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The New International, July 1942

J.W. Smith

What Is the National Question?

A Discussion Article


From New International, Vol. VIII No. 6, July 1942, pp. 176–179.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


History never develops backward. – Zachary Jackson

... if the European proletariat were to remain impotent for another twenty years; if the present war were to end in victories similar to those achieved by Napoleon, in the subjugation of a number of virile national states; if imperialism outside of Europe (primarily American and Japanese) were to remain in power for another twenty years without a transition to socialism, say, as a result of a Japanese-American war, then a great national war in Europe would be possible. This, means that Europe would be thrown bock for several decades. This is improbable. But it is not impossible, for to picture world history as advancing smoothly and steadily without sometimes taking gigantic strides backward is undialectical, unscientific and theoretically wrong. – Lenin, Works, Vol. XIX, pp. 203f.

There is almost a temptation nowadays to apologize for putting a quotation from Lenin at the head of an article. Many persons do not like Lenin quotations. You can be sure that some preacher will come along to enlighten you that quotations decide nothing, that the reality changes, that conditions must be examined concretely, that Marx and Lenin were smart fellows for their day but their theories must now be scrutinized again and, if necessary, also revised.

All this is fine and proper. More than that, it is obvious. Anyone who thinks that it is enough to “refer to what Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky said,” without concerning himself with the reality, is of course no Marxist; he is simply a fool. Marxism is not a society of quotation experts who give each other’s references as authorities, but a revolutionary doctrine which must prove itself over and over again in the thunder and lightning of history, as Rosa Luxemburg once so nicely put it.

When, therefore, someone comes along and delivers tedious speeches that “the economic and social structure of the society never is the same,” that “history never develops backward” [1], and “we cannot repeat,” “we have to examine the problem anew,” then the answer is simple: go ahead. Do you want to revise Lenin? If you please. No objection. Do not stop at speeches on the changeability of the reality and the evanescence of theories. Show us what was wrong in Lenin’s theory or what became wrong with the passage of time, bring forward facts that contradict the old conception and tell us what explanation and what policy you put in the place of the old. Revise, in the name of God, but revise honestly. That means, first, read Lenin before you revise him, and try to understand him. In spite of the fact that “the economic structure never is the same,” there are certain little similarities between 1915 and 1942; for example, we still live in an epoch when the ruling classes of a few great powers, apart from the toilers of their own nation, imperialistically oppress millions of members of other people in addition and that we have a World War for the imperialist partition and domination of the world. It is therefore not entirely useless to take the trouble of re-reading the polemics carried on by the shrewdest heads of the international labor movement in 1915–16, partly around the same arguments with which many people nowadays believe they have discovered America – pardon me, Europe – such as that there can no longer be any national movements in the epoch of imperialism, that the struggle for national liberation wants to turn back the wheel of history, and more of the same.

Why Is the Struggle Against Oppression Progressive?

In my article I not only put forward Lenin’s standpoint on the national liberation movement in the epoch of imperialism, but I also explicitly put the question of whether developments since his time have confirmed or refuted Lenin’s position. On the basis of a number of considerations, I came to the view that the struggle of the oppressed peoples can still play a revolutionary rôle and that it is objectively even easier to shift it into the stream of the socialist world revolution than it was in 1914–18. These considerations may be briefly summarized as follows:

The struggle against national oppression and for the self-determination of the peoples is a part of the struggle for the realization of complete democracy. The demands of democracy originally stood on the banners of the bourgeois revolution. Yet the bourgeoisie – because it is an exploiting class – was never in a position to realize complete democracy; it was able to carry out democratic measures only conditionally, limitedly, exceptionally. In the epoch of imperialism and of the decay of its class rule, it is compelled to liquidate even this incomplete democracy. The exploitive class of the bureaucrats, wherever it comes to power, cannot maintain itself except by a terroristic dictatorship either. Democracy, both in relations between men and between peoples, can be realized today only through the victory of socialism. On the other hand, without the most consistent fight for all democratic demands, without the all-sided introduction of democracy, socialism cannot triumph. This is not true because Lenin and Rosa wrote it so beautifully – the bitter experiences of the last twenty years and especially the degeneration of the Soviet slate have more than graphically confirmed it.

Further: we still live in the epoch when the ruling classes of a few great powers doubly and bloodily enslave millions of members of oppressed peoples. This national oppression is at the same time social exploitation of the worst kind. The difference with 1914 is primarily that this oppression has become more universal, sharper, more brutal, that very advanced peoples suffer under it alongside of the backward peoples, and that in Europe too it takes on forms that we used to characterize as “colonial” (forced labor, mass expropriations and mass evictions from the land, banishment, special rights and special courts for the members of the ruling nation, ostracism of the “inferior races,” punitive expeditions that raze whole villages). Against this exploitation and oppression, the masses of the subjugated peoples carry on a bloody struggle which assumes a multiplicity of forms, from passive resistance to civil war.

At the same time rival imperialist powers are engaged in a war for world dominion. Each of them seeks to exploit all the antagonisms in the camp of the adversary, and also to bring under its leadership the resistance of the nations oppressed by the adversary. Should that succeed, and should the war simply end with the victory of one of the coalitions, there will be no equal rights and no self-determination of nations, national liberation will be realized to an even lesser extent than in 1918, one national oppression will give way to the other. Only socialism can bring the emancipation of all peoples.

The masses exploited by imperialism link their social aim – even if unclearly – with the struggle for national liberation: freedom from slave labor, from disfranchisement, from exploitation in general; however backward they may be, the workers and peasants of the occupied territories are not fighting for the return to their former owners of the factories and landed estates expropriated by the enemy, but for a better social order – even if often unclearly conceived. This struggle is a just, progressive struggle, and every socialist must support it. The bourgeoisie and bureaucracy of the oppressed nations are fighting, on the other hand, for the restoration of their privileges to exploit their “own” people and, if possible, a little “sphere of influence” in addition. But as it begins to see the impossibility of a genuinely independent state existence of the small peoples, it transforms itself more and more into a mere agent of imperialism, by which it promises itself at least a share in the exploitation. By the continuing expropriation of the possessing and half-possessing strata in the occupied countries, by the proletarianization of ever broader masses, its social basis begins to disappear, in many cases (as in Poland) it consists of little more than a “foreign committee” in the form of the government in exile. On the other hand, between 1918 and 1942 the masses have been able to convince themselves graphically that the bourgeois, “Versailles” solution of the national question leads only to catastrophe. Thus, more than ever before, more than in 1918, socialists have the possibility – taken objectively – of switching the anti-imperialist struggle of the oppressed peoples on to the rails of the socialist revolution, provided ...

Provided they do not regard this struggle, which is moving millions and is beginning to shake the structure of the imperialist world system, as a bourgeois affair at which you turn up your nose in theory, and leave to the agents of imperialism in practice.

Comparison of the Years 1848, 1914 and 1942

Zachary Jackson seeks to demonstrate that Lenin’s policy in the national question in the years of the First World War, based upon the analysis of the imperialist epoch, is no longer correct. In order to demonstrate this, he cites examples – from the pre-imperialist epoch. It is hard to believe, but the author of the learned lecture on the necessity of concrete analysis blandly mixes up two epochs, that of the rise of capitalism, of the bourgeois national revolution, and that of imperialism, of the proletarian world revolution.

He describes fairly correctly the epoch of the bourgeois national wars, which falls approximately between 1789 and 1871. The task at that time was to create independent national states, to unify Germany, Italy, to free Hungary, Poland, in order there by to dear the field for capitalist development, for the development of the classes, the proletariat included. That was progressive, the socialists should have supported the bourgeois development against feudalism in order thereby to gain an arena for the class struggle. National unification and liberation were still essentially an affair of the bourgeoisie – both in Italy and Hungary, which Jackson cites as examples.

But in 1914, it was already different, essentially different. By that time the national states had already become a hindrance instead of an arena for the development of the productive forces. The bourgeoisie was already incapable of carrying its bourgeois-democratic revolution to the end, even in backward countries like Russia. In 1914–18, it was no longer the bourgeois national revolutions that stood on the order of the day of society, but the proletarian revolution. It was not a national economy that had to be constituted, but a world economy. And the central slogan of the socialists could no longer be: unified Hungary, Italy, Germany, but the United Socialist States of Europe and the whole world.

Yet, in spite of this, Lenin saw in the struggle of the oppressed peoples for national liberation a just and progressive struggle. In spite of this, he called, in his impolite language, anyone who was indifferent to the struggle, a “traitor to socialism and internationalism.” In spite of this he put forward the slogan of self-determination of the nations. Perhaps because he regarded the creation of countless national states as his aim? Naturally not. But rather because he saw in the struggle of the oppressed peoples a mighty lever for the overthrow of imperialism. Because he knew that the masses can be won for the socialist solution of the national question. And because he understood that these masses can be won over to a voluntary union in a socialist people’s federation only if the proletariat shows them by deeds that it is fighting for their emancipation from the imperialist yoke.

Socialists are obliged to fight at all times against national oppression and exploitation, otherwise they are not socialists. But in 1848 they had to participate in the struggles for national freedom in order to overturn feudalism and to open the road for the further development of capitalism. In 1914, on the other hand, they had to participate in the movements for national liberation in order to prepare for the end of imperialism and capitalism. In 1848, feudalism was still the main enemy; in 1914, it was imperialism. Is this so hard to grasp?

After he has happily jumbled up the struggle against feudalism and against imperialism, Jackson declares that all types of national oppression are not feudal. We appreciate the enlightenment. Both in 1914 and in 1942, it was a question of the struggle against imperialism – that was our point of departure. And we cannot forego the observation that while “consulting a Marxian dictionary” really cannot replace the “analysis of a concrete situation,” it does at least help to avoid the mixing up of elementary conceptions.

My opponents equate the struggle for liberation from national oppression with the struggle for the establishment of national states in the system of imperialism. This is exactly as false as to equate the struggle for “complete democracy” (in Lenin’s sense of the word) with the struggle for bourgeois democracy. The national liberation of all peoples, just like complete democracy, can be realized only by socialism. Have my opponents forgotten that in addition to the illusory bourgeois “national liberation,” in quotation marks, there is still a genuine socialist liberation of the peoples? When the masses fight against national oppression, they are right. We must not stick our heads into the sand, but fight alongside of them and point out the socialist solution. [2]

Is There an Underestimation of the National Question?

The danger, seen by Smith, that a Marxist would refuse to concern himself with the struggle for the oppressed nations and treat it with disdainful contempt, seems to me not very great, writes Jackson. Unfortunately, he is mistaken. Naturally, this danger is not so great among the class-conscious workers who are participating in the struggle in the oppressed countries of Europe. And perhaps among them the danger is greater that – especially under the influence of Stalinism – they will make too great concessions to nationalistic thinking. Had I been writing for them, I should have placed more emphasis upon this danger.

However, that there is really precious little understanding of the questions of the national liberation struggle in the groups that acknowledge Marxism has been shown by the experiences since the appearance of my first article. The German Cannonites, who are the only German group that shows at least an understanding of the question, could sing quite a song about this. But things aren’t better elsewhere, either. What should you say when you have to listen in a society of comrades who acknowledge revolutionary socialism to the uncontradicted assertion that Hitler unfortunately does not wipe out radically enough the national differences, and introduces the German unity language too slowly? What should you say when you hear that the reason for the mass shootings in the occupied countries is not the national resistance but the fact that the Nazis are eliminating everybody who is superfluous in the process of production? How can you fail to start when you hear the bland assertion that there is actually no national movement in Europe because 90 per cent of the reports on it are faked by the British propaganda? And what should you think of the “argument” that there is no national movement in France because the French grow angry only when the Germans take their potatoes from them? As if there was ever a national oppression which was not at the same time economic exploitation. [3] When you have to listen to such a collection of nonsense, you cannot have the same calm faith of Jackson that there is no under-estimation of the national question.

Zachary Jackson is a serious and intelligent man; he does not present such childish arguments. But with him too there is unfortunately the tendency to argue out of existence the struggle against national oppression. Let us read attentively:

Of course, we are the implacable enemies of fascist oppression ...

Very fine!

... But because socialists are enemies of fascism, special attitudes ...

This isn’t bad, either.

They are not only for the liberation of their own nation ...

Right, and everyone would now expect: “... but against the oppression of any nation,” but instead national oppression vanishes completely and we get a general phrase:

... they are against any kind of fascism. Therefore [this “therefore” is priceless] they recognize that Germany is not less oppressed than other nations. (My emphasis – J.W.S.)

And thus is the trick performed – there is no national oppression! If it were true that Germany is no less oppressed than other nations, there would really be no national question in Europe and all our discussion would be unnecessary.

If someone were to assert that England is not less oppressed than India, Abyssinia is not less oppressed than Italy, he would be looked on with pity. On the ground of what “concrete analysis” did Jackson arrive at this contention for Germany? He has perhaps never heard that millions of foreign workers are forced to work cheaper than the Germans? Does he not know that there are different food rations for Germans and for members of oppressed peoples, and that the German population is better fed at the expense of the starving masses of the subjugated territories? Hasn’t his “concrete analysis” yet discovered that in a number of occupied countries there are two laws, one for Germans and another for “natives,” that a German can strike a Pole or a Czech with impunity but that a return blow may be punished by death as an insult to the German nation? Has it reached his ears that the social difference between those of the German race and many inferior races is so great that a German woman who sleeps with a Pole may be incarcerated for years?

If Jackson does not want to dispute these concrete, very concrete facts, then he cannot deny that the following words from Lenin still apply:

Is the actual condition of the workers in the oppressing nations the same as that of the workers in the oppressed nations from the standpoint of the national problem?

No, they are not the same.

  1. Economically, the difference is that sections of the working class in the oppressing nations receive crumbs of the super-profits which the bourgeoisie of the oppressing nations obtains by the extra exploitation of the workers of the oppressed nations. Moreover, economic data show that a larger percentage of the workers of the oppressing nations become “foremen” than the workers of the oppressed nations, i.e., a larger percentage rise to the position of the labor aristocracy. This is a fact. To a certain degree the workers of the oppressing nation share with their bourgeoisie in the plunder of the workers (and the masses of the population) of the oppressed nations.
  2. Politically, the difference is that the workers of the oppressing nations occupy a privileged position in many spheres of political life compared with the workers of the oppressed nations.
  3. Intellectually, or spiritually, the difference is that the workers of the oppressing nations are taught, at school and in everyday life, to regard the workers of the oppressed nations with disdain and contempt. (Lenin, Works, Vol. XIX, p. 242)

Zachary Jackson has forgotten not only Lenin but also the concrete facts. It is therefore no wonder that he reduces the struggle in the occupied countries exclusively to two elements: to the “war job” of the British agents and to the general struggle against totalitarian slavery. The struggle against national oppression has thus vanished completely from his concrete analysis – and that is only logical: it there is no imperialist exploitation, no heightened oppression of the oppressed peoples, there is no longer any reason for it. There would then remain only this to ask, why there is actually everywhere in the occupied territories unrest, passive resistance, sabotage and many times even guerrilla warfare, and not in Germany, which is supposed to be “not less oppressed,” when the British agents are surely not less interested in unrest and explosions in the Ruhr region than they are, for example, in Norway. And you might come to the stupid conclusion that the German workers are “by nature” more obedient than the toilers of other countries, in view of the fact that, suffering under no less oppression, they stir incomparably less ...

Jackson is entirely right when he emphasizes that the socialists must take part in the struggle against national oppression with their own slogans and methods of struggle, and that it is their task to combat the imperialist influence within this struggle. I am in complete agreement when he says that they reject, for example, the slogan of “Down with the Boches,” and put in its place the slogan of fraternization with the German proletarians in uniform. I pointed out in my first article that they give the struggle against national oppression a different content and a different goal than those which the national bourgeoisie and the agents of imperialism seek to give it. Once the attitude of indifference and of underestimation of the national liberation struggle is overcome, we will speedily unite on all this.

But in order to put through all our fine slogans, we must first take part in the struggle. For he who stands on the sidelines, will have nothing to say at the decisive moment on the future development and the masses will not take his good counsels very seriously – just like the counsels of him who philosophizes beautifully about socialism but stands on the sidelines in the conflict over the “lousy” wage increase of 10 cents an hour. And that is why the first question is still whether, when the masses, even if unclearly and full of prejudices, fight against imperialist oppression, we fight alongside of them or we seek a thousand learned evasions in order to remain passive. When things reach the point of an uprising against the occupying power in Norway, Poland or France, then neither the Norwegian, Polish or the French, not even the German, socialists will be spared the need of answering the question: on what side do you stand, most honorable one? Are you with the oppressor or with the oppressed? Or do you think that this struggle is no concern of yours, do you feel yourself above it all because the oppressed masses are full of prejudices? Permit me to give the floor again to Lenin:

To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without the revolutionary outbursts of a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without the movement of non-class conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against the oppression of the landlords, the church, the monarchy, the foreign nations, etc. – to imagine this means repudiating social revolution ...

Whoever expects a “pure” social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip service to revolution without understanding what revolution is. (Works, Vol. XIX, p. 301)


1. It should be plain to any child in what sense I (and the above-cited quotation from Lenin) used the term “backward development of history”: that problems once solved may appear once more on the agenda of history. In our case it is the liberation of a number of European nations from national oppression. There are also other cases. No rational person will deny that the once already existent but later destroyed labor movement of Europe must be created anew. “History never develops backward” is just a phrase.

2. From this we see how pointless was Jackson’s remark that, with me, participation in the struggle against national oppression is “a clever calculation or a clever exploitation of prevailing moods of the masses.” This is precisely the conception against which I polemized in my first article. “We are against national oppression not because it pleases the masses but because we are internationalists. “The center of gravity of the internationalist education of the workers in the oppressing countries must absolutely lie in the propagation of the right of separation of the oppressed countries,” says Lenin. “Without this, there in no internationalism. We have the right and the duty of treating any social democrat of an oppressor nation who does not carry on this propaganda as an imperialist and a knave.” Clear enough that for him it was a principled question and not a tactical maneuver.

3. It falls into the same category when the writer on Europe in Revolt, Labor Action of July 6 reports on the hunger riots in France and makes the witty observation: “This kind of demonstration does not fit very well into the pattern of those who would have us believe that ‘underground Europe’ is chiefly concerned with ‘a united front of all classes’ for the re-establishment of national states of the pre-war type.” This is a classic example of an unserious polemic, because it is clear to a little child that hunger riots are not in contradiction at all with national resistance. In addition, the polemic is dishonest because it seeks, though the writer knows better, to create the impression that the supporters of participation in the struggle for national liberation are for the re-establishment of pre-war national states.

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