C. K. Maisels

Nationalism and the Proletarian Revolution

First Published: The Marxist, No. 15, Autumn 1970
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
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’Comrade Lenin draws the following conclusion; “Marx had no doubt as to the subordinate position of the national as compared to the labour question.” Here are only two lines but they are decisive. And this is what some of our comrades who are more zealous than wise should drill into their heads.’ (Stalin)[1]

MARXIST-LENINISTS see everything (right up to the realisation of Communism) from the point of view of class struggle. Therefore we must ask ’what class interest does nationalism serve, in what historical period and region?’

To assist us in this class analysis let us examine in depth the fundamental tenet of Marxism-Leninism on the national question.

Marxists proclaim the right of all nations to self-determination. This is not an abstract bourgeois legal or ’moral’ thing we recognise but purely a method whereby the bourgeois nationalistic mystification can be readily disposed of, so that the most fundamental contradiction between capital and labour, be laid bare for all the masses to see and grapple with:

’The obligations of Social-Democrats (Communists) who defend the interests of the proletariat and the rights of a nation which consists of various classes, are two different things.

’In fighting for the right of nations to self-determination the aim of Social-Democrats is to put an end to the policy of national oppression, to render it impossible and thereby to remove the grounds of hostility between nations, to take the edge off that hostility and to reduce it to a minimum.

’This is what essentially distinguishes the policy of the class-conscious proletariat from the policy of the bourgeoisie, which attempts to aggravate and fan the national struggle and to prolong and sharpen the national movement.

’And this is why the class-conscious proletariat cannot rally under the “national flag” of the bourgeoisie.’ (Stalin, emphasis added)[2]

This is why ’our program (for self-determination) refers only to cases where such a movement (for secession) is actually in existence.’ (Lenin).[3] The last thing Marxist-Leninists do is to fan such a movement. This is only common-sense, since we are trying to dispose of national prejudices generally. Anything else would be absurdly self-defeating.

Now, if we assume for the moment that the Scots are still a ’nation’ in the Marxist (objective) sense (’A nation is a historically evolved stable community of language’ [Gaelic, English, Lallans, Arcadian?] ’territory, economic life’ [Union of Crowns 1603,Union of Parliament 1707] ’and psychological make-up manifested in a community of culture’.) (Stalin)[4] would the movement for Scottish autonomy be objectively progressive? Would it aid the class struggle against capitalism-imperialism or divert the masses from that struggle? This is the only possible criterion for Marxist-Leninists.

An answer to this must be based on investigation, not on subjective conceptions, and as historical materialists we have to examine the whole background of nationalism historically to understand its present role in the world and particularly in Britain.

We find that nationalism in its modern form dates from about the French Revolution of 1789. It is well understood that this revolution was a bourgeois anti-feudal revolution and the beginning of a series of such revolutions throughout Europe. It is also well known how nationalism was engendered in that revolution, Frenchmen being encouraged to regard the Dew Republican state as their own, since all were citizens, in contra-distinction to the old Monarchist attitude of the state being of, and belonging to, the King -’L’etat c’est moi.’ Now (1789) it was Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite (initially Propriete) now one was proud to be French. Thus, ’Vive le Roi’ became ’Vive la France, Vive la Republique’ in the myth that all men being equal (constitutionally) all had a community of interest in ’France, La Patrie’ and of course in her economic development. This ideological formulation (nationalism) was and is always necessary for the bourgeoisie in setting up capitalist states. It is a key part of the bourgeois superstructure, pinning the economic base in position for the full development of capitalism. By this device, although capitalists might own the means of production and live in idle luxury, the proletariat sells its labour 14 hours daily for a subsistance wage – still all had an overriding interest in the preservation of ’their nation’ and in the domination of other nations.

It is clear therefore that the concept of nationalism at that time (18th Century) was part of the then progressive anti-feudal revolution, whereby the bourgeoisie became the ruling class, replacing the landed aristocracy.

That this device of nationalism is used by the rising bourgeoisie in its struggle to overthrow feudalism and establish capitalism is further proved in studying subsequent bourgeois revolutions (e.g. Central Europe, 1848).

However, that this is a practice not only confined to the European bourgeoisie of the last few centuries, can be seen in the contemporary anti-feudal/anti-imperialist struggles as waged in Egypt and Algeria (Arab Nationalism), China (Chinese Nationalism -while the revolution there was led by the bourgeoisie) Indonesia, etc.

’Throughout the world, the period of the final victory of capitalism over feudalism has been linked with national movements.’ (Lenin)[5]

’Therefore the tendency of every national movement (my emphasis) is towards the formation of national states (original emphasis) under which these requirements of modern capitalism are best satisfied.’(Lenin)[6]

Hence we find in the liberation movement today, in Asia, Africa and Latin America, since the struggle there is at this stage mostly against the local feudal aristocracy supported by foreign imperialism, that the progressive forces can and do include the local (national) bourgeoisie in a fight to rid the country of feudal and imperialist domination. While the working class and the peasantry are involved in this struggle in order to clear the way for socialism, the local bourgeoisie are of course only taking part in order to gain scope for the development of their own capitalism in the country concerned. However, when still at the anti-feudal/colonial stage, the struggle embraces nearly all the classes pursuing ,their different but temporarily concurrent class interests, (proletariat, peasantry, petit bourgeoisie, big bourgeoisie) with the exception of the feudalists and comprador bourgeoisie; the struggle thereby taking on a ’national’ character, i.e. the struggle is one which is ’nation-wide’, it is a struggle of national liberation. We therefore see that the nationalism of this struggle is an expedient developed as a result of the prevailing economic/political conditions within the three continents.

Thus, in no way is this situation that prevailing in modern Europe/North America.

Nationalism, as we have seen, is always the tool of the bourgeoisie, historically (1789, 1848, etc.) and in the 2Oth Century also (Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Falangist Spain, etc.) At present in the three continents there can be a brief identity of interest between the national bourgeoisie and the working masses against feudalism/ imperialism, and hence this nationalism for the moment can play a progressive role. However, now that the progressive role in Europe of the bourgeoisie is long finished, so too is the progressive role of nationalism and only its reactionary role remains.

’First, the advanced capitalist countries and the United States of America. In these countries, the bourgeois, progressive national movements came to an end long ago.’ (Lenin)[7]

Reaction is exactly the role of nationalism in Britain today. Let us look at Scottish and Welsh nationalism. These two regions were among the first to industrialise (18th Century), and hence develop a modern proletariat.

The proletariat is by far the biggest single class in Britain, and in every single region of it. Scotland and Wales have long been bastions of social democracy. It is well known that they traditionally provided the Labour Party with a permanent majority of their representation at Westminster, and indeed it was on a militant sounding platform of reformism and ’socialism’ that the Labour Party even added seats to its permanent majority in these regions at the elections of 1964 and 1966. However, after only about twenty-five months in power widespread disillusion with the Labour Party set in and nowhere more so than in Scotland and Wales; for in no places were the economic problems more pressing (due in part to the centripetal effect of London’s ten millions), in no places was there such strong traditional loyalty to the Labour Party, and hence in no places were the electors’ initial hopes higher. As this disillusion became more widespread and more bitter it was not confined to disenchantment with the Labour Party itself but, more seriously, with the very concepts of reformism and social democracy. The bourgeoisie, seeing that the social-democrats were not fulfilling their designed ’heading-off’ function, but were in fact producing the opposite effect (being unable to produce the goods, owing to the present crisis of world capitalism), had therefore to find a satisfactory substitute before things got out of hand and the masses started to challenge the bourgeois-democratic system itself. What’s so convenient as a replacement as that constant handmaiden of the bourgeoisie – nationalism.

From being tiny inconsequential entities with a few members, little funds and less organisation, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru became suddenly the dominant parties in Scotland and Wales. How did this startling transformation come about? Anyone reading the bourgeois press from late 1966 onwards can clearly see how both the SNP and PC were manufactured for the job of providing the diversion traditionally offered by the Labour Party. The encouragement of these parties was not confined to the press but was aided by the other mass media. Both SNP and PC were tailor-made as mass parties for the job at the necessary time and place. It is claimed that the SNP and PC have working-class support and indeed they do have some, for it was to gain this very thing that they were after all created by the bourgeoisie. So also do the Labour, Liberal and Conservative patties have some working-class support, but no Marxist would call any of them proletarian parties, and neither can the SNP or PC be so called. In fact the chief strength of the SNP and PC is the petit-bourgeoisie and small bourgeoisie whence the great majority of their leaders is drawn. Hence to speak of Scottish or Welsh (or English, for that matter) nationalism as a progressive force, or of a Scottish or Welsh national-liberation struggle, is to play the game of the bourgeoisie.

’The imperialist epoch and the war of 1914-16 have particularly brought to the forefront the task of fighting against chauvinism and nationalism in the advanced countries.’ (Lenin)[8]

The ruling classes of Scotland and Wales have long been merged with that of England and the working-class of Scotland, Wales and England has long been one homogenous working class. Nowhere in Britain has capitalism not triumphed over feudalism (although many vestiges inevitably remain) and thus nowhere in Britain can capitalism or its ideological adjunct, nationalism, playa progressive role.

’In Western, Continental Europe, the epoch of bourgeois-democratic revolutions embraces a fairly definite period, approximately from 1789 to 1871. This was precisely the period of national movements and the creation of national states. When this period drew to a close, Western Europe had been transformed into a settled system of bourgeois states which, as a general rule, were national uniform states. Therefore, to seek the right of self-determination in the programmes of present day Western European Socialists is to betray one’s ignorance of the ABC of Marxism.’ (Lenin)[9]

It is the monopoly capitalist class of Western Europe/North America which oppresses alike all the peoples of Western Europe/North America, and also super-oppresses the peoples of the other three continents. Hence to speak of ’English’ Imperialism only helps divide the proletariat in Britain; British US monopoly capitalists must be specifically identified as the imperialist oppressors. If the English proletariat derives significant material benefit from the exploitation of Scotland and Wales (as in fact sections of the British proletariat does from British Imperialism in the three continents) then how do we explain the low material standards in the North-East (Newcastle), North-West (Liverpool) and South-West (Cornwall) of England? The centripetal effect of an unplanned economy will inevitably concentrate prosperity in the London area and precisely the same, only on a smaller scale, is true of the Edinburgh area.

’Uneven economic and political development is an absolute law of capitalism.’ (Lenin)[10]

Unfavourable economic development is no excuse for chauvinism, no matter how socialistically disguised.

’The interests of the working-class and its struggle against capitalism demand complete solidarity and the closest unity of the workers of all nations; they demand that the nationalistic policy of the bourgeoisie of every nationality be repelled.’ (Lenin)[11]

Workers’ Party of Scotland please note: Lenin makes no exception here or anywhere for the Scottish bourgeoisie.

It is therefore obvious that liberation for Scottish and Welsh workers can come about only by over-throwing capitalism itself. If this is not done no amount of secession can ever succeed in bringing freedom, only diversion.

Having said this, how do we come to grips with the nationalist parties? It should be done by the methods already employed in dealing with the other diversionists, e.g. social democrats (LP, CPGB, etc.) by:

(1) separating the leadership from the working-class members who are genuinely progressive, but are misled into supporting the nationalists –

(2) discrediting the leadership by exposing them as agents of imperialism, since basically they aim to retain the status quo (dictatorship of the bourgeoisie) –

(3) showing that imperialism is the enemy of all the world’s peoples including Scots, Welsh, English, Irish and Vietnamese, that the nationalist parties are therefore nothing but diversions, that liberty and economic social advance can only come about by the complete overthrow of the present system, i.e. capitalism, and its replacement by socialism; led by a party of the working-class, a Marxist-Leninist Communist Party.

Bourgeois Nationalism

We cannot tag along with, follow behind, or try to lead these nationalist movements or parties –we must resolutely struggle against them while propagating scientific socialism. We must constantly hammer home that SNP and PC and their like are nothing but tools of the ruling class. The nationalists will not just go away if we ignore them; the bourgeoisie in their crisis have increasingly a great need for nationalism. We must do mass work and popularise Marxism-Leninism in order that the proletariat shall not be side-tracked in the epoch of the decline of imperialism and the transition to socialism.

As Stalin plainly pointed out in ’Deviations towards Nationalism’ (1934): ’It should be observed that the survivals of capitalism in the minds of men are much more tenacious in the sphere of the national question than in any other sphere. ..The deviation towards nationalism is the adaption of the internationalist policy of the working-class to the nationalist policy of the bourgeoisie.’[12]

The Workers’ Party of Scotland is in relation to Nationalism and the SNP, just as Trotskyism (and Revisionism) was in relation to social democracy and the Labour Party, until only recently when some objective reality affected even them. The Trotskyist ’Revolutionaries’ believed (some still do) that the Labour Party was the part of the proletariat and could be pushed to the left and revolution. A couple of years of Labour government convinced even some Trotskyists that the LP is nothing but a bourgeois diversionist party, and they are now leaving the LP like rats from a sinking ship. Any Marxist-Leninist could have told them that the Labour Party never was, is not and never could be, a proletarian party; that it cannot be transformed and therefore must be destroyed. Trotskyists and Revisionists believed that the LP and social-democracy was fundamentally progressive (but with wrong leadership) and could therefore be used. They did not understand (and still do not) its intrinsic diversionist role.

The misguided comrades of the WPS believe that Scottish (also English, Welsh, Cornish and Irish) Nationalism is a progressive force, and can therefore be used. They either do not understand, or opportunistically refuse to accept the fundamental role of nationalism.

The Trotskyites and Revisionists are now being forced by events to abandon the LP if they wish to retain any revolutionary image. Having sunk into social democracy via the Labour Party they now have to do a complete about face, write off all their previous work for the LP and attempt to fight against it. This because the progressive mask of the LP is now torn off.

At present Scottish Nationalism and the SNP have the appearance of a progressive movement to some honest people who have almost no political understanding. Deceived by this, sincere people will work in and around the nationalist movement only to discover, in some years’ time, that they have been most cruelly misled, have been wasting their time and worse – have been propagating an at best diversionist movement which they will then have most fiercely to destroy. Comrades must not fall into this trap; they must not be deceived by the ’potentially progressive’ facade of nationalism. They must unite to expose it now, as part of their struggle against all bourgeois diversion. Instead of tragically wasting their time fostering nationalism (in whatever form), they must arm the masses by creating a powerful, unified and correct Communist Party.

The other side of the SNP nationalism ticket is inevitably the hoary old call for Federated Communist Parties (in Britain). This fundamentally anti-Leninist position is adequately disposed of in the ’National Question and the Struggle for Socialism in Britain.’[13] Quoting in that document from ’Stand of the GCM (M-L)’ it is stated:

’The struggles for liberation in Russia and China, where the problems of nationality were more acute than is the case in Britain, were led successfully by one united party acting on behalf of all nationalities within the then existing state structure. Representing as they did all nationalities these parties recognised the right of any nationality to independence. Likewise the struggle against the British capitalist state must be waged by a single party which recognises the right of nations to secede.’

It will further be observed that after the victory of the revolution and the formation of the nationalities into autonomous republics there still remained one united Communist Party in the USSR and likewise in People’s China.

So here we have it, pointed by logic and proven by history – one state machine – one Communist Party.

After the defeat of British monopoly capital and its replacement by the dictatorship of the proletariat, since in Britain today there remains some subjective nationalism in Scotland and Wales, the right of those places to secede, should the masses therein so desire, will be upheld. However, socialism will not be achieved and the right to self-determination won if the communist movement is fragmented into separate parties.

Here we need only conclude by quoting Stalin:

’Experience has shown that the organisation of the proletariat of a given state according to nationality only leads to the destruction of the idea of class solidarity.

’All the proletarian members of all the nations in a given state must be organised in a single, indivisible proletarian collective body.’[14]

This is the duty incumbent upon the WPS, and from which they absolutely cannot excuse themselves. If they attempt to do so, the proletariat will sooner or later demand a reckoning and the chauvinists will be dealt with as enemies of the people.

’Such nationalism is not so transparent, for it is skilfully 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 unrecognisable beneath its mask. Protected by the armour of socialism, it is less vulnerable and more tenacious. Implanted among the workers, it poisons the atmosphere and spreads noxious ideas of mutual distrust and aloofness among the workers of the different nationalities.’ (Stalin)[15]


Nationalism is always a key part of bourgeois ideology. Nationalism is being fomented now in Scotland and Wales in order to provide an alternative to centralised reformism.

Marxist-Leninists must on no account help spread this new diversion but must resolutely expose and attack it.

Under some historical circumstances the bourgeoisie (and hence its ideology) can playa progressive role. The national bourgeoisie (and hence nationalism) can still playa (temporarily) progressive role in parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America; but certainly not in Western Europe/North America – the heartlands of capitalism-imperialism.

The masses of Scotland and Wales do not see secession as their only way to liberation. They do seek some drastic remedy for the economic social problems of Scotland and Wales (as do the regions of England).

This remedy can only be the direct transition to socialism via the proletarian revolution. There is no intermediate stage in metropolitan imperialist countries.

The petit and small bourgeoisie in these areas, wanting a larger slice of the imperial cake, offer nationalism and secession as the peoples’ salvation.

The monopolists in the present time of crisis see this nationalism as the lesser of evils. We know socialism is what the masses are searching for. We must prove it to them so that they will fight for it under guidance of a united, democratic-centralist, Communist Party.

Scientific socialism and nationalism in Scotland and Wales (also England and Ireland) are mutually exclusive. One can only be propagated at the direct expense of the other. To say that both could or should be popularised is merely rationalised chauvinism, in complete opposition to Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse-tung Thought. ’Consistent Social-Democrats (Communists) must work solidly and indefatigably against the nationalist obfuscation, no matter from what quarter it proceeds.’ (Stalin)[16]


[1] Stalin, ’Marxism and the National and Colonial Question’ (A Collection of Articles and Speeches) Lawrence & Wishart, London 1947, p 169.

[2] Stalin, as above, p 19.

[3] Lenin, ’The Right of Nations to Self-Determination’, Selected Works Vol 1, Part 2, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow 1950, p 328.

[4] Stalin, as 1, p 8.

[5] Lenin, as 3, p 318.

[6] Lenin, as 3, p 319.

[7] Lenin, ’The National and Colonial Questions’ (Three Articles) FLP, Peking 1967, p 11.

[8] Lenin, as 7, p13.

[9] Lenin, as 3, p 329.

[10] Lenin, ’The United States of Europe Slogan’, as 3,p. 416.

[11] Lenin, as 3, p 350.

[12] Stalin, as 1, p 267.

[13] Statement of the Glasgow Communist Movement (Communist Federation of Britain, (M-L)), Sept, 1969.

[14] Stalin, as 1, p 66.

[15] Stalin, as 1, p 134.

[16] Stalin, as 1, p 5.