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Philadelphia Workers Organizing Committee

Black Liberation Today

Against Dogmatism on the National Question

The National Question and Marxism-Leninism

The national question in its most general expression is the question of the relationship between national oppression and capitalist exploitation. It necessarily encompasses the relationship between the movements that arise on the basis of these two phenomena, namely the national movement and the movement of the revolutionary proletariat. From its Inception Marxism has had to make an analysis of the origins of national oppression, the significance of the national movement and the objective interests of the international working class in the resolution of this question.

When approaching the national question the Marxist dictum that every social question must be examined in its particular and concrete manifestations takes on special importance. The enormous differences between peoples owing to the special and particular features of historical development in each country make an abstract presentation of the question quite useless. At the same time we do not approach each particular question, in this case the Afro-American National Question, in a theoretical vacuum. Marxism, in its examination of social practice, has produced a body of theoretical knowledge that provides us with the tools to make a concrete analysis of present conditions. The purpose of this chapter is to outline those fundamental principles that guide our analysis.


In Marxism and the National Question Josef Stalin gave the following familiar and precise definition of a nation:

A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people formed on the basis of common language, territory, economic life and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.[1]

Stalin went on to situate the development of nations historically. The emergence of nations was a feature of the epoch of rising capitalism and a product of the rising bourgeoisie’s drive for a national market.

The elements of common language, territory and psychological make-up were evolved over a long period of time prior to the rise of capitalism. But it was the development of a common economic life, a development associated with the stirrings of capitalist economic life, that was the decisive element that bound together the nation.

By common economic life we mean the bringing of a whole people into relations of economic interdependence. More specifically, the cleavage of society into modern social classes whose economic activity is bound up with each other through a national market. It was this development which corresponds historically to the whole epoch of the passing of feudalism and the rise of capitalism, which led to the emergence of nations. Because of its central importance, it is necessary to elaborate this point at some length.

Prior to the development of capitalism, there were numerous peoples in Western Europe who possessed common territory, language and culture. But the cement that could bind these people into nations, namely a common economic life, was absent.

Under feudalism, economic life revolved around the manor, the estate of the feudal lord. The manor consisted of the lord and his retinue supported by the labor of his serfs. By law and custom, the serf was bound to the land and compelled to render a portion of his crop to the lord in exchange for protection. The manor was a largely self-sufficient, self-contained economy. Most of what was necessary to sustain life was produced by the serfs and a few artisans in the employ of the lord. There was little trade and as a consequence no real cities. The medieval “town” or “city” was actually a military or ecclesiastical center with no important commercial or industrial life. The surplus produced by the serfs was consumed directly by the nobility and the religious and military orders that formed the propertied ruling class.

Political organization followed economic organization. Authority was localized and vested in the lord of the manor. These lords were tied to other more powerful lords to whom they rendered a portion of their surplus and their political and military support. Through marriage and conquest, a particular lord might increase his holdings which in the case of powerful noblemen might be scattered throughout the country. These relationships between the nobility did not provide the basis for a coherent state. Political authority remained decentralized and constant friction and warfare between the nobles was the rule. The monarchies of the period, in France and England for example, were largely fictions. A strong king might temporarily unite the nobility, particularly when there was an immediate external threat, but for the most part the king was simply one among many squabbling feudal lords, often less powerful than rival nobles.

Under conditions of feudalism there was no economic community that bound together the soldier in Normandy, the blacksmith in Gascony, the priest in Bordeaux, the peasant in Burgundy and the Duke of Orleans into a French nation in spite of the reality that these individuals spoke a common tongue, practiced a common religion and lived in a common territory. The political economy of feudalism bound these individuals to quite distinct economic communities based on the manor and precluded the development of national life.

The element that began to transform this picture of a stagnant and static medieval economy was the revival of trade. In the low countries and Italy trade was renewed with the East. The crusades, beginning in the 11th century, provided another great impetus.

In the medieval towns, merchants appeared to exchange precious stones, fine textiles, rugs, tapestries and spices for grain, raw metals and coarse cloth. Markets appeared in the larger towns. The revival of commerce stimulated the development of manufacturing, at first by individual artisans and later by groups of artisans organized into guilds. This marked the beginnings of capitalist economic life and with it the emergence of the bourgeoisie.

The whole logic of the bourgeoisie’s economic activity runs counter to the dominant feudal order. In contrast to the nobility, the bourgeosie does not restrict its activity to the manor but seeks the broadest possible market. Geography and the characteristics of common language and culture which facilitate economic intercourse provide the natural boundaries of this market. In its strivings to expand and consolidate its market, the bourgeoisie is hemmed in by the feudal system. The feudal lord preys on the merchant at every turn. He taxes him, robs him and submits him to endless duties and restrictions. The merchant travelling from one town to another might have to pass through a dozen different feudal entities, each with its own laws and its own lord to be paid. The church, a major prop of the feudal order, harasses the bourgeoisie by seeking to regulate prices and restrict commercial activity on behalf of the nobility. The constant warfare characteristic of the feudal order disrupts the commercial life. The whole system of privilege and authority based on ownership of land and kinship limits the prerogatives of the bourgeoisie. Finally the feudal system, by seeking to tie the peasant to the land and by removing him from the money economy, restricts the labor supply and limits the market for the nascent capitalist.

The class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the nobility develops over a long historical period and goes through many twists and turns. In France, for example, it dates from the 12th century and is only resolved by the French Revolution. Feudalism was not wiped out in a single blow. Rather it died a slow death, withering on the vine as capitalism grew up about it like a powerful weed.

As capitalist economic life develops, it forms an ever more broad economic community. The nobility, pressed for money to pay for luxuries from the towns, begin to demand that the peasants pay their obligations in money rather than in kind. The peasantry begins to differentiate as it is drawn into the money economy, with yeomen, tenants and wage laborers coming to exist side by side with the serfs. More and more peasants leave the land to become wage laborers in the towns and cities as the factory system begins to develop. The self-contained manorial economy disintegrates in conjunction with the rise of the capitalist market.

Politically, the rising bourgeoisie first aligns itself with the medieval monarchy which welcomes this alliance as an instrument for combatting the particularism of the nobility. This alliance leads to the emergence of the centralized absolutist monarchies of England and France in the 16th and 17th centuries. The monarchies tame the nobility and establish a uniform law and state administration. They pursue policies that favor capitalist economic development, financing the development of transportation for example.

However, the monarchs also fear the democratic thrust of the bourgeoisie and resist any encroachment on royal prerogatives. Having brought the nobility and the church under their sway, the monarchs oppose any further assault on their privileges and power. The bourgeoisie, for its part, opposes the whole dead weight of feudal law and custom which continues to hamper its economic activity and confines it to a subordinate political position. Thus the final stage in the class struggle between the nobility and the bourgeoisie is the bourgeois democratic revolution, the elimination of feudal privilege and the inauguration of bourgeois equality. The bourgeoisie then assumes directly the helm of the state and utilizes this power to sweep away the last vestiges of feudalism while consolidating and expanding its market.

This process has different historical expressions in various Western European countries. In England bourgeois constitutionalism was established in a series of struggles beginning in the 17th century and continuing through the nineteenth. Here the old land owning class retained a certain vitality and continued to share power, although now in a subordinate position, with the industrial and commercial class. In France the bourgeois democratic revolution is synonymous with the Revolution of 1789. In Germany the bourgeois democratic revolution was effectively blocked and the nobility exercised power in conjunction with the now reactionary German monopolists until the end of the first imperialist world war.

The emergence of unified nations was bound up with the struggle against feudalism and the bourgeois democratic revolution. In France, the most “classical” model of Western European nations, capitalism developed fairly evenly among the various regions of the country. This favored the emergence of a unified national bourgeoisie and the creation of a uniform national market. The relative evenness of this capitalist development explains why the French revolution was so successful in eliminating feudalism and creating a unified bourgeois national state.

It was the continued strength of feudalism and the unevenness of capitalist development that explains the lateness of German unification and the deformed character of the bourgeois state. In the advance capitalist countries like Germany where the bourgeois democratic revolution had been blocked, the capitalistic class, increasingly fearful of the proletariat, abandoned the aim of democratic revolution and instead sought to graft their rule on to the political structure inherited from feudalism. Thus we have the hybrid of the German Empire with its Junker military caste and its bourgeois civil service.


In Eastern Europe the pattern of national development differed from that in the west. Here feudalism was stronger, and capitalism developed unevenly. Some peoples awakened to capitalist economic life before others. The bourgeoisie of the more economically advanced peoples secured not only their “own” national market but also penetrated the economies of the surrounding peoples. Rather than national states developing, multi-national states which secured a privileged position for the bourgeoisie of the dominant nation arose. As capitalism penetrated the more backward nations, national bourgeoisies arose and sought to secure their respective national markets. As Stalin described it:

. . . the ousted nations, aroused to independent life, could no longer shape themselves into independent 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![2]

This was the general pattern of development in Eastern Europe. Two powerful multi-national states, namely Austria-Hungary and Russia dominated the region. The possession of these states by the Great Russians on the one hand and the Austrian Germans on the other facilitated the bourgeoisies of these people in gaining access and control of the markets of the other peoples. Neither of these states were of a purely bourgeois character. The Russian state in fact was of a feudal, military-bureaucratic character. Nevertheless, these multi-national states effectively represented the interests of the Great Russian and Austrian bourgeoisies in their exploitation of the oppressed peoples.

The oppressed nations that emerge with the coming of capitalist development to Eastern Europe differ in their constitution owing to the historical circumstances of their origins. The economic community of the oppressed nation is embryonic and retarded. The national bourgeoisie is excluded from much of the market by the bourgeoisie of the oppressor nation. Confined to peripheral industries and lacking capital for development, its actual “community” with the other social classes of the nation is restricted.

The oppressor nation bourgeoisie seeks to shape capitalist development along lines that will buttress its own control of the market. It deliberately restricts the field of activity of the national bourgeoisie in order to prevent any competition for this market. Thus economic development is immature and distorted. Extractive industries and agriculture predominates, and manufacturing activity is restricted except to the degree it can be developed by the oppressor nation bourgeoisie.

The underdevelopment of capitalism is, of course, accompanied by the continued strength of feudalism. The feudal landowning classes, because they have no peculiarly “national” aims, and because their interests are antagonistic to their own bourgeoisies, collaborate with the oppressor nation and become a major prop of national oppression.

The full emergence of the nation and with it the national bourgeoisie’s prominence is, as in the case of the nations of Western Europe, bound up with the elimination of feudalism. But in Eastern Europe, the oppressor nations prop up the feudal system and shape economic life to the advantage of the oppressor nation.

The elimination of feudalism requires the breaking of the death grip of foreign capital over the oppressed nation . . . the national democratic movement thus has these two tasks.

At this state, the national question is essentially a question of which bourgeoisie shall dominate. The national movement that emerges on the basis of the “lateness” of the ousted nation is “in its essence . . . always a bourgeois struggle, one that is chiefly advantageous to and suitable for the bourgeoisie.” But national oppression is not limited to the market. Again Stalin:

... A series of restrictive measures is put into operation against the ’alien’ bourgeoisie, measures passing into acts of repression. The struggle passes from the economic sphere to the political sphere. Limitation of freedom of movement, repression of language, limitation of franchise, restriction of schools, religious institutions and so on are piled on to the head of the competitor! ”[3]

These measures, of course, affect the workers and peasants even more than they do the bourgeoisie. Thus, depending on the concrete circumstances, the bourgeoisie is often able to draw large sections of the masses into the national movement, giving it a “nationwide” character in its external forms, while still retaining its essential class essence.


The proletariat of the oppressed nation has its own stake in the national movement. National oppression restricts its development and hems in its field of activity. The proletariat naturally favors the furthest possible extension of democracy as providing the most fertile ground for its own revolutionary struggle. Furthermore, national persecution, in Stalin’s words,

diverts the attention of large strata of the population from social questions of the class struggle, to national questions ’common’ to the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. And this creates a favorable soil for lying propaganda . . . regarding the ’harmony of interests’, for glossing over the class interests of the proletariat and the intellectual enslavement of the workers.[4]

In other words, national oppression serves to obfuscate the class struggle. Its elimination “clears the decks” for the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. It sharpens and illuminates the contradictions between them.

The proletariat thus supports the democratic content of the national movement. But it does not support the national movement uncritically. It maintains its own independent class stand. This is of critical importance because the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation seeks to convince the proletarian masses that its interests are one and the same with the bourgeoisie. It misrepresents the enemy, portraying the workers of the oppressor nation–along with the oppressor nation bourgeoisie–as the source of national oppression. It seeks to develop a chauvinistic ideology of national superiority to justify its nationally exclusive aims. Left unchallenged, the effect of its activity is to split the proletariat of the oppressed nation from its natural allies, the proletariat of the oppressor nation and the worldwide proletarian movement. It brings the working class under its own ideological and organizational sway and thus contains the class struggle.

The bourgeoisie’s opposition to national privilege is conditional. It opposes it only to the point that its activity is restricted by the foreign bourgeoisie. Once it has achieved its independence, it is ready to subjugate other peoples in its drive for a larger market. The ideological standpoint of the oppressed nation capitalist is bourgeois nationalism, which simply translated means “my nationality first.”

For these reasons the proletariat must maintain its independent class stand. The proletariat unconditionally opposes national privilege including the sought-after future privileges of its own nation. The proletariat counterposes the international unity of the working class to the phoney national unity of the bourgeoisie. It must wage a relentless struggle against the attempt of the bourgeoisie to poison the workers and the broad masses with bourgeois nationalism.

The other essential condition for the international unity of the working class is that the proletariat of the oppressor nation firmly oppose national privilege, particularly the privileges uf Its own nation.

The oppressor nation bourgeoisie works to enlist the proletariat in its plunder of the oppressed nations. It spreads national chauvinism among the workers, teaching them the inferiority of other peoples and the “natural” Tightness of national domination. It seeks to convince the workers that their welfare depends on the subjugation of workers of other nationalities. To the extent the bourgeoisie realizes this aim, it drives a deep wedge between the workers of the oppressor and oppressed nations. It fuels bourgeois nationalism among the masses of the oppressed nations by seeming to vindicate the contention that the workers of the oppressor nation are foes of national freedom. Furthermore, it blunts and diverts the class struggle within the oppressor nation. The class conscious proletariat in the oppressor nation is thus bound by its own class interest to conduct a struggle against national oppression and to combat the lying propaganda of national chauvinism.


The concrete expression of the proletariat’s opposition to national privilege is the demand for self determination, the right of an oppressed nation to secede and form its own state. In the struggle for international working class unity, it is absolutely essential that the working class of the oppressor nation raise the demand of self determination for nations that are oppressed by its own bourgeoisie. Only if the proletariat does this can the trust of the workers of the oppressed nation be won. This is the true gauge of internationalism.

As Lenin had to repeat over and over again, the advocacy of the right to secede is not synonymous with the advocacy of secession itself. Whether or not the proletariat will favor secession depends on the particular circumstances. In general, the working class favors state unity of the broadest kind, for it provides the greatest impetus to economic development. But it favors this unity only along consistently democratic lines, which presupposes the right of nations to choose either separation or inclusion.

A division of labor pertains between the proletariat of the oppressor nations and that of the oppressed nations in approaching the national question. The former is duty bound to uphold the right to secede and to impose no conditions on the exercise of the right to self determination. The latter, on the other hand, has the responsibility to fight for international proletarian unity and oppose the nationally exclusive aims of the national bourgeoisie. This duality is illustrated in the case of Poland where the Russian Social Democrats concentrated their agitation on the right of Poland to secede while the Polish Social Democrats correctly opposed the secessionist program of the Polish nationalists. There was no contradiction here (although some leading Polish Social Democrats believed otherwise). The agitation of the Polish internationalists was strengthened by the example of the class conscious Great Russian proletariat.

Marxists make no a priori determination on the question of secession. What serves the general interest of the proletariat at one time or place may not in another. A concrete analysis of those interests is the key to determining whether or not the proletariat should raise the demand for secession. Again the case of Poland illustrates the point.

In the nineteenth century, Marxists along with revolutionary democrats of all stripes, had championed the cause of Polish independence. In this period separation of the more advanced Polish nation from backward and reactionary Tsarist Russia was both desirable and possible as a general expression of the revolutionary democratic struggle in Europe. However, in the period of the early twentieth century, when the question of Poland was as source of debate among Social Democrats, the demand for an independent Poland had changed character. The rise of imperialist Germany which sandwiched Poland between the Kaiser on the one hand and the Tsar on the other, meant that Polish national aims were subject to the manipulations of the Great Powers. Polish freedom under these circumstances could only be achieved through revolution in conjunction with a general European or at least a Russian or German revolution.

Thus the central and overriding task of Polish Social Democrats was the strengthening of ties between the Polish workers’ movement and those of Russia and Germany. To raise the demand for Polish independence under these circumstances represented “a plunge into narrow minded nationalism”,[5] (Lenin). An “independent” Polish state without the destruction of imperial Germany and Tsarist Russia could only be, in the words of the Polish Social Democrats, an “inane Utopia of small impotent groups ... a tiny fragment of a Polish state that would be a military colony of one or another group of Great Powers, a plaything of their military or economic interests, an area exploited by foreign capital and a battlefield in future wars.”[6] Thus the Bolsheviks, while continuing to uphold the right of Poland to secede, opposed raising the actual demand of Polish independence.

The Marxist attitude toward the national movement and toward the question of self determination is not absolute and unconditional. Just as Marxists only support the democratic content of the national movement, so Marxists also only support those national movements which advance the general interests of democracy and the proletariat. In the instance of Poland again, the revolutionary Social Democrats opposed the demand for Polish independence in part because viewed from the general standpoint, the costs when weighed against the result were simply too great. As Lenin described it: “To be in favor of an all-European war merely for the sake of restoring Poland is to be a nationalist of the worst sort, and to place the interests of a small number of Poles above those of the hundreds of millions of people who suffer from war.”

Earlier, Marx and Engels had opposed the national movements of the Slavic people during the revolutions of 1848 because these movements were objectively aiding reaction in the form of Tsarist Russia. The general interests of the revolutionary democratic movement took precedence over the national claims of these peoples. In this concrete case, the interests of the movement, at least as Marx saw them, required a united democratic power in central Europe. The Tsarist reactionaries exploited the particularism of the Slavic peoples against the German democracy and this was the dominant consideration that shaped the revolutionary movement’s attitude toward these national struggles.

The thread that runs throughout the revolutionary approach to the national question is the consistent allegiance to the interests of democracy and international working class solidarity. As in all else, Marxists do not regard the right of nations to self determination as moral abstraction but as an instrument to further the aims of national equality, democracy and working class unity.


The essentials of the revolutionary working class approach to the national question grew out of Marx’s long involvement with the Irish struggle for national freedom. As early as 1840 Marx has applauded the Chartists in England who sided with the Irish national movement by supporting the demand for repeal of the Union.

In the ensuing years Marx became convinced that the emancipation of the English working class was bound up with the liberation of Ireland. The English bourgeoisie and the landed oligarchy had relied on anti-Irish agitation and chauvinism to divert the English workers’ movement. The Irish landlords sought to prevent the development of ties between the English workers and the national movement through the infusion of religious sectariansim. Ireland served as an important reserve of British capital, a source of cheap agricultural produce, an uninhibited market for English manufactured goods, and a source of capital to fuel industrial development in England.

Marx realized that the English workers’ movement could not achieve its aims unless it broke completely with its own bourgeoisie over the question of Ireland. The English workers had to come out unequivocally for Irish freedom and combat every attempt of their rulers to spread chauvinism in their ranks. Marx grasped the enormous revolutionary democratic potential of the Irish national struggle. He saw that the national question in Ireland was bound up with the agrarian question. He wholeheartedly supported the revolutionary agrarian agitation of the Feinians, the tenant’s associations and the Land League.

For Marx, the Irish national movement was the critical ally of the English proletariat, and he devoted enormous efforts to forging this ailiance. It was precisely this merger of the English workers’ movement and the national struggle of the Irish people that the English rulers feared above all else. Within the English section of the International Workingmen’s Association, Marx fought unsuccessfully for a full scale agitational campaign for repeal of the Union Act, which forcefully bound Ireland to England. He succeeded in winning the International to work for amnesty for the Feinian political prisoners and this agitation was of major importance in securing their eventual release.

Marx and Engels worked to advance the revolutionary democratic character of the national movement in opposition to the timid parlimentarianism and social conservatism of the Irish landlords and Catholic hierarchy. They applauded the actions of the revolutionary wing of the national movement in supporting the aims of the Chartists and the International.

The example of internationalism provided by Marx, and Engels was to guide the revolutionary Social Democrats in ensuing years and shape the practice of the Bolsheviks and the Communist International. The revolutionary practice of the Bosheviks in relation to the National Question was achieved against the background of a long and protracted struggle against various shades of opportunism.

Opportunism on the national question expresses itself as the alien bourgeois outlooks of either national chauvinism or bourgeois nationalism. During the life of the Second international and afterwards, Lenin and the Bolshevik party had to wage a relentless fight against both these forms of opportunism.

The most serious struggle was against the outright chauvinists and social patriots like Kautsky who sided with their respective imperialists with the outbreak of war in 1914. This scum, whether they were outright annexationists or hypocritically voiced their support for the right of nations to self-determination in general while remaining silent on the right of nations oppressed within their own borders to secede, was roundly condemned by the whole of revolutionary Social Democracy.

Within the camp of the revolutionary Social Democrats there was a trend, represented most prominently by Rosa Luxumbourg and the Polish Social Democrats, which also repudiated the right of nations to self determination and thus unintentionally played into the hands of the chauvinists. The essential attitude of the Polish Social Democrats was that under conditions of imperialism, self-determination was impossible and under socialism, ft was unnecessary. They thus characterize the Bolshevik program as both Utopian and reformist. The Polish Marxists, whom Lenin regarded as “among the best revolutionary and internationalist elements in international social democracy”[7] were victims of an over-reaction to the bourgeois nationalism they so vigorously and correctly fought in Poland. Their attitude toward the reactionary utopianism of the Polish nationalists was falsely generalized into an attitude toward the demand for independence in general and the national movements of European small nations in particular.

Lenin, in a series of polemics against this trend, exposed the incompatibility of the Polish position. He pointed out that the ending of national oppression under socialism was impossible without the right of nations to self determination, that is, without repudiating the imperialist annexations and frontiers. Denial of the right to self determination was tantamount to the forcible retention of nations. Furthermore the proletariat cannot liberate itself, that is make socialist revolution, without liberating the small nations, “without educating the masses in an anti-chauvinist, i.e. anti-annexationist, i.e. self determinationist”[8] spirit.

The Polish Social Democrats advanced the argument that in the epoch of imperialism, the demand for independence for the small nations of Europe had become a reactionary Utopia. Lenin counterposed to this the understanding that the various national movements could not be viewed as isolated strivings for independence but had to be seen as one element in the overall struggle against imperialism. While agreeing that the aim of independence was unobtainable short of a general revolutionary crisis, Lenin added that the deepening of imperialist crisis was creating precisely the circumstances necessary for liberation of these nations. In this context the national movements of small European nations were an important reserve of the proletariat, a reserve that the Polish Social Democrats were ready to sacrifice in the interests of a doctrinaire position on the National Question.

Lenin’s case in point was the Irish Rebellion of 1916 which the Polish trend had belittled as a mere putsch. Here, in the midst of the war, was a serious blow dealt to British imperialism right in its own backyard. As Lenin noted, had the Irish rebellion occurred in the midst of a generalized European revolution it not only might have succeeded but would have given immeasurable aid to the European working class.

Yet the Polish trend could only see it as a petty bourgeois adventure that exposed the futility of supporting the national aspirations of the small nations. As the Irish example indicates, the struggle against the Polish Social Democrats was not simply an exchange of views expressing differences over the wording of clauses in party programs. The Polish trend, by liquidating the national question, thereby liquidated the national movements and the role of small nations which while “powerless as an independent factor in the struggle against imperialism, play a part as one of the ferments, one of the bacilli, which help the real anti-imperialist force, the socialist proletariat, to make its appearance on the scene.”[9]

The other major expression of opportunism on the National Question in the period prior to the Russian Revolution was the doctrine of cultural national autonomy which was espoused by the Austrian Social Democrats and the Russian Bund, an organization of Jewish Social Democrats. Cultural national autonomy of Bundism substituted the demand for “autonomous” cultural and political institutions for oppressed nationalities for the right to self determination. This was an extra-territorial conception of autonomy that substituted national unions of people regardless of the area they might inhabit for political autonomy in the regions in which they comprised the majority.

Cultural national autonomy restricted the exercise of independence by an oppressed nation by limiting autonomy to “cultural” questions. The fundamental political questions were to be reserved for a federated parliament consisting of the representatives of all the nationalities. In the case of oppressed national minorities, the advocates of cultural national autonomy substituted separate autonomous cultural institutions for the achievement of full equality and democratic rights in all areas of national life.

The idea of cultural national autonomy rested on an abstract idealistic understanding of nationhood. The Bundists made no attempt to fix the rise of national life and movements within the framework of capitalistic economic development. Nations for them were simply “communities of persons” defined primarily by cultural affinity. The effects of capitalist economic life in welding nationalities together was ignored by Bauer, Springer and Co. And their demand to separate the inhabitants of a territory according to the principle of nationality represented a blow against the progressive features of this trend.

The conception of cultural national autonomy, by emphasizing national community above class solidarity and by dividing the working class of a multi-national state along national lines, was an expression of bourgeois nationalism that ran counter to the fundamental interests of the working class. This conception was mirrored in the actual practice of the advocates of cultural national autonomy. In Russia, the Bund favored organizing separate Jewish trade unions and sought to establish itself as the sole representative of the Jewish proletariat in opposition to the All Russia Social Democratic Party.

In calling for “the preservation and development of national peculiarities of the peoples,” the cultural national autonomy advocates depart completely from the Marxist attitude. For Marxists, there is nothing desirable about national culture as a totality. Every particular national culture, as Lenin pointed out, contains two different tendencies corresponding to the class forces within the nation. There is the democratic element of the national culture which grows out of the oppressed classes struggle for liberation, and the reactionary element which is the expression of the struggle of the ruling classes to maintain an obsolescent social and economic system. Revolutionary Marxists naturally seek to strengthen and reinforce the former at the expense of the latter. Stalin exposed the absurdity of the slogan of the preservation of national culture when he said:

Just think: to ’preserve’ such ’national peculiarities’ of the Transcaucasian Tatars as self-flagellation at the festival of Shakhsei-Vakhsei; or to ’develop’ such ’national peculiarities’ of the Georgians as the vendetta . . .[10]

As Stalin’s remarks indicate, much of what is characterized as “national differences and peculiarities” are in fact backward feudalistic social customs that are incompatible with democracy let alone socialism. Of course, dealing with these national differences within a multi-national state such as that created by the Bolshevik Revolution requires the greatest sensitivity on the part of the victorious proletariat. In practice, as the experience of the revolution showed, there is often a fine line between the struggle to overcome cultural backwardness and chauvinism. But recognizing this is a far cry from promoting such national differences as objects for preservation and development.

Left opportunism on the national question took the form of debunking the importance of national movements and belittling the right of nations to self-determination. With its insistence that the rearrangement of borders was a Utopian pursuit, its point of view dovetailed neatly with that of the imperialists, who were firmly opposed to any incursions on boundaries fixed by themselves. While the revolutionary motives of Rosa Luxembourg are beyond a doubt, the reactionary implications of her line on the national question are borne out by the support it found among the various shades of chauvinist opportunism within the Second International.

Right opportunism took the form of glorification of the principle of nationality, placing the imagined interests of a nationality over and above the general interests of the working class. Typically, the right opportunists failed to examine the phenomena of nationality from a materialist standpoint, treating it as if it existed outside historical development. By promoting separation along national lines, they glossed over the class antagonisms within each national grouping and erected further obstacles in the path of the achievement of working class unity. These aims correspond to those of the bourgeois nationalists, who naturally seek to promote a classless notion of national unity and prevent the development of class solidarity across national lines.

The unity of both the right and left forms of opportunism is readily apparent in that both, by strengthening the ideological influence of the bourgeoisie through the ideas of chauvinism and nationalism, promote disunity among the working class and render the realization of its historic aim of socialist revolution all the more difficult.


With the rise of imperialism, the character of the national question is profoundly altered. The development of monopoly capital produced a worldwide intensification of national oppression as the dominant imperialist powers rapidly colonized the whole globe. The motive of this process lies in the crisis of capitalism as being ’over ripe’, as having accumulated a super-abundance of capital, capital that could not be “profitably” invested at home.

The bourgeoisie’s pursuit of the market now spills over national boundaries and leads to a massive export of capital. The monopolists in exporting their capital sought a return on their investment well above that which they could reap from the ’exhausted’ domestic market. The imperialists secured this greater return, or superprofits, by subjugating and colonizing the nations of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Establishing their rule by force, the imperialists were able to rape the natural resources of these countries and super-exploit their labor, that is, secure labor at a cost well below the social average.

In conjunction with reactionary native landlords, the imperialists stepped up the oppression of the peasantry. The vast super-profits from the colonies were transferred to the metropolis, leading to the further impoverishment and distorted economic development of the oppressed nations. The existence of sharp economic competition between the imperialist powers led to an ever more intense exploitation of the colonies and non-sovereign nations as each national grouping of monopolists sought to extract more from its respective colonies.

Following World War I and the October Revolution, national movements arose on a world scale in response to these new conditions. This marked a distinct change in the character of the national question. In the earlier period, it was an essentially bourgeois struggle limited to a European setting. In the new period it is a struggle of the masses of people, particularly the peasantry, oppressed by imperialism. It is primarily a question of colonies and it is a question on a world scale.

In the epoch of progressive capitalism, the national question was part and parcel of the general question of bourgeois democratic revolution. To the extent we can speak of the national question being “solved” under capitalism, its resolution was bound up with the practice of “consistent democracy.” National equality was part of the democratic content of the bourgeois revolution, and the degree to which it was actually realized depended on how far and how deeply the democratic thrust of the bourgeois revolution reached. Thus Lenin notes that the French Revolution, “which provided the most democratic solution of the current problems of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, ’succeeded’ incidentally, en passant in ’solving’ the national question.”[11] Switzerland provided the most advanced example of the bourgeois democratic solution to the national question in uniting on the basis of equality three nationalities, each with its own language.

With the rise of imperialism, the national question becomes part of the general question of proletarian revolution. A peaceful, democratic solution to the national question in the framework of capitalism is negated by the emergence of imperialism. While in the earlier period the bourgeoisie had a certain interest in promoting consistent democracy and national equality, in the epoch of imperialism it cannot survive “without the political and economic enslavement of non-sovereign nations and colonies.” Thus the liberation of the oppressed nations and colonies is bound up with the defeat of imperialism and is only possible on the basis of the revolutionary unity of the proletariat of the imperialist nations with the peoples of the oppressed nations.

This did not mean that the national question ceased to be a democratic question and had become synonomous with the task of proletarian revolution. The oppressed nations in the colonial world were for the most part only entering the sphere of capitalist commodity production. Feudal relations were dominant and provided a powerful prop for imperialist exploitation. The single largest class in these nations was the peasantry and the proletariat was generally very small. Under these circumstances, there was no possibility of a direct route to socialism through a single stage, proletarian revolution. Instead, the task was to make the bourgeois democratic revolution.

But this could only be carried through on the basis of a revolutionary struggle against imperialism. To eliminate feudalism and expel the imperialists, it was necessary to mobilize the masses of the oppressed peoples in alliance with the world wide proletarian revolutionary movement. Similarly, the proletariat of the oppressor nations could only realize its revolutionary aims and its dictatorship if it firmly aligned itself with the oppressed peoples. The national liberation movements constituted the main reserve of the proletariat in the struggle against imperialism. It is in this sense that the national question becomes part of the question of proletarian revolution.

While the task remained that of bourgeois democratic revolution, it was now a bourgeois democratic revolution of a new and distinct type. To succeed in achieving real as opposed to formal independence, the revolution had to be consistently anti-imperialist. A half a century of revolutionary experience in the colonies and semi-colonies has firmly established that the national movements that stop half way, that do not carry out a resolute program of struggle against imperialism, cannot win lasting independence. Imperialist domination remains or is restored in the guise of neo-colonialism.

The anti-imperialist character of the national movement rests ultimately on its class character and leadership. The national bourgeoisie, while a definite ally in the democratic revolution, lacks the resolution, because of its contradictory interests, to carry the revolution through to its logical conclusion. As the experience of China, Vietnam, Korea and Cuba demonstrate (in contrast to that of India, Indonesia and Egypt, for example), only a national united front led by the proletariat and its party can give the democratic revolution its fullest anti-imperialist expression. In the cases of these countries, proletarian leadership in the democratic stage of the revolution laid the groundwork for the revolution more or less rapidly going over into the socialist revolution. Having expropriated the imperialists, the comprador bourgeoisie and the feudal landlords, and having seized possession of the state power, the proletariat was able to effect the socialist revolution. This New Democratic, two stage theory of revolution, as developed and summed up by Mao Tse Tung and the Chinese Communist Party, represented a creative extension of the Bolshevik experience to the conditions of the colonial and semi-colonial nations in the epoch of imperialism.


Nations are not fixed entities that exist for all time. The modern nation is a feature of the capitalist epoch and its future is “linked with the fate of capitalism” (Stalin). It comes into being with the rise of the bourgeoisie and the stirrings of capitalist economic life. As capitalism matures and extends its market into wider spheres, it tends to break down national barriers and obliterate national distinctions. “Capitalism’s world historical tendency... to assimilate nations”[12] (italics in the original), as Lenin put it, is a feature of the development of the more advanced capitalist states.

There is no doubt that in the early stages of capitalism, nations become welded together. 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 separate off from nations and go off in search of a livelihood, subsequently settling finally in other regions of the state, in the course of which the settlers 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...[13]

This dispersal of peoples from their homeland is accompanied by the decline of the cultural community that exists between the different classes of the nation:

... the cohesion and unity of a nation diminish not only as a result of migration. They diminish also from internal causes, owing to the growing acuteness of the class struggle. In the early stages of capitalism one may still speak of a “cultural community” between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. But as large scale industry develops and the class struggle becomes more and more acute, this community begins to melt away. One cannot seriously speak of the “cultural community” of a nation when the masters and the workers of a nation have ceased to understand each other.[14]

Stalin here is describing the internationalization of the class struggle that arises simultaneously with the internationalization of Capital. The dispersal of a people, their amalgamation with other peoples on the basis of their integration into a common economic life, is also marked by the development of more intimate ties between the workers of the different nations as well as the growth of antagonism with their national bourgeoisie. Lenin noted this process in speaking of the Ukraine:

For several decades a well-defined process of accelerated economic development has been going on In the South, i.e. the Ukraine, attracting hundreds of thousands of peasants and workers from Great Russia to the capitalist farms, mines, and cities. The “assimilation”–within these limits–of the Great Russian and Ukranian proletariat is an indisputable fact. And this fact is undoubtedly progressive. Capitalism is replacing the ignorant, conservative settled muzhik of the Great Russian or Ukranian backwoods with a mobile proletarian whose conditions of life break down specifically national narrow-mindedness, both Great Russian and Ukranian. (italics in the original)[15]

This process continues and in fact accelerates with the rise of imperialism. Stalin noted in a resolution from 1923 that:

Even as early as the last century the development of capitalism betrayed a tendency to internationalize the means of production and exchange, to eliminate national aloofness, to bring peoples into closer economic relations and gradually to merge vast territories into a single connected whole. The further development of capitalism, the development of the world market, the perfection of the great rail and sea routes, the export of capital, and so on, still further accentuated this tendency and bound all kinds of peoples by ties arising out of the international division of labor and universal dependence.[16]

As capitalism’s economic activity burst beyond the boundary of the state, so did the process of amalgamation of peoples. The unitary national states of Western Europe now became multi-national states with the assumption of empires beyond their borders, oppressor nations on a scale unprecedented in history.

Stalin characterized this process in the following manner:

Inasmuch as this process was a reflection of a colossal development of productive forces, inasmuch as it helped to destroy national isolation and the contradiction between the interests of the various peoples, it was and is a progressive process, for it is creating the material conditions for a future socialist economic system.[17]

He then went on to add:

But this tendency developed in specific forms which were completely at variance with its Intrinsic historical significance... by means of the subjection of certain peoples by others, by means of the oppression and exploitation of less developed peoples by more developed peoples... For this reason we find that side by side with the tendency to amalgamation there grew up a tendency to destroy the violent forms assumed by this amalgamation.[18]

Imperialism on the one hand develops the firmest foundations for the resolution of the national question by generating the conditions for international proletarian solidarity, proletarian revolution and a socialist economic order. On the other hand, it is constitutionally incapable of resolving the national question. Its reliance on the “specific forms” Stalin speaks of is not a matter of misguided policy of course, but an inevitable expression of imperialism’s very essence. Imperialism is compelled by the whole logic of its development to subjugate nations and wring their wealth from their peoples.

A correct approach to the National Question in the epoch of imperialism must understand these two aspects of imperialism. The task of the Socialist Revolution is not to reverse the amalgamation of peoples that capitalist development has accomplished. Rather, it is to abolish the means through which this process was driven forward. Socialism aims at replacing domination and coercion with equality and voluntary union. Socialism, while taking the fullest advantage of the relations of economic inter-dependency that capitalist economic development has created, aims at a thorough-going democratization of those relations.


[1] Stalin, “Marxism and the National Question,” Selections From Lenin and Stalin on the National and Colonial Question, (Calcutta Book House) 1970.

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] Lenin, “The Discussion of Self-Determination Summed Up,” National Liberation, Socialism, and Imperialism, (International Publishers), 1970, p. 155.

[6] ibid, p. 155.

[7] ibid, p. 152.

[8] ibid.

[9] ibid, p. 162.

[10] Stalin, “Marxism and the National Question,” op. cit.

[11] Lenin, “Critical Remarks on the National Question,” op. cit, p. 35.

[12] ibid, p. 21.

[13] Stalin, “Marxism and the National Question,” op. cit.

[14] ibid.

[15] Lenin, “Critical Remarks on the National Question,” op. cit, p. 24.

[16] Stalin, “National Factors in Party and State Development,” op. cit., p. 138.

[17] ibid.

[18] ibid.