illusion is sold to the masses.

Another variation on this same theme is the notion of a “proletarian nation”. This line is the natural compliment to “non-class culture” since it follows that if a nation is “overwhelmingly” proletarian, its culture must also be overwhelmingly proletarian. If, then, nationalist tendencies express themselves through such a culture, it follows that such tendencies are revolutionary, mass-based, and legitimate. In point of fact, the class composition of a nation says absolutely nothing about its dominant ideology. By calling a nation ’overwhelmingly’ proletarian, the role and influence of bourgeois and petty bourgeois tendencies are minimized and obscured, which in fact enables those tendencies to move about all the more freely in their “overwhelmingly proletarian” disguise.

C. Practical Outcome of National-Cultural Autonomy

National-cultural autonomy is one means of claiming the rights of nations where no nation exists. When it is put as a slogan before the workingclass, it acts as a conduit not only for bourgeois nationalism, but for other bourgeois theories as well. It first breaks the ideological unity of the workingclass movement, and from there attacks the organizational unity. The practical outcome of the Bundist tendency is the complete fragmentation of the workingclass.

The idea of national autonomy creates the psychological conditions that make for the division of a united workers party into separate parties built on national lines. The break-up of the party is followed by the break-up of the trade-unions, and complete isolation is the result. In this way a united class movement is broken up into separate national rivulets. Stalin Marxism and the National Question p.39

In respect to the national question, the organization of the workingclass into a common party in homogeneous nations is no great problem. In multi-national states, however, a correct application of the national question is vital to the stability and continuity of the Party.

We have still to settle the question of how to organize the proletariat of the various nations into a single common party. One plan is that the workers should be organized along national lines --so many nations, so many parties. That plan was rejected by the Social-Democrats. Experience has shown that the organization of the proletariat of a given state on national lines tends only to destroy the idea of class solidarity. All the proletarians of all the nations in a given state must be organized in a single proletarian collective. Stalin Report on the National Question M&NQ p.73

In order that there should be no distrust or splitting between the nationalities within a common party, the party must fully defend the rights of national minorities and minority nations and find the organizational means for integrating the class.

Stalin cites the fragmentation of the Austrian party and the trade-unions as the natural consequence of their opportunism on the national question. The disintegration of the Austrian party began in 1897, or about the time the Bund adopted the Austrian program. As we shall see, Bundism is still very much with us. Unlike Russian Social-Democracy, where Bundist tendencies were secondary to the movement as a whole, Modern Bundism and its accommodation have been the main characteristic of the national question in our movement.