Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Michael McCreery

The National Question in Britain

First Published: Vanguard, July 1964
Republished: the Workers Party of Scotland (Marxist-Leninist) 1977
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
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1977 Publisher’s Note: This edition of Michael McCreery’s ’The National Question in Britain’ is photo-reproduced from ’Vanguard’ – periodical of the Committee to Defeat Revisionism for Communist Unity of July 1964.

* * *

The National Question

In Marxism and the National and Colonial Question, Stalin wrote: “What is a nation?”

A nation is primarily a community, a definite community of people.
This community is not racial, nor is it tribal. The modern Italian nation was formed from Romans, Teutons, Etruscans, Greeks, Arabs and so forth. The French nation was formed from Gauls, Romans, Britons, Teutons, and so on. The same should be said of the British, the Germans and others, who were formed into nations from peoples of different races and tribes.
Thus, a nation is not a racial or tribal, but a historically constituted community of people.
On the other hand, it is unquestionable that the great empires of Cyrus and Alexander could not be called nations, although they came to be constituted historically and were formed ’Out of different tribes and races. They were not nations, but casual and loosely-connected conglomerations of groups, which fell apart or joined together depending upon the victories or defeats of this or that conqueror.
Thus a nation is not a casual or ephemeral conglomeration, but a stable community of people.


But not every stable community constitutes a nation. Austria and Russia are also stable communities, but nobody calls them nations. What distinguishes a national community from a political community? One of the distinguishing features is that a national community is inconceivable without a common language. The Czech nation in Austria and the Polish in Russia would be impossible if each did not have a common language, whereas the integrity of Russia and Austria is not affected by the fact that there are several different languages within their borders. We are referring, of course, to the colloquial language of the people and not to the official government language.
Thus community of language is one of the characteristic features of a nation.
This of course, does not mean that different nations always and everywhere necessarily speak different languages, or that all who speak one language necessarily constitutes one nation. A common language for every nation, but not necessarily different languages for different nations. There is no nation which at one and the same time speaks several languages, but this does not mean that there may not be two nations speaking the same language. Englishmen and Americans speak one language but they do not constitute one nation. The same is true of the Norwegians and the Danes, the English and the Irish.
But why, for instance, do not the English and the Americans constitute one nation in spite of their common language?
Firstly, because they do not live together, but inhabit different territories. A nation is formed only as a result of lengthy and systematic intercourse, as a result of the fact that people live together from generation to generation. But people cannot live together for lengthy periods unless they have a common territory. Englishmen and Americans originally inhabited the same territory, England, and constituted one nation. Later, one section of the English emigrated from England to a new territory, America, and here, in the new territory, in the course of time came to form the new American nation.
Thus community of territory is one of the characteristic features of a nation.
But this is not all. Community of territory in itself does not create a nation. This requires, in addition, an internal economic bond which welds the various parts of a nation into a single whole. There is no such bond between England and America, and so they constitute two different nations. But the Americans themselves would not deserve to be called a nation were not the different parts of America bound together into an economic whole, as a result of division of labour between them, the development of means of communication and so forth.
Take the Georgians, for instance. The Georgians before the Reform (the abolition of serfdom in 1861) inhabited a common territory and spoke one language. Nevertheless, they did not, strictly speaking, constitute one nation, for, being split up in a number of disconnected principalities, they could share a common economic life; for centuries they waged war against each other and pillaged each other by inciting the Persians and Turks’ against each other...” Georgia came on the scene as a ’nation only in the latter half of the 19th century, when the fall of serfdom and the growth of economic life of the country, the development of means of, communication and the rise of capitalism, instituted a division of labour between the various districts of Georgia completely shattered the economic self-sufficiency of the principalities and bound them together into a single whole.
The same must be said of the other nations which have passed through the stage of feudalism and have developed capitalism.
Thus community of economic life, economic cohesion, is one of the characteristic features of a nation.


But even this is not all. Apart from the foregoing, one must take into consideration the specific spiritual complexion of the people constituting a nation. Nations differ not only in their conditions of life, but also in spiritual complexion, which manifests itself In peculiarities of national culture. If England, America and Ireland, which speak one language, nevertheless constitute three distinct nations, it is in no small measure due to the peculiar psychological makeup which they developed from generation to generation as a result of dissimilar conditions of existence.
Of course, by itself the psychological make-up or as it is otherwise called the ’national character’ is something indefinable to the observer, but inasmuch as it manifests itself in a distinctive culture common to the nation it is definable and cannot be Ignored. Needless to say, national character is not a thing fixed once and for all, but is modified by changes in the conditions of life: but since it exists at every given moment, it leaves its imprint on the physiognomy of the nation.
Thus community of psychological make-up, which manifests itself in a community of culture, is one of the characteristic features of a nation.
A nation is a historically evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life and psychological make-up manifested in a community of culture.
It goes without saying that a nation, like every other, historical phenomenon, is subject to the law of change, has its history, its beginning and end.
It must be emphasised that none of the above characteristics is by itself sufficient to define a nation. On the other hand it is sufficient for a single one of these characteristics to be absent and the nation ceases to be a nation.

Stalin’s general analysis, made in 1913, remains correct. His teaching on the national and colonial question, and its relationship to the struggle against capitalism and for proletarian dictatorship and socialism, must be mastered by all communists. And particularly by those in Britain, for our rulers still exploit half the world. It needs driving home again and again that the struggle in other lands for complete national liberation from imperialism is an essential part of the struggle to weaken, and finally overthrow the political power of our own ruling class.

But it is all too often forgotten that there is a national problem within the boundaries of the British state. The Irish struggle for national liberation continues. Ireland remains divided. And in Great Britain itself there are not one, but three nations: the English, the Scottish and Welsh. Each one is “a historically evolved stable community of language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifest in a community of culture,” To ignore this fact is to ignore a baste feature of British society.


Stalin himself, in the passage quoted above, and elsewhere in Marxism and the National and Colonial Question, confuses “British” and “English.” In one passage, he refers to “the British nation.” in the next to the “English nation.” There is, in fact, no British nation, but a British state, within which three nations, and part of a fourth, are oppressed and exploited by a ruling class drawn from all four nations. There are British capitalist and, British workers, there are British people. But there is no British nation.

For the revolutionary working class movement in Britain to ignore basic feature of British society is to ensure the defeat of the revolution. A correct strategy for the struggle against British capitalism and for its final overthrow can only be evolved by taking into account the national problem within, as well as without, the boundaries of the British state. But the measure of our rulers’ ability to smother the revolutionary aims of the working class, and remove the national question from the minds of militant workers. Particularly in England, is seen in the British Road to Socialism. This programme of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 30 pages long, does not once refer to the need for a revolution in Britain. The word “revolution” is not even mentioned! Nor is the word “England “once used! And Scotland and Wales receive just this one reference. Scotland and Wales need to have their own ’Parliaments, with power to ensure the balanced development of their economies within the general plan for Britain as well as to satisfy the wider national aspirations of their peoples,” But is this not the exact and happy position which the Irish in Northern Ireland have already achieved?

It is, of course, no coincidence that this programme ignores both the national question and the need for a revolution in Britain. For” the wider national aspirations of the Scots and the Welsh can never be achieved within ’the framework of the British capitalist state, but only with the break-up of that State. And the end of exploitation in Britain, equally, can never be achieved within the framework of the British capitalist state, but only by smashing that state. Yet the main argument of the British Road is that the needs of the people in Britain can be met in full within a reformed British state. The aims of revolution and of national liberation must therefore be abandoned in this programme.

This British state came into existence to serve the interests of the rising capitalist class, has been continuously developed and strengthened to serve their interests at each, stage in the development of the capitalist system, add will be used by them, and no other class until they are finally overthrown. The need to establish one market in Britain led the capitalists of England to incorporate Scotland and Wales within the one British state ruled from Whitehall. In this task they were assisted by the dominant sections of Scottish and Welsh, capital, who collaborated with them against the interests of their own people. The need to extend this British market led to the conquest of Ireland, and of half the world.


British capitalism is now in decline. The imperialist stage or capitalist development, in which we now live, is the final stage. Beyond Imperialism lies Socialism. But capitalism will not die a natural death. It must be overthrown, it is for this reason that Communists in Britain, and particularly in England, must master the national question. That great Scottish Communist, John McLean, wrote a short while before his death in November 1923.

Russia could not produce the world revolution, neither can we in the Gorbals, in Scotland, in Great Britain. Before England is ready I am sure the next war will be on us. I therefore consider that Scotland’s wisest policy is to declare for a Republic in Scotland, so that the youths of Scotland will not be forced out to die for England’s markets.

If Baldwin’s capitalist policy is to bind the Empire closer together to fight American capitalism and incidentally keep the workers enslaved, then the working class policy ought to be to break up the Empire, to avert war and enable the workers to triumph in every country and colony. Scottish separation is part of the process of England’s Imperial disintegration, and is a help towards the ’ ultimate triumph of the workers of the world.”

What was true in 1928 is true today. John McLean “the bitterest enemy of the British Government, “the beloved leader of the Scottish workers as Lenin described him, was right and those who fought him on this issue, who still lead the Communist Party, of Great Britain, and produced the British Road to Socialism, were wrong. The British ruling class killed John McLean, through the treatment they meted out to him in prison. They murdered James Connolly in Ireland. Both men were indeed too dangerous to the, capitalists. They had grasped the need to link the national question with the struggle for working class power, the struggle to smash the British state through which the capitalists maintain their evil system.

Publisher’s Explanatory Note to the 1977 edition

Pages 4-5 [of this article] contain references to the 1950 edition of “the British road to Socialism,” the revisionist (anti-Marxist) programme of the CPGB which was first adopted in 1951 – replacing the previous revolutionary programme “For A Soviet Britain” (which McCreery reproduced in the CDRCU Vanguard). The “British Road to Socialism” was revised again in 1968 and is now undergoing further revision, with the introduction of some revolutionary phrase-mongering as well as a few more references to the national question, simply to cover up its complete departure from the revolutionary principles of Marxism-Leninism. The CPGB continues to support the British capitalist state by advocating its ’reform’ (leading to state monopoly capitalism) and is opposed to its destruction through the revolutionary seizure of power by the working class, national independence and the dictatorship of the proletariat. So although the particularly glaring features he refers to may have been changed, McCreery’s general analysis remains valid. Nor can the anti-Marxist essence of the CPGB and its programme be altered simply through further transfusions of Marxist terminology and more or less support for the Soviet social-imperialists (socialism in words imperialism in deeds). “Opportunism can be expressed in the terms of any kind of doctrine, including that of Marxism…Marxian words have in our days become a cover for the absolute renunciation of Marxism.” (Lenin).

In the same section in references to northern Ireland McCreery is of course talking about the old colonial parliament at Stormont since abandoned in favour of direct rule from the Westminster imperial parliament.